The Pulitzer Prizes are named after the journalist, publisher and founder of the Columbia School of Journalism, Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911). These highly prestigious awards for excellence in journalism and the arts have been granted for over 100 years to date. The Pulitzer Prize for Photography was established in 1942, and replaced in 1968 by the Feature Photography and Spot News Photography (renamed Breaking News in 2000) categories. The monetary prize in each category is currently 15,000 US dollars. This year the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography went to Lorenzo Tugnoli for his reportage on the devastating humanitarian crisis in Yemen, published in the Washington Post in December 2018. Tens of thousands of Yemenites have taken shelter in temporary camps. However, with no infrastructure and barely any medical aid, the care they receive is completely insufficient.
After he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, we spoke with Tugnoli about his work and his perception of photojournalism.
First of all, congratulations on the Pulitzer Prize. From which part of the world are you doing this interview?
Thank you very much. I’m in Beirut. I’ve lived here for three and a half years.
What does the Pulitzer Prize mean to you?
It’s meaningful on so many levels. One vital element, of course, is to draw attention to the crisis that is happening in Yemen, because for many people it is a completely forgotten war. Another reason which is important for me is that it’s an Italian photographer who has won the prize. The media say that I am the only Italian photographer to have won the Pulitzer Prize, but I am not sure if that’s true. It is important for photography, and it is important especially for Italy, because there are a lot of amazing photographers in Italy, but the editorial market is not really focused on photography. We don’t have many magazines that publish photography; we don’t have a magazine that specifically sends photographers on travel assignments. The prize is important for the visibility of photojournalism.
And what does it mean for you personally?
For me it is important, because obviously I have worked for such a long time, and it’s a recognition of my work and helps me keep doing it. And also, the money is an aspect that is important for me, as it enables me to cover many new stories, to travel more. I can invest the money in future projects; to go back to Afghanistan, for example, or back to Yemen, if I get a visa. The prize opens up a lot of opportunities for my work.
In this blog we show the famous series you photographed in your neighbourhood in Beirut, documenting the Naba’a district with its medley of ethnicities. This was a project you shot in black and white – a big difference from your Pulitzer Prize-winning Yemen series. On what basis do you choose between working in colour or black and white?
Black and white is a kind of language for me. I feel closer to black and white, because this is how I learned photography. But there are many reasons. One of them is my background: I started as an assistant to a photographer in Bologna, Massimo Sciacca, who was represented by Contrasto, the same agency I am with now. He is one of the many Italian photographers who covered the Balkan War in the former Yugoslavia. That was an important moment for Italian photography, because a lot of Italian photographers, like Alex Majoli or Paolo Pellegrin for example, started there. In the nineties, when I started out as a photographer, reportage photography was predominantly black and white.
Colour photography is a different way of seeing. Colours are complicated. It is a question of how you look at things. My approach to image-making is looking at the lines, the shapes and the light, and there is a kind of structure to my images. This is the way I feel more comfortable. When I was in Afghanistan, I shot a lot in black and white with a Leica M6, and I created a book, The Little Book of Kabul, which was released in 2014. In my mind there is a clear separation between my editorial work and my personal work, which I take in black and white with a Leica – like my new work about Beirut. There is still a kind of separation between what the market requires and my personal work; and obviously, my work in Yemen was done on assignment for the Washington Post. It was a piece they wanted for the title page. A lot of the stories we did in Yemen ended up on the front pages, and so they needed colours.
What do you think about the future of photojournalism?
I’m really optimistic. I have a good feeling about photojournalism. When I started working in the field, the market was already in bad shape; but if you were to ask me if there is a future for photojournalism, I’d say: Yes! Obviously, there is a big crisis within the market, but I see so many great photojournalists who do a very good job despite all of the challenges.
Many photojournalists today have also started making films. Could this be an option for you?
No, I have always been a photographer; and I think photographers should be photographers, specialists at their job. Obviously, as far as the Pulitzer Prize is concerned, you have to be a photographer.
Does the camera system play a role in your work?
You could certainly say that Leica is somehow connected to the idea of photojournalism. Using this small camera can give you access you wouldn’t otherwise have. I’ve spent a lot of time photographing people, and if you have a small camera you can get closer and it feels less intrusive. Working with a Leica is all about the ease of use, but also the allure of the camera.
Our last question is, what are your hopes and dreams for the future?
My hope is obviously to keep on doing this work. I’m really lucky that I’m able to work as a photojournalist and go to all these places. My dream is definitely to build a discourse around my work: in Afghanistan, in Yemen, and so on; to put together a vision that is compact, and create a comprehensive portfolio that makes sense as a cohesive whole.
You can find an extensive portfolio of Lorenzo Tugnoli’s Naba’a series in LFI 2.2018.
Lorenzo Tugnoli (born 1979) is published regularly in the Washington Post and various international magazines. He lives in Beirut and is represented by the Contrasto Agency. As part of a long-term project, he has been documenting his Beirut neighbourhood for over three years. His black-and-white reportage about the Naba’a district was taken with a Leica M. He will also be working with a Leica CL in the near future. Tugnoli will be presented at this year’s Visa pour l’image International Festival of Photojournalism in Perpignan, France.
Visit Lorenzo Tugnoli’s website to see more of the photographer’s work.