Some of the images are cultural icons and artifacts of history: Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima; a South Vietnamese general executing a Viet Cong man on a Saigon street; a woman going down on one knee over the body of a student shot by National Guard troops at Kent State University.

Other images are not well known, but they all have something in common: They won the Pulitzer Prize for newspaper photography.

No matter the notoriety of the 135 Pulitzer photos, which go on display Sunday at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Museum, Pittsburgh, they evoke questions about journalism’s role in shaping public perception, its ethics and values.

“It’s often said that journalism is the first draft of history,” said Nicholas Ciotala, project manager for the museum.

There’s no doubt Joe Rosenthal’s photo of the Iwo Jima Marines has become history. It’s spawned books and a Clint Eastwood film, and the government recognized its power soon after it was published.

“This image was so important that right after it was taken it was used in war bond sales,” Ciotala said.

But, history can be unkind. Edward T. Adams’ photo of a South Vietnamese general executing a Viet Cong man suspected of having killed eight people, including six children, was usurped by the American anti-Vietnam War movement as a symbol of the war’s abuses.

Adams, originally from New Kensington, kept in touch with the shooter and did not damn him for his actions. Adams argued that someone else put in the same situation might have reacted the same way.

“He never liked to talk about that photo,” Ciotala said of Adams. “He sometimes lamented that he ever took it.”

In spot news situations, photographers often just react to the event and have no time to consider the potential fallout from having taken the pictures.

Kevin Carter was haunted during his short life by the response he got to his photograph of a Sudanese girl struggling to get to a food station as a vulture watches her from nearby, presumably waiting for her to die.

Carter was inundated with mail from people asking why he did not help the girl. Although Carter suffered from other personal problems, the fallout contributed to him taking his own life at age 33.

The photos often show life at its most grim: executions, famine, war, racial and political violence, drug addiction, homelessness and disaster.

Ciotala said he hopes viewers will ask themselves what this reliance on the negative side of life says of journalism’s ability to influence public perception about a particular time and place. There are plenty of photos showing Africans starving and displaced by war, and none that show the cultural renaissance that is going on in many African nations, Ciotala said.

On the lighter side, photos that show an encounter between a policeman and a friendly boy during a parade, children playing outside a notorious Chicago apartment complex and a mother’s expression of joy at the birth of her baby represent the positive side of life.

As with any group show, there are many themes that emerge from the images. One of the most notable is the use of the American flag. In Rosenthal’s photo, it’s a symbol of American might and perseverance. But other photos show the flag used as a weapon by a white man to beat a black man during an anti-busing demonstration in Boston, and by Hurricane Katrina survivors to try to summon help.

In two famous shots of homecomings, American troops are welcomed by family members with unbridled joy and relief. But Todd Heisler of the Rocky Mountain News caught a very different homecoming in last year’s winning feature. He showed the flag-draped coffin of an American soldier being unloaded from an airplane, and the soldier’s widow viewing his body as she strokes her pregnant belly.



“Capture the Moment: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs” will be open Sunday through Aug. 5 at the museum at 1212 Smallman St. The show originated at the Newseum in Arlington, Vir. A reception and panel discussion featuring Pulitzer winner Martha Rial and curator Cyma Rubin is set for 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. Winner John Kaplan will be part of a panel discussion on the power of the still image and newsworthiness from 1 to 3 p.m. June 23. Info: 412-454-6000 and www.pghhistory.org.

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