The religion story behind the Pulitzer-winning photo

The Pulitzer Prizes came out yesterday and you can see the whole list of winners here. A few of the prizes dealt with religious themes. The prize for breaking news photography went to Massoud Hossaini of Agence France-Presse. It's the image seen here on the front page of the New York Times. You can see it full size here or as similar photos ran on the same day in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. A Hossaini photo also ran that day on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, but I don't have a link to it.

On the Pulitzer site, the photo is described:

Tarana Akbari, 12, screams in fear moments after a suicide bomber detonated a bomb in a crowd at the Abul Fazel Shrine in Kabul on December 06, 2011. 'When I could stand up, I saw that everybody was around me on the ground, really bloody. I was really, really scared,' said the Tarana, whose name means 'melody' in English. Out of 17 women and children from her family who went to a riverside shrine in Kabul that day to mark the Shiite holy day of Ashura, seven died including her seven-year-old brother Shoaib. More than 70 people lost their lives in all, and at least nine other members of Tarana's family were wounded. The blasts has prompted fears that Afghanistan could see the sort of sectarian violence that has pitched Shiite against Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Pakistan. The attack was the deadliest strike on the capital in three years. President Hamid Karzai said this was the first time insurgents had struck on such an important religious day. The Taliban condemned the attack, which some official viewed as sectarian. On the same day, a second bomber attacked in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Karzai said on December 11 that a total of 80 people were killed in both attacks. Published December 7, 2011

I couldn't help but notice the typos in the description. The Washington Post ran an interesting piece back in December where photo editors at the papers that ran the photo on the front page described why they chose the photo they did. It's a great look into the mind of the photo editor and makes you realize how minor differences can tell dramatically different stories.

Even better, I recommend this post from my favorite New York Times blog "Lens: Photography, Video and Visual Journalism." The blog simply tells the story behind various photos that appeared in stories. It's always interesting. For instance:

Mr. Hossaini was photographing young Afghan Shiites during a procession for Ashura, which marks the death of Shiite Islam’s holiest martyr. Some of those he had photographed recognized him. The 30-year-old photographer, who is Shiite himself, remembered seeing some of them smile.

Then, everything changed.

He heard a large explosion behind him. He was thrown to the ground. When he could focus, he stood up. He saw that his left hand was bleeding, but he didn’t have time to think about it. Mr. Hossaini ran — against the crowd, most of whom were running away from the smoke — and reached the scene about 10 seconds after the blast. The smoke began to clear, but he still had trouble concentrating.

He realized he was amid a circle of bodies, almost exactly at the place where the explosion had happened. He saw a few pairs of eyes moving, but body parts were scattered on the floor. His hands were shaking. Having covered Afghanistan — the place where he was born — since 2004, Mr. Hossaini has seen suicide attacks before. In 2007, he photographed an attack that killed 70 civilians. He cried then, too.

But this time was different.

“I have never experienced that before,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Kabul.

Mr. Hossaini was focused on what he was seeing and hearing: shouting voices, sounds of confusion. A few other people began to approach the circle. Some tried to pick up bodies. “I was taking pictures and I did want to help,” he said. “But I just saw that the bodies were completely destroyed and I said, ‘O.K. I can’t do anything for them, so I have to wait for whoever comes.’”

I would quote more but it gets pretty graphic pretty quickly. We also learn little details, such as that he'd noticed the subject of the photo long before the explosion and had planned to return to her to take photos. She was wearing the color that is the sign of remembrance.

The other religion-themed win went to the Associated Press coverage of the New York Police Department's surveillance of Muslims. There have been many stories done in this series and I'm unsure at this point which ones contributed to the win. But you can check out all the stories here.

I analyzed some of the stories last year, in "The ethics of monitoring Muslims." I had many kind things to say about what I'd read thus far as well as hopes for what the unfolding series might cover as it developed. I don't believe all of those hopes have been realized, but I'll have to revisit that issue when I have some time to read the stories. I would like to look at how religion in particular was handled during that series. My impression was that it focused much more on the NYPD and other bureaucracies than the specifics of Islam.

Either way, these Pulitzers show the importance of solid religion coverage in news rooms. Congratulations to all the winners.

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