We Didn’t Win? The Vagaries of Judging Journalism Contests

Here’s an enlightening take on not winning a Pulitzer from Connecting, a newsletter written by Paul Stevens for current and former AP staffers:

I fully expected this morning to be joining a chorus of praise for AP’s Burhan Ozbilici on winning a Pulitzer for his frighteningly stark image of the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey last December.

But it was not to be, and his photo was not even selected as a finalist by 2017 Pulitzer judges. Just two months ago, it was chosen as Photo of the Year in the 2017 World Press Photo contest—selected from 80,408 photos submitted by 5,034 photographers from 125 countries.
I know judges are human, that the competition is fierce and that I approach this with a bias toward AP and the wonderful work our company does daily covering news around the globe, unmatched by any other organization in quality and scope. But I was a bit bummed.

The AP’s Turkey photo.

I asked our Connecting colleague, retired AP director of photography Hal Buell, for his thoughts, to help pick me up out of my no-Pulitzer funk, and his response, professional and reasoned as always:
Over the years I have judged many photo competitions (including Pulitzer jury and Pulitzer jury chairman). The outcomes are often bewildering.  In recent years the larger portfolios of photography have dominated the various competitions.
The Breaking News winner this year offers excellent photography. In an unusual but not exclusive move, the Pulitzer Board moved the winner from the Feature Category to the Breaking News category. You may have noted that a fine portfolio of Iraq coverage from AP was a finalist in Breaking News.
The Turkey photo was a classic, single photo that dramatized a vivid news story of the cultural conflict so much a part of the news flow in recent years. At the same time, there is feeling among some photo types that pictures of this kind are a case of “f16 and be there.”  Serendipity is part of all photography but it takes more than “being there” to be cool enough to look a gunman in the face, raise a camera and make a photo.
I personally believe that the Turkish photo should have taken a prize. It is a photo that has the potential of being an historical icon.
There will never be an explanation. The Pulitzer Board never comments on its judgments. Nor does it respond to criticism.
I must add that my comments are intended in no way to denigrate the quality of those who were recognized. But I felt they were worth sharing.
All of us involved in contests at any level know well the vagaries of judging. When I was chief of bureau in Indianapolis and Kansas City, outstate member judges for our Indiana and Missouri APME contests awarded Honorable Mentions to newspaper entries (Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, Kansas City Star) that soon thereafter won both Pulitzer Prizes with the very same entries.
 Here are links to the Pulitzer Prize winners for Feature Photography and Breaking News Photography. And a link to the World Press Photo of the Year.


  1. Bob Daugherty says

    I’ll not pass judgment on the winning Pulitzer photos, but I would sure like to know the judges’ thinking and conversation when they were viewing Burhan Ozbilic’s photo of the assassination of the Russian ambassador. Seems like the judges might have taken their cue from the World Press chairman who voted against Burhan’s photo and went public on his opposition. The photo didn’t even get a runner-up nod.

    Another question I ponder: I wonder how Eddie Adams’ photo of Gen. Loan executing a Viet Cong would have been received by these Pulitzer judges? I’m perplexed.

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