God's Eye View
Capture the Moment at the Albuquerque Museum
If you really wanted to make sense of the last 60 years in the history of the world, you would face a nearly impossible task. Read 100 books on the Vietnam War alone, and you will encounter 100 more or less contradictory interpretations. History never truly reveals itself, because we never have complete, unbiased access to the past. Capturing history, it seems to me, is like wrestling with a greased pig. You do your best even if you know you will never get a really good grip on the truth.
Looking at the pictures collected in Capture the Moment—a gut-wrenching exhibit of Pulitzer Prize winning photographs that's currently on display at the Albuquerque Museum—is a dramatic way to travel back through the last 60 years. The show isn't designed to provide a comprehensive view of the past six decades. Yet many people will undoubtedly feel that the exhibit presents an accurate emotional study of this span of time in the history of the world.
Joseph Pulitzer willed a good chunk of his fortune to the establishment of the prize that bears his name. The first Pulitzers were awarded in 1917, and in 1942 the Pulitzer committee began distributing prizes for photojournalism. This is where our story begins.
My boss described Capture the Moment as a trail of tears, and that's just about right. Many pictures depict graphic images of violence: a political prisoner about to be burned with a cigarette by a Bangladeshi guerrilla; a suspected Viet Cong collaborator being tortured by a South Vietnamese soldier; a Black football player in the early days of desegregation getting punched on the field by a racist opposing player; James Meredith, the first Black to attend the University of Mississippi, shot in the street while encouraging Blacks to vote; Cuban revolutionaries preparing to execute a Batista supporter; the famous picture of Jack Ruby assassinating Lee Harvey Oswald; the equally famous picture from 1973 of that poor, naked Vietnamese girl screaming for help while napalm sears off her skin.
The list goes on. This is very brutal stuff.
The viewer can't help but wonder about the mind behind the camera. What were these photographers thinking when they took these shots? Many of them, of course, risked their lives to bring these images to the world, to warn those of us sitting comfortably at home about the bestial, demonic crimes that people continue to inflict on each other in every corner of the world.
Many of these pictures will make you want to curl up into a ball and weep. Kevin Carter won his Pulitzer in 1994 for a photograph of a crumpled Sudanese child starving to death in the middle of a field while a vulture crouches in the background. It's an astonishing picture. After it was published, though, viewers sent Carter lots of hate mail, demanding to know why he hadn't picked the poor child up and helped her. He later told a friend that he'd been warned not to touch a starving person because of disease. Carter committed suicide a year later.
We learn these stories—many, like this one, absolutely chilling—from accompanying boxes of text mounted next to each photograph. In many cases, these boxes provide a necessary context to help us understand what these courageous photographers had to endure to present us with these glimpses into the beating heart of darkness.
Thankfully, mixed in among the carnage are several bright moments as well. Joe Rosenthal's famous portrait of marines planting a flag on top of Iwo Jima never loses its pull. There's a funny picture of the bottom of Adlai Stevenson's shoe—with a big, gaping hole in the sole. One winning photograph from the '50s depicts a kind-looking policeman during a parade urging a little kid to get back on the sidewalk because he's getting too close to a dancing Chinese dragon. The 1990 winner shows a punk rocker driving a chisel into the Berlin Wall.
One of my personal favorites depicts the Nigerian women's 100-meter relay team at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. They're exploding with unrestrained ecstasy because they just won a bronze medal. That's just so cool.
We humans are horrible, horrible creatures, and we're all complicit in creating this living nightmare of a world. Capture the Moment captures that nightmare all too well, but it also grants us some slight reason to hope for a more compassionate future.
Capture the Moment, an exhibit of Pulitzer Prize winning photographs, runs through April 18 at the Albuquerque Museum. 243-7255.