Max Desfor

Max Desfor

Inside Media: The Images of War

May 18, 2008

Guest: Max Desfor

Pulitzer Prize-winning combat photographer Max Desfor assessed his gritty and dangerous work in typical understatement. Looking at a photo he shot in the midst of a street battle, he shrugged.

"It was the only angle at which I could make the picture I wanted," he said.

Of a photo he took of soldiers sweeping a street for mines, he explained: "I just walked out there, and a bomb didn't hit me."

Desfor spoke of his work covering wars for the Associated Press during the "Inside Media" program. He described how he shot his Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of refugees fleeing the Korean War in 1950. As he approached the edge of the Taedong River, "there was this broken-down bridge with thousands and thousands of Koreans fleeing with whatever possessions they had left," he said.

With his hands numb from the extreme cold, Desfor shot eight pictures.

"It was a terrible time to linger anywhere," he said.

Winning the Pulitzer was a surprise: "I had no more idea of the fact I'd been entered (for the prize) than I knew what was on the film when I sent it in," he said. That photograph, along with the all the Pulitzer-winning photographs since 1942, is displayed in the Newseum's Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery.

Desfor said he has observed a growing mistrust between the military and the media over the years. In Korea, correspondents would go off on their own, and "you could thumb your way" around and get whatever story you wanted, he said. But at daily military briefings in Vietnam, called the "five o'clock follies," "what the military was talking about was completely different from what (journalists) saw." Desfor attributed this to the resulting animosity between the military and the media.

Desfor's photographs also show the quieter moments of war. In one, a military priest and a soldier huddle together in prayer.

"You have to show the human side," he said. "You can't always just show guys with guns pointing at you."

During the question-and-answer period, Desfor was asked for photography tips.

"The camera is only a tool," he advised. "Use your head."

"Inside Media," produced by the Newseum, is open to the public. Seating is on a space-available basis.

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