From William Snyder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story about subhuman conditions in Romanian orphanages. ©William Snyder
In anticipation of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize announcements on Monday, we talked to photographers who have won in the past about how the prize affected their careers. Today, William Snyder talks about his experience as a three-time Pulitzer winner during his tenure as a staff photographer at the Dallas Morning News. In 1989, he shared the prize for Explanatory Journalism with two colleagues. In 1991, he won the Feature Photography prize for his story about children living in subhuman conditions in Romanian orphanages. He shared the 1993 prize for Spot News with colleague Ken Geiger for their coverage of the 1992 Summer Olympics. Snyder also led the Dallas Morning News photo team that won 2006 Breaking News Photography prize for coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Snyder is currently chair of the photojournalism program at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
PDN: What went through your mind the first time you won a Pulitzer?
William Snyder: I was really excited. It’s one of those things you dream of. My little tiny disappointment was that it wasn’t in photography, but that’s just being selfish.
PDN: How did the subsequent wins compare?
WS: The [second] one was for a story I did on Romanian orphans that was near and dear to my heart, that I really worked hard on, and it was all my story. I could die happy. I felt like I accomplished something.
William Snyder, in his “lucky” Pulitzer shirt, celebrates with the Dallas Morning News photo team that won the 2006 prize for Breaking News Photography. ©Mei-Chun Jau/Dallas Morning News
PDN: Does winning the Pulitzer go to your head–not your head, of course, but a photographer’s head?
WS: On the eve of winning the first one, I was talking to the executive editor. He said to me, “Grace and humility William, after this happens.” I said, “If you’re worried about that, I can’t be any bigger of an asshole than I already am.”
We all know stories that have been great, and photographs that have been fantastic, that haven’t won. Is there luck involved? Are there things that are out of your control that are involved? Absolutely. What I learned was: You don’t rest on your laurels. You’ve got to keep working, day in and day out.
PDN: Is there a burden to winning?
WS: I’ve heard of people who win once and they’re frozen, because they’re so afraid that everyone’s going to be looking at them to produce something of Pulitzer quality every time they walk out the gate. There’s only a burden if you let there be a burden.
PDN: Did you always dream of winning the Pulitzer? Was that the Holy Grail for you?
WS: It wasn’t the Holy Grail, but it was pretty close. I never won Photographer of the Year in POY. This is the sick thing about me: I feel incomplete because I never won that. That should tell you about me: I was never satisfied. That’s the kind of person I am. [As journalists] we want to do great work, but we want the medals, because the medals live even longer than the great work.
PDN: What do you mean?
WS: There are people who you know as “Pulitzer Prize winner” and you have never seen their work. You’ve never read their book, seen their play, heard their music, but you see that phrase, and you know they’re good.
PDN: Is the Pulitzer as coveted as it used to be, after the decimation of the newspaper business? Does it have the cache that it used to?
WS: I think more so now. [Now] it’s difficult to win for a picture you happen upon. Most Pulitzers now are for involved stories, whether they’re news or features, right? So if you win a Pulitzer now, you’ve put in the time. You’ve done a great story. In an age when many media companies say “good enough is good enough,” the Pulitzer is still the high water mark, the beacon.
PDN: Did anything change for you after you won?
WS: The first one, absolutely not.
PDN: How about the second one?
WS: There were a ton of offers for lectures, workshops and freelance gigs. My boss just said, “Do ‘em.” Also it was the main reason I was accepted as a Michigan Journalism Fellow (now called the Knight-Wallace Fellowships) and why I was chosen as the inaugural James Burke Fellow.
Things really changed after I won the third Pulitzer. My boss and I got along better. There wasn’t this constant conflict. I just wanted to be able to work. That was the best thing about it: Just to be able to do the work, and be supported. From 1993 to 1998, when I stopped shooting, those were the four or five best years of my career because I was supported and listened to. Did I get what I wanted all the time? Absolutely not.
PDN: Why did you give up the shooting?
WS: There was no one reason. I was traveling a lot back then. I was getting burnout, and I had two young boys I wanted to see grow up and spend some time with. I got to the point where I saw nothing on the horizon—no story that I wanted to do–and my boss was pushing me to be an editor.
PDN: What’s your advice to this year’s Pulitzer winners?
WS: Enjoy it, and then go back to work. If you watch the end of Patton [1971 Oscar winner for Best Picture], he’s talking about how in the old days, there’d be this great parade, and the triumphant warrior would come in with the adjutant standing behind [him], holding the golden crown over his head, and whispering in his ear, “All glory is fleeting.” And that’s it: Enjoy it, and then you gotta go back to work.
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