Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photographs And The Stories Behind Them

Photographs provide provocative glimpses into people's lives. Stories behind photos - for individuals on both sides of the camera - may reveal much more than a single image can encapsulate. Pulitzer Prize-winning photos receive international attention for their ability to evoke visceral reactions, highlight key events in history, and open eyes to unrealized truths.

Each year, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs are honored for their intensity, insight into society, and raw emotion. The stories behind Pulitzer Prize-winning photos over the years add layers of insight into the moments that inspired each image. A cross section of Pulitzer Prize winners can transport you along an emotional spectrum from jubilation to grief.


  • 1945: 'Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima'

    1945: 'Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima'
    Photo: Joe Rosenthal / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    An enduring image from WWII, the picture taken by Joseph Rosenthal on February 23, 1945, captured six Marines as they raised a flag on Iwo Jima. The United States Marines took control of the island in the Pacific only five days earlier - after a hard-fought confrontation with Japanese forces. 

    The flag was tied to an iron pipe and, as the Marines struggled to place it atop Mount Suribachi, Rosenthal happened to turn and see their efforts. According to the photographer, he was told a group of Marines were putting up a flag, so he went to see for himself:

    As the trail became steeper, our panting progress slowed to a few yards at a time. I began to wonder and hope that this was worth the effort, when suddenly over the brow of the topmost ridge we could spy men working with the flagpole they had so laboriously brought up about quarters of an hour ahead of us.

    As Rosenthal waited for the Marines "to swing the flagpole into position," he said, "I crowded back on the inner edge of the volcano’s rim, back as far as I could, in order to include all I could into the scene within the angle covered by my camera lens. I rolled up a couple of large stones and a Japanese sandbag to raise my short height clear of an intervening obstruction."

    After he took his photos, Rosenthal sent his picture to The Associated Press, and it was distributed within hours. 

    Rosenthal's picture, under normal circumstances, would have been eligible for a Pulitzer Prize in 1946. The AP's photo editor, F.A. Resch, sent the photo to a Pulitzer Prize Board member, explaining, "We felt the material was so outstanding that it merited consideration accordingly."

    The six Marines in the photo are Michael Strank, Harold Keller, Harlon Block, Franklin Sousley, Harold Schultz, and Ira Hayes. Strank, Block, and Sousley perished after the photo was taken.

  • 1949: 'Babe Ruth Bows Out'

    1949: 'Babe Ruth Bows Out'
    Photo: Nathaniel Fein / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    As the first sports-themed Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, "Babe Ruth Bows Out" was taken on June 13, 1948 - the day of George Herman Erhardt's, AKA Babe Ruth's, final baseball game.

    Nathaniel "Nat" Fein, a photographer for the New York Herald Tribune, was one of many photographers present for the event. Fein's picture captured Ruth's emotional emergence from the dugout - leaning himself on a bat as thousands of spectators cheered - but was unique in its perspective. Fein intentionally moved behind Ruth to seize upon the natural light. He also wanted to include Ruth's uniform number, never to be worn again by a member of the Yankees.

    Ruth passed just two months after the photo was taken. 

  • 1951: 'Flight of Refugees Across Wrecked Bridge in Korea'

    1951: 'Flight of Refugees Across Wrecked Bridge in Korea'
    Photo: Max Desfor / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Taken December 4, 1950, Max Desfor's picture "Flight of Refugees Across Wrecked Bridge in Korea" was among numerous photos he took while covering the Korean War. Desfor, a photographer for The Associated Press, volunteered to photograph the conflict and parachuted into North Korea alongside American troops. When North Korean and Chinese forces pushed back, driving American soldiers south, Desfor found himself near Pyongyang - surrounded by refugees fleeing as well. 

    Desfor recalled the scene as thousands of North Koreans tried to cross the Taedong River:

    All of these people who are literally crawling through these broken-down girders of the bridge. They were in and out of it, on top, underneath, and just barely escaping the freezing water. My hands got so cold I could barely trip the shutter on my camera... I couldn’t even finish a full pack of film. It was just that cold.

    Upon submission of his images from Korea, the Pulitzer Prize jury praised Desfor and his portfolio - more than 50 photos - for "all the qualities which make for distinguished news photography - imagination, disregard for personal safety, perception of human interest, and the ability to make the camera tell the whole story." They found the bridge photo to be especially poignant. 

  • 1954: 'Rescue on the Pit River Bridge'

    1954: 'Rescue on the Pit River Bridge'
    Photo: Virginia Schau / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Virginia Schau, the second amateur photographer to win the Pulitzer Prize in news photography, was the first woman to receive the prestigious award. While on a fishing trip in May 1953 with her family, Schau witnessed an incident on the Pit River Bridge over Shasta Lake in California that sent the cab of a semitruck over the edge.

    Driver Paul Overby and his companion, Hank Baum, were lifted to safety by motorists on the bridge - including Schau's husband, Walter. Moments after Overby and Baum were rescued, the cab burst into flames and fell into the water below.

    Schau used a Kodak "Brownie" camera that contained expired film with a mere two exposures remaining. She submitted the photo to the Sacramento Bee and received $10 in its weekly photo contest. The picture was published in the Akron Beacon Journal in Ohio and later picked up by The Associated Press. In the official announcement about her Pulitzer Prize, Schau was identified as "Mrs. Walter M. Schau."