American (Humble) Pie

There’s a lot to be said for feeling like pond scum. For leaving your comfort zone, going out into the world and finding yourself standing in the lobby of The New York Times, utterly dwarfed by such proximity to Pulitzer Prize winners.

There’s a whole hall in there, you know. For Pulitzer Prize winners. Succinct photographic commemorations for over 120 New York Times journalists who have won the most coveted prize for journalistic excellence since 1918.

The work that stays with me out of the NYT’s three wins this year is by Daniel Berehulak.

A few months ago, I did the rare and oddly anxiety-inducing thing of using 1 of my 10 free New York Times articles per month to view his photographic feature on the drug war in the Philippines, shuddering first at the taunt of “9 remaining” in a grey bar encouraging subscriptions at the bottom of the screen and then in earnest at the title “They Are Slaughtering Us Like Animals’.

On certain types of days, dark and disillusioned, I can still see some of his photographs behind closed eyelids.

Michael Araja dead in front of a sari sari.  A policeman examining a body under a yellow and green umbrella with evidence tags marked 2 and 3 catching the light.  And a red-hued image of a father’s funeral presided over by three little girls, one open-mouthed, wailing.

Chronicling the worst of the 35 days Berehulak spent photographing the drug war in Manila, Philippines, his work features the kind of images that will keep you up at night, wondering about the world and what we’re capable of.

His award is dedicated to the families of those killed with the hope that “their pain might somehow be remedied by justice.”

‘They Are Slaughtering Us Like Animals’ is Berehulak’s second Pulitzer Prize. He won the feature photography prize in 2015 for his work documenting the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

That image I see in Washington DC.

I’m at the Newseum with a group of journalists speaking at the National Endowment for Democracy the next day and we walk through the Pulitzer Prize Photographs exhibition with leaden feet, taking in the world’s tragedies, smiling once at an image of Nigerian women at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, ecstatic about bringing home some bronze.

I notice Berehulak’s images are on display. ‘A father’s funeral’ featured in the reception area under breaking news and another of James Dorbor (8) minutes before his death. Held, some people say, like a sack of garbage by yellow-clad health care workers doing their utmost to save lives while avoiding contact with the virulent disease.

In an explanatory panel astride the image, Berehulak says “That’s the nature of the virus, not their behaviour. It’s a virus that preys on our humanity, that preys on our caring for loved ones.”

Berehulak spent 103 days wearing a face mask, rubber boots and three pairs of gloves to capture Ebola’s devastating legacy and he tells it as it is.

What he doesn’t say, is what I’m thinking, echoed by my Nigerian friend documentary filmmaker, journalist and poet Wana Udobang who notices a trend of foreign, mostly white male journalists winning Pulitzers for third world pain.

We need to start doing this ourselves. Telling our own stories. With all our context and lived experience.

Not necessarily in the pursuit of prizes.

But simply to bear indigenous witness.

In our news stories, our personal essays and in our photography.

Feeling shrunken in the halls of The New York Times, I feel this too. At CBS News, giddy with excitement at being in the studios that made the same ‘60 Minutes’ I’d watch only half comprehendingly as a child, only to be crestfallen when a highlight reel homogenizes Africa in clips of wildlife and white people with a headline exclaiming something along the lines of “almost all Africa has to offer”, the feeling grows.

We have to do better about documenting the realities of our lives and of our deaths.

American Humble Pie is what I’ve been eating rather regularly as I make my way through the USA, walking through world class, legendary media studios and all the land of opportunity has to offer.

Thankfully, humble pie’s after taste is more pleasant than the bitter bite of the pastry.

It’s rejuvenating, sweet and tastes like motivation.