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When I video chat with acclaimed photojournalist Carol Guzy at her Arlington, Virginia, home, she’s just returned from Ukraine, documenting the front lines of the Russian invasion. The term front line is a slight misnomer, as Guzy is not a front-line photographer per se, but there is nowhere in Ukraine right now that isn’t a front line.

© Andrea Pritchard

“It’s not a war: a war is between soldiers on a battlefield,” she tells me. “This is just indiscriminate, random shelling, killing and hurting so many civilians on so many different levels. To me, it’s just terrorism.”

With a career that spans four decades, Guzy has documented humanitarian issues as they unfold around the world, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the Kosovo War to Hurricane Katrina to the ISIS conflicts in the Middle East. Her work radiates empathy for her subjects, and she often forges strong relationships with the people whose stories she captures. “They last after the camera’s been put down and the story’s done, and that’s the greatest honor, I think, to have them still want you in their life as a friend,” she says.

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It’s Guzy’s sensitive documentation that makes her photography so ensnaring—and there’s accolades to prove that. She has won several awards from the National Press Photographers Association, the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award and The Hillman Prize, among others. She’s also one of five people who’ve received four Pulitzer Prizes and the only photojournalist to do so. “I feel like none of us deserve these awards; we just take the pictures,” she humbly admits. “It’s all these people that are so courageous; they open their hearts and their lives and let us document them, so [these are really] their awards.”

Guzy’s compassion comes from her early life experiences. She grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, “a steel town girl,” as she says. “I wanted to be an artist, but I was really poor. My dad died when I was six, and my mom struggled working in sewing factories. So, I realized that starving artist should not be my chosen profession.”

Selecting a career that felt more practical and stable, Guzy first attended nursing classes at the Northampton Community College in Bethlehem. However, she discovered her passion for photography after taking a darkroom class and went on to study at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale in Florida.  “[Photojournalists] are all led down this path with different life experiences. I think it helps with your particular vision,” she explains. “In nursing school, you learn how important compassion, empathy and sensitivity are. It’s not about you; it’s about them. You carry that over into journalism.”

While at the Art Institute, Guzy flourished in photojournalism classes. “I just loved telling stories,” she explains. “It’s being a writer with a camera. They always say journalists are the first draft of history, but we are. You have to actually see it, witness it, be there. Not write a story from another country or a hotel.”

In nursing school, you learn how important compassion, empathy and sensitivity are. It’s not about you; it’s about them. You carry that over into journalism.”

Two back-to-back internships at the Miami Herald helped Guzy continue her career momentum while in school. At the paper, she’d often work all day on daily assignments, taking whatever was given to her. “It made me realize how important it is,” she recalls. “It still means a lot to whom you’re photographing. That photo’s going to really matter to someone else, maybe even more than you.”

After graduating, Guzy spent the next eight years at the Herald. In 1988, her husband at the time got a job at The Washington Post, and soon she began working there as a staff photographer for the next 30 years. “I [went] kicking and screaming because I didn’t want to come back to the cold Northeast,” she says. “[But] the Post had more resources, so I had a lot of opportunities while there.”

Back when Guzy established herself as a formidable photographer, there still weren’t many other women photojournalists. “The attitude was not conducive to many opportunities for women,” she explains. “Even if you worked on a staff, you got softer assignments. But I was lucky that I had photo editors who believed in me, and from the very beginning, they sent me on stories of famine in Africa and hurricanes.”

It helps, she notes, when you win awards. Guzy won her first Pulitzer for Spot News Photography while at the Miami Herald and then her second at the Post seven years after she began there. “[Awards give] you a little more respect in the newsroom,” she says. “I think it helped paved the path to realize it doesn’t matter if you’re female or male. If an editor’s smart, they’ll play to your strengths.”

For Guzy, her strength lies in her compassionate approach. When she began at the Herald, she worked for the paper’s community section called “Neighbors” in which she focused on the Haitian refugees settling in what would become Little Haiti. “It was just so compelling,” she says. “I started doing a project on that whole community and got completely sucked into the Haitian experience.”

Documenting the nascent Little Haiti inspired Guzy to fund her first trip to Haiti itself, which developed into an enduring relationship with the Haitian people and their country. “Haiti is one of the most brutal places I’ve been,” she says. “But the spirit of the people is so rich and beautiful. There’s an eloquence of soul, this sweetness of spirit that exists that you can’t even imagine. I fell in love with Haitians, and it became a mission to show people what was going on.”

On the island country, Guzy has covered everything from political upheaval and injustice to natural disasters, noting that she recently covered the damage from the 2021 earthquake. Two of her four Pulitzers have been for journalism in Haiti, something that brings more relief than pride. “I’ve always been beating my head against the wall trying to get people to care about Haiti,” she says, “so [the Pulitzers] make people stand up, take notice and say ‘OK. This country matters. These people matter. This story matters. Let’s pay attention again.’”

One bleak truth of being the first draft of history can be watching it fade from the minds of others. Guzy sees this now even with her coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “People look away,” she says. “They get compassion fatigue.” She mentions a recent New York Times op-ed by photographer David Hume Kennerly titled “Photographing Hell” on the subject of content warnings and how they “make sure that no one has to look at something they don’t want to,” as Guzy explains. “But his premise—and mine—is that it’s far worse for everyone living through this. And while we shouldn’t show gore just for gore’s sake, it’s still war, and war is death, and death is ugly. Don’t look away from this. But we can’t give
a constant, steady stream of that without balancing it with these gestures of kindness and beauty that remain in these situations.”

They always say journalists are the first draft of history, but we are. You have to actually see it, witness it, be there. Not write a story from another country or a hotel.”

She points to her recent work for examples of how she’s accomplished this. “I did a portrait series on ladies that stayed, these charming, delightful, strong, beautiful babushkas,” Guzy says. “I also did a series of still life images, collecting pictures of burned-out buildings because I found it so haunting to see what was left: a kitchen, someone’s living room, just burned to ash. It’s hard to look at dead bodies and constant pictures of rubble and destruction, but this was something that I thought [was] a little different. Maybe more digestible.”

The other uphill battle facing Guzy is the decline of journalism and the subsequent shift from staff photographers to freelancers, which Guzy herself now practices. “Very few people have the resources anymore to do long-form documentary, which I think is a total casualty of journalism dying the way it has,” she explains. “And community journalism, we don’t have that now that all these newspapers have faded into oblivion. Even the big papers don’t commit like they used to, so everyone suffers. Society doesn’t even realize what’s been taken away.”

In 2014, during the shuttering of many a newspaper, Guzy lost her position at the Post at what couldn’t have been a worse time. “My mom and sister were both dying of Alzheimer’s, and I was basically their caregiver as they both faded at the same time,” she recalls. She lost the dog she’d adopted after documenting Hurricane Katrina, “who was my soulmate,” she says. “I lost one of my best friends from the Post on the evening of my sister’s funeral. My brother-in-law died. My other friends were dying.” She was already experiencing “complicated grief on steroids,” as she describes, “and when the Post was sold, I just blindly trusted that I would still have my position as promised, which was then taken. I never wanted to take another picture again in my life.”

Guzy credits ZUMA, the distribution agency she’s with now, for helping her through. “ZUMA came to my rescue when I didn’t believe in myself,” she says, “and I had a great grievance counselor in Bethlehem and friends that didn’t flee [me], and I picked up a camera again. It became a very healing thing when I finally said, ‘I’m going to do stories again,’ [because] it takes you out of your own head.”

She went onto photograph Faces of Mosul, a project comprising portraits of those during the liberation of Mosul, Iraq, from ISIS forces. “I wanted to put a face on these people because everybody hears about numbers and statistics and [not] all these people [who] are dying and injured,” Guzy explains. The project won her the Capa Gold Medal Award for courage in journalism. “And I feel like I’m the least courageous person,” she says, “but I’ve also realized that it takes emotional courage to be a photojournalist. The fact that we must overcome our own limitations with fears to do these stories—it’s an important clarification of what courage means.”

Through her emotional courage and openness with others, Guzy has begun conversations with a new generation of photojournalists about the challenges facing the industry. “I do these presentations, and kids come up literally hugging me, saying, ‘Thank you for giving me permission to feel,’” she says. “A lot of editors—especially back in the day—would say you’re supposed to be objective and strong. [That’s] hurt a lot of photographers because we’re witnesses all the time. If you have a compassionate, sensitive heart, it’s going to make more compelling images to have that kind of empathy, but it’s also going to break a thousand times harder.”

Piled on top of the physical and emotional toll of the job, predatory contracts that pay very little and take copyrights away from freelance photojournalists now proliferate the business. “[ZUMA] helps me out as much as it can with day rates here and there, but financially, it’s hard,” she says. She notes that while ZUMA sells her work to many publications, the rates are dismally low. “Maybe [the agency] sells [an image] for $1.50, and my cut is ¢75,” she explains. “The lack of respect for photojournalism is sad. We all risk our lives and our mental stability doing this job, and while the rewards are not financial in this business, you’ve also got to pay your bills and eat.”

The world of journalism has changed, trying to compete with the deluge of new content audiences consume from social media. Guzy mentions that photojournalists comprise a more diverse and globally positioned group than ever before, but the industry preys on their desires while their audiences become desensitized to their subjects. These photographers risk their bodies, minds and hearts to tell the stories of those of us in need. Please don’t look away. ca

Michael Coyne is the managing editor of Communication Arts


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