Decision not to award Pulitzer Prize to photo is stunning
Famous image of firefighters has enduring impact

April 15, 2002

You know this image.

It is "Firefighters at Ground Zero." It permeates American hearts just as the gray dust of the twin towers filled the pores and lungs of New Yorkers. It is the defining image of the indefatigable American spirit that rose from the ashes of Sept. 11. It spoke the same words to nearly all: We will not be cowed.

So, why, in the hearts and minds of Pulitzer photo judges, is it worthy only of passing mention? Worthy of no more than a nod, an acknowledgment that while it may be good, it doesn't qualify as the best?

The judgment of the Pulitzer panel that passed over the breathtaking image of firefighters raising the flag over the World Trade Center wasteland is just stunning. Can passion be so shallow? Is it possible that mere months after the events that define our age, the Pulitzer decision-makers would forget how this photo gripped everyone who saw it?

The winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for photography was the New York Times, not for a single image, but for a body of work. It was a fine body of work. It included one of the most horrific images of the collapsing Twin Towers - an image captured, in fairness, by several photographers. This entry, too, was inspired primarily by the terror attacks of Sept. 11.

But none of the Times' images spoke with the sort of soaring, almost spiritual, voice as did that one photograph taken by Thomas E. Franklin of the Record of Bergen County, N.J.

Historically, the decision to honor a "body of work" in the breaking-news photo category, rather than an individual image, is not unusual for the Pulitzer committee. But when a photograph speaks to those who have seen it, it wins.

No one had to wait for the judges in 1945 to know Joe Rosenthal of Associated Press would win for his photograph of the Marines planting the American flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. "Firefighters" speaks that same language. It conveys almost the same powerful sentiment. It hefts the same weight. It lifts hearts in exactly the same way.

As most evocative images seem to do, the Franklin photo stirred controversy. Some jealous competitors disparaged it as having been staged (it wasn't). It became the premise for a politically correct sideshow when an artist chose to re-create the moment captured by Franklin, but with minority firefighters replacing two of the White ones.

And it has steeled hearts as well as swelled them. Since Sept. 11, commentators and authors such as Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky and Barbara Kingsolver have described their abject horror at the sort of nationalistic "jingoism" that this photo of firefighters raising the flag evokes in spades.

It is simply a powerful image that has imprinted itself on the national psyche. That a photo as eternal as this fails to win the Pulitzer is just a mystery.

To view the 2002 winners of the Pulitzer Prize for breaking-news photography, go to: year/2002/breaking-news-photography/works/