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The exhibit "Capture the Moment: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs," which opened last week at the Frost Art Museum, was two decades in the making. The idea began with Cyma Rubin, a Tony Award-winning producer, writer, and director.
Rubin came up with the idea when she was working in Japan as an international cultural producer for Nippon TV. She gathered images and interviews for a half-decade before producing 1999's Moment of Impact: Stories of the Pulitzer Prize Photographs. The documentary garnered her an Emmy Award, and soon she began researching images for a traveling exhibit.
"They loved photographs in Japan," she says. "And I thought that the Pulitzer winners would make for a great collection telling an international story."
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Rubin's exhibit began traveling in 2000 and has been around the world. It adds two new images each year for current Pulitzer winners and is recognized as the most comprehensive collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning pictures.
The 166 photos on display at the Frost range from U.S. Marines raising the flag in Iwo Jima to Jack Ruby killing Lee Harvey Oswald to the World Trade Center burning. Together, they document some of the most tumultuous moments of the past seven decades.
Among the images that leave the most lasting impact are Michel duCille's photos of a notorious Miami crack supermarket. In 1987, duCille was a seasoned Miami Herald photographer. He had shared his first Pulitzer — for spot news photography — with fellow staff photographer Carol Guzy. The pair had covered the November 1985 eruption of Colombia's Nevado Del Ruiz volcano, which caused a massive mudslide killing an estimated 25,000 people.
But for Jamaican-born duCille, who is now assistant managing editor for photography at the Washington Post, 1987 was an even more toxic year. It was then that crack cocaine began ravaging America. His second Pulitzer, for feature photography, is a photo essay on crack cocaine addicts in a Miami housing project in 1988.
Back then, Miami was "ground zero" for crack, duCille mentions. "But the mainstream thinking then was that crack was a 'black problem,' and I was determined to draw attention to the fact that it was a crisis that impacted the entire community. At the time, I lived in El Portal and would often drive by a low-income housing project that had been overtaken by crack dealers and addicts on the corner of NE Second Avenue and 71st Street called 'the Graveyard.'
"The entire building, which housed mostly poor people, including the elderly and children, had been turned into a crack supermarket."
DuCille spent seven months documenting the endless flow of crack addicts at the Graveyard. "It was crazy. White folks would arrive there straight from work, buy a rock, then squat in a hall or a room to light their pipes up," he remembers. He paired with reporter Lynne Duke for a Tropic magazine spread on April 5, 1987. The story by Duke was a Pulitzer finalist. DuCille's image of a woman sucking on a makeshift pipe, made of a tiny liquor bottle with a smoldering rock glimmering in it, graced the cover.
"During the time we were there, the cops would occasionally raid the building and shutter the empty apartments with plywood to keep the addicts out," duCille recalls. "But as soon as they left, the Graveyard would reopen for business and return to the same-old, same-old."
Also among the groundbreaking images at the Frost are those of the six-month legal battle over custody of the 6-year-old Cuban boy Elián González. Associated Press photographer Alan Diaz remembers standing outside the home where Elián lived with relatives under an intense media spotlight after he was rescued in the Florida Straits.
"I was staked out outside Elián's Little Havana home, where he was staying with his uncle Lazaro González and cousin Marisleysis, from the end of November 1999 to April 22, 2000, when the government agents came for him," Diaz recollects. "I was there every day during that time, working 16 to 18 hours each day taking pictures. Over time, I got to know the family and most of the people outside the house who were protesting.
"But on April 21, which was Good Friday, I started noticing photographers, journalists, and strange people taking part in the vigils who were neither members of the media nor the regulars holding vigil. That's when I realized in my gut that something was about to go down at the house."
At the time, Diaz and a couple of others were taking turns sleeping outside the house in a neighbor's van. "We knew the government was not going to raid the house on Good Friday or Easter Sunday because those are important holidays for Latins," Diaz says. "My instinct was that they would come either that Saturday or Monday, so I went without sleep most of the weekend.
It was a hunch that paid off for Diaz and earned him the Pulitzer for spot news photography. "I was sitting outside the van watching the house a little after 5 in the morning. It happened with my cameras wrapped in a towel so the night dew wouldn't fog the lenses.
"All of a sudden, I heard a stampede of boots on the grass behind the house and [another photographer] yelling, 'Peter Pan, Peter Pan!' which was our heads-up over the radio. At the same time, a friend of the family, who looked like a bouncer and was always with Elián, opened the front door of the house and screamed, 'They're here, they're here!' in a moment of panic."