April 13th, 2016

How Winning a Pulitzer Changed Deanne Fitzmaurice’s Career

Saleh draws an airplane dropping bombs, after nurses taped a felt-tipped pen to his arm in an effort to soothe him. ©Deanne Fitzmaurice

Saleh draws an airplane dropping bombs, after nurses taped a felt-tipped pen to his arm in an effort to soothe him. ©Deanne Fitzmaurice

The 2016 Pulitzer Prize winners will be announced on Monday, April 18, marking the 100th awarding of the prizes since they were initiated in 1917. We recently asked photojournalist Deanne Fitzmaurice how winning the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography has affected her career. Now a contributor to Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine, National Geographic and other publications, Fitzmaurice was a staff photographer at the San Francisco Chronicle when she won her Pulitzer. The story she won for was about an Iraqi boy named Saleh who was undergoing treatment at an Oakland hospital after he was nearly killed by an explosion in Iraq.

PDN: What went through your mind when you heard your name read?
Deanne Fitzmaurice: it was complete disbelief. I had been a staff photographer at the Chronicle for maybe 15 years. I thought the Pulitzer was so far out of my reach. But it was a story I felt was so important for people to see, and winning the Pulitzer brought it to a much larger audience.

PDN: What immediate effect did winning the Pulitzer have on your career?
DF: The Chronicle pretty much said, What do you want to work on? It gave me independence to work on stories I really cared about. But in some ways, life was back to normal two weeks later. I was out on assignment for the real estate section, photographing a guy who was up on a ladder. He goes, “Gee, wouldn’t it be funny if I fell off the ladder? You’d probably end up winning a Pulitzer if I did.” And I said, “You’re not going to believe this, but a couple weeks ago I actually did win the Pulitzer.” I’m sure he didn’t believe me.

Deanne Fitzmaurice hears she has won a Pulitzer Prize, April 4, 2005. ©AP Photo/San Francisco Chronicle, Brant Ward

Deanne Fitzmaurice, reacting to the news that she had won a Pulitzer Prize, April 4, 2005. ©AP Photo/San Francisco Chronicle, Brant Ward

PDN: Does it go to your head? Don’t you think, “Why am I shooting these stupid real estate assignments? I’ve won the Pulitzer!”
DF: I didn’t want the other staff photographers to think I was a prima donna, so I wanted to do those ordinary, everyday assignments. Of course, I wanted to do some high level, in-depth projects as well.

There was another funny story about people’s reactions. I was at a wedding, the priest had heard I won the Pulitzer, and he was telling everyone. After the ceremony, he got really drunk, and well into the reception, he’s still telling people about my award, but at that point, he’s telling people I had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

PDN: The Nobel Prize and the Pulitzer Prize are among the few prizes you get to wear for the rest of your life, like: “I’m a  Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer.”
DF: Right, and sometimes it’s awkward–you feel weird doing that, like you’re full of yourself, but at the same time, you’re proud of it and it’s important.

PDN: What effect has it had on your career in the long run?
DF: I stayed at the San Francisco Chronicle as a staff photographer for three years after winning. A lot of opportunities came to me, and I became really busy.

PDN: Who was calling? What kinds of projects?
DF: There was a Pulitzer exhibit in some museum in Minneapolis. Some [art] buyers happened to see it, and they were looking for a photographer to work a project for Target. It was a commercial project but they wanted it shot in a photojournalistic style for Target. So they contacted me, and I got that project, and that was great. I was working on weekends doing things like that. I reached a point where I was too busy, and I was making a decision: Do I stay as a staff photographer, or take this moment to try to make it as a freelancer? I spent about six months of sleepless nights. I thought, photographers are getting laid off, the industry is changing, and I’m thinking of walking away from a perfectly good job. But I thought, If I’m ever going to do this, now is the time. I think I would have regretted if I didn’t, so I took a chance. I was scared to death, walking away. If I had stayed at the Chronicle, my life wouldn’t have changed that much. By going independent, it has given me lots of options and lots of opportunities.

PDN: Does winning the Pulitzer carry any kind of burden?
DF: After I won the Pulitzer, I was putting pressure on myself, saying, “You need to continue working at this level.” I didn’t want to be a one-hit wonder. The feeling that I could produce that kind of work, I wanted to keep doing that.

PDN: What’s your advice to photographers about how to make the most of it if they win?
DF: When you win, your phone is going to start ringing like crazy, your inbox is going to fill up and there are going to be lots of opportunities to to go out and talk about your work and your process. It’s easy for it to become a distraction. After I won, I spent the following year doing speaking engagements and other things related to that project. It was a great honor and privilege, but then I felt like: enough talking, just start producing some work.

Related:
Photography Pulitzers Go to Daniel Berehulak, St. Louis Post-Dispatch Staff (for PDN subscribers)
Josh Haner, Tyler Hicks Win 2014 Pulitzer Prizes for Photography (for PDN subscribers)
Instagram: @deannefitzmaurice