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Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photos and The Stories They Tell

Kathleen Cochran is a writer & former newspaper reporter/editor who traveled the world as a soldier's better half. Her works are on Amazon.


A picture is worth a thousand words

So the saying goes. And since 1942 the Pulitzer Prize has spotlighted one photo each year that tells a powerful story. Further investigation reveals that many of these prize-winning shots have amazing stories behind them. Those stories are often not so well-known.

Probably the most recognizable picture in the world is this one of a Vietnamese girl running away after being showered with napalm during the Vietnam War. AP photographer Nick Ut got this shot on June 8, 1972 after the bombing of Trang Bang, a village near Saigon. The South Vietnamese pilot thought he was hitting enemy troops. The victims turned out to be civilians leaving a temple.

Ut's picture won the World Press Photo of the Year for 1972 and the Pulitzer. The little girl, nine year-old Kim Phuc said later in life, "I realized that if I couldn't escape that picture, I wanted to go back to work with that picture for peace. And that is my choice." In 1994, UNESCO made her a Goodwill Ambassador for Peace. In 1997, the first Kim Phuc Foundation was founded in the US for the purpose of helping child victims of war. It eventually became an international organization dedicated to meeting the medical and psychological needs of the youngest casualties of the world's conflicts. "The Girl in the Picture" was published in 1999, in which Denise Chong told the story of Kim's amazing life.

Kim Phuc


Kent State - May 4, 1970


Vecchio and Filo at Kent State 2009


Journalism Undergrad's Beginner's Luck

The rookie baseball player hits a grand slam his first big league at-bat.

The long-odds filly comes from the back of the pack to win The Derby.

The unknown starlet gets the Academy Award for her first film.

Yes, these things happen. But not often.

On May 4, 1970, John Paul Filo, a 22 year-old photojournalism major at Kent State University in Ohio, was drawn outside a campus photo lab when he heard 67 shots in 13 seconds. Instinctively he started snapping pictures from his vantage point. One of those was of 14-year-old Florida runaway Mary Vecchio screaming over the body of Jeffrey Miller. Miller was one of four students killed that day by National Guard troops. Nine others were seriously injured.

Akron Mayor LeRoy Satrom called out the National Guard after two days of demonstrations that resulted in broken windows and the burning of an old ROTC building. The recent U.S. invasion of Cambodia sparked protests across the country- particularly on college campuses. At Kent State, an initially peaceful rally of protesters was told to disperse. The directive was met with shouting and rock throwing as the troops began to march across the area to divide the crowd. This action drove the protesters up a hill and down onto an adjoining, fenced, sports field. Within about 10 minutes the Guardsmen found themselves faced with an increasingly angry crowd in a confined space. Retracing their steps, the troops retreated up the hill. When they reached the top, 28 of the more than 70 Guardsmen turned suddenly and shot into the crowd while others shot into the air.

Filo's shots won him the 1970 Pulitzer.

Filo admitted when one of the live rounds blasted into a pillar next to him, he put down his camera and started to run. But he stopped. "Where are you going?" I said to myself, "This is why you are here!"

Today Filo works for CBS with a resume that includes the Associated Press, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Baltimore Evening Sun, and Newsweek Magazine.

Oklahoma City Bombing 1995


Charles Porter won the Pulitzer Prize for this photograph of firefighter Chris Fields holding Baylee Almon, an infant who would within the hour be one of the 168 victims of the Oklahoma City Bombing, .He was an amateur photographer who took his film to the local Walmart to be developed. (Yes, that is what people actually did before the advent of cell phones and the Internet.) At a friend's urging, Porter submitted the picture to the Associated Press thinking a newspaper or two might run it. Instead, it was the picture seen around the world.

Unbeknown to Porter, he wasn't the only person taking pictures at the same time he was that day. Lester Larue, a safety coordinator for the Oklahoma Natural Gas Company, got a very similar shot of the firefighter and the baby. But he took his picture with a company camera thinking the blast was a gas explosion. He took his film to a one-hour photo shop. The clerk called him to let him know Newsweek Magazine wanted to buy his pictures for $14,000. It looked like there were plenty of other offers for his pictures also.

In the meantime, the baby's mother, Almon Kok, was on television condemning anyone who might make money off the loss of her daughter. At that point, Larue's bosses at the gas company got involved. They were not happy with the negative publicity. They also pointed out that the pictures had been taken with the company camera, making the pictures company property. Larue was given two options. Turn over the money he'd been paid for the pictures or leave the company. He left. Still, it was Porter who won the Pulitzer.

The Kiss


The Sailor


The Nurse


The Sailor and His Bride


Alfred Eisenstaedt's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of this kiss between a sailor and a nurse became the iconic symbol of the end of World War II. Victory in Japan! It was over.

What began, however, was a mystery that would take decades to solve. The problem? Eisenstaedt broke one of the fundamental rules in photojournalism. He failed to get the names of the people he'd photographed. At my little weekly newspaper, this mistake would get me fired. At Life Magazine in 1945, it got the photographer a Pulitzer.

Many people over the years have come forward claiming to be either the kissing sailor or the kissed nurse. Who would have thought, even though Life buried it on page 27, that this picture taken in Times Square on August 14, 1945, would grab the attention of the celebrating world?

The mystery finally got solved by means of forensic experts and a lawsuit. Life magazine was prompted to prove the two identities when George Mendonsa sued them in 1995. Life had just announced they would begin selling copies of the famous picture. George knew he was the kissing sailor when he first saw the picture in 1980. How was he so sure? There was a woman in the background. It was his future wife, Rita Petry.

Greta Zimmer recognized herself also. Her husband was convinced when he saw the angle of the nurse's left thumb. He swore whenever Greta became tense, her arm stiffened up and her thumb stuck out just like the woman in the picture. The photo had another special significance for Greta. After WWII came to an end, she learned her parents, who hadn't made it out of Austria as she and her sisters had, died in the camps. The fact that she became a symbol of victory was bittersweet.

George was kissing Greta on August 14 because he mistook her for a Navy nurse. Actually she was a dental hygienist on a break from work. George was on his first date with his future bride. But when the movie they were watching at Radio City was cut short by the announcement of the end of the war, they burst into Times Square with the rest of the gone-crazy-with-joy citizens of New York City. The sight of a nurse, any nurse, reminded George of the angels of mercy he'd observed during his service. Without a thought in his head, he grabbed her and laid one on her. Then he went back to his date and Greta went back to work.

Donating their services in order to be a part of the history of the famous photo, Mitsubishi Electric Research Lab in 1995 verified George and Greta were indeed the people in the picture. In June 2012 “The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo that Ended World War II” by Lawrence Verria and George Galdorisi was published.

NOTE: Greta Zimmer Friedman, passed away in September 2016 at the age of 92.

Which photo is the most powerful?

Video by anoop KN

Resources used in this hub:

Life Magazine

The Associated Press

New York Post







Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on March 29, 2020:

In case you don't have anything better to do today. FYI

Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on July 27, 2017:

I appreciate the comments and I enjoyed doing the research to bring these works of journalistic art to the attention of today's readers. But the photographers who took these shots have a talent and an eye I can't even imagine. I did learn to appreciate a photographer's instincts when I was a small town newspaper editor. I learned to tell my photographer what the story was that was being written and sent him out to shoot what he saw. Those amazing people brought back more amazing shots that I even knew to ask for. I don't have that gene.

Audrey Hunt from Idyllwild Ca. on July 24, 2017:

The photo of the fireman holding the baby, a victim of the Oklahoma City bombing brings me to tears. It's inconceivable to me how anyone can take the life of a human being. Thank you Kathleen for presenting these powerful photos.

Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on April 19, 2017:

Greensleeves: Thanks for your review of this hub. It was fun to do. In fact, I could have made it twice as long. Must go back through my notes and maybe do a sequel!

Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on April 18, 2017:

Great idea for an article Kathleen. I remember some of these pictures (including some in the video) from when they first came out, but they remain poignant years later, and even more so, when one knows the back stories.

They say 'one picture is worth a thousand words', but words written about these pictures add very much to the story they tell. That particularly applies to the last photo - fun to learn that the sailor's future wife is looking on, as he kisses another girl! :)

And nice also in some cases to see more or less up-to-date photos of the people involved, especially in the images of trauma such as those of Kim Phuc and Mary Vecchio. Nice to see them smiling, and seemingly well-adjusted.

Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on February 14, 2017:

Looking through my hubs to find one for Valentine's Day, this one said "Love" to me in a surprising way. Happy!

Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on June 14, 2016:

pstraubie48: I'd love to see that statue. Thanks for your comments.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on June 12, 2016:

These are some amazing photos so it is understandable why they received awards. The soldier embracing the young woman is one that I have seen brought to life, if you will, in Sarasota. There is a very tall statue of that scene that stands along the way as you travel through.

Very interesting. Angels are on the way to you ps

Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on May 12, 2016:

Mr. Happy: I've been out of the net this week working a contract, but thanks for the read and your comments. Sorry it took so long to get back to you.

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on May 09, 2016:

Interesting hub. I knew some of the photos and some I saw for the first time. Indeed, a well taken/timed photograph can speak volumes but at the same time, the context in which was taken is useful to know.

Thanks for putting this together.


Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on April 11, 2016:

Thanks! I'll look him up. What are a few months between hubbers?

Brian Leekley from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on April 11, 2016:

Kathleen, I'm sorry that I failed sooner to answer your question in your comment on my comment of a couple of months ago. My brother's website johnleekley.com mentions his most major produced scripts. See also the page about him at IMBD.

Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on April 10, 2016:

The hardest part about writing this hub was leaving out so many photo/stories that I found. I might need to do another one! Thanks for the encouragement!

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on April 10, 2016:

How interesting to learn the stories behind these photos. There are a few photos from the Vietnam War that are ingrained in my memory including the one included here. The Kent State and Oklahoma City bombing photos are just so sad. Certainly each of these photos is bound to stir ones emotions. Great hub, thanks for sharing.

Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on January 19, 2016:

B. Leekley: What an amazing connection you have to history. Doing the research for this hub was so much fun. I could have written a hub 3x this size. It was hard to choose which ones to include. Learning the stories behind the taking of the pictures was fascinating. Thanks for contributing to this hub. (What shows did your brother write?)

Brian Leekley from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on January 18, 2016:

Well told.

It happens that my brother John Leekley and his first wife Sheryle wrote the book MOMENTS: THE PULITZER PRIZE PHOTOGRAPHS, published in 1978. This was the first time that all of the winning photographs to date were brought together in one book. Their updated edition was published in 1982. (A writer named Hal Buell did an update or rewrite published in 1999.) John and Sheryle interviewed the winners (or, if deceased, spoke with family and friends), and for the book they used prints of the highest quality, oftentimes made from the original negative. For most years, the winning photograph is on the recto page and its story is on the verso page.

The first Pulitzer Prize photo was of a fight between strikers and strikebreakers at a Ford factory. Among the most famous shots, in addition to those in your article, were of US Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima (1945), the last cheer for retiring Babe Ruth (1949), and Ruby shooting Oswald (1964), among others. All the Pulitzer photographs are poignant, capturing moments of crisis, conflict, crime, war, disaster, love ....

John went on to a career as a prolific Hollywood writer of television dramatic series, episodes, miniseries, and movies.

See WorldCat for other book collections of the Pulitzer Prize photographs.

An interesting detail is that very rarely has the winning photograph been taken by an amateur—I think only once (1954) from 1942 to 1982—rather than by a professional photojournalist. I wonder if that has remained so in recent decades with a coming of digital photography and smart phones? It is the pros whose job it is to be where the action is and to be prepared to capture the telling moment on film.

Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on January 18, 2016:

An excellent article as all of yours are . You do the term journalist justice and honor. They are all such iconic photos, I can't begin to count how often I have see them.

Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on October 04, 2015:

DzyMsLizzy: Glad you saw this and took time to comment. I have to ask myself, as a former journalist, what would I have done in that situation? Hard to say.

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on October 04, 2015:

These are all indeed famous and thought-provoking photos.

In a very ironic way, it seems Kent State foreshadowed what has become all too common today, even though troops are not the shooters now.

We have almost become numb to this sort of thing, and that is horrible. It is one thing to document for evidence, especially in the case of police brutality and outright murders of unarmed people, but there is also a point at which yes, you should put the camera/phone down and DO SOMETHING to help.

Excellent article.

Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on August 15, 2015:

Glenn: I've wondered the same thing. I've heard some say they thought publicizing their story was more important. Hard call to make.

I researched several others and all the stories were fascinating. Might need to do another hub on this topic.

Thanks for taking the time to comment.

Glenn Stok from Long Island, NY on August 14, 2015:

I always wonder what goes through the minds of photographers when they take pictures of people in distress rather than helping them.

Your hub was very enlightening as it shows how something good can come from these photos later in life.

Charito Maranan-Montecillo from Manila, Philippines on July 25, 2015:

What an informative hub, Ms. Kathleen! I must admit that the Vietnam photo brings tears to my eyes whenever I see it. I'm glad that the little girl, Kim Phuc, survived the war.

Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on July 12, 2015:

Anne: I often look at a news photo and wonder the same thing. We never know what happens after the shot is taken. Thanks for adding your thoughts to this hub.

Anne Harrison from Australia on July 12, 2015:

An interesting hub - and I love your comment about how photos were once developed at the local Walmart. yet I can never look at the photo of Kim Phuc without pondering the ethics: taking a photo of a child in such distress - and, as you write, much good did come from the photo - over putting the camera down and taking care of the child.

Voted up

Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on July 12, 2015:

grand: Glad you found it interesting from outside the US. Thanks for commenting.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on July 12, 2015:

What a very interesting article. It was engrossing from start to finish!

Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on July 11, 2015:

RTalloni: There were conflicting stories about the 14 year-old, and I couldn't confirm them, so I left much speculation out. If you are interested a quick Google search will take you to the same sources I researched. Then you can decide for yourself what the "end of the story" is about her. I love to hear your conclusion.

pfherj48: Your servant, madam. Thank you.

RTalloni on July 11, 2015:

Looking at these photos as a group is fascinating on every level. Thanks for putting the line-up together. It is so thought-provoking to really think through the fact that these powerful pictures tell so little of the tales, as highlighted by the last one. The full stories are most often lost to the popular narratives.

The fact that individual details led to the events, the specific people being at that place in time, and the singular motives that built the path to the circumstances tell us there's so much, much more to them. For instance, how did a 14 year old girl wind up with a group of young men and women involved in escalating violence that led to the tragedy? Would her story about the why of her being there match that of her parents and others who knew her?

There is so much more to her story (that strikes me particularly because we are within days of being the exact same age and I remember 14…) prior and post that photo. Photos are used and peoples' emotions are fired by them, but there is so much more to the images.

Suzie from Carson City on July 11, 2015:

Who can total how many times we have seen these amazing legendary photos, Kathleen? Simply spectacular. Each time they grab my attention, stir emotions and bring a combination of awe and nostalgia.

You and Au fait never cease to astound me with your ingenuity, signature style and creative choice of subject matter.

A wonderful work of art! Thank you Kathleen...


Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on July 06, 2015:

Thanks for the quick response. I know the younger generation will find all of these ancient history. But I grew up with Vietnam and it has a powerful affect on me even today. I remember my sister rushing home from college because of Kent State. I didn't really understand the impact of what had happened.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 06, 2015:

The Kent State photo will always, for me, be one of the most powerful pics ever taken. Thanks for a very interesting array of photos.