Award-Winning Crime Photographer Feels Guilty

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For four years, while communities in Chicago fought a war against street violence, Jason Wambsgans captured the blood washed in orange light, the broken bodies, the grief. This year, Wambsgans, a 44-year-old Detroit native, won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for documenting for the Chicago Tribune the intractable violence that has gripped parts of the city. Wambsgans won for his photographs of Tavon Tanner, one of 24 children under 12 who were shot last year in Chicago.. In the portrait of Tanner that ran on the front page, a picture Wambsgans calls “one of the most beautiful I will ever make,”  the boy pulls up his shirt, revealing his scar, reports the Columbia Journalism Review. Photojournalists like Wambsgans—conflict photographers on the frontlines of their own streets, in their own cities, capture the intersection of guns and police, and poverty and race.

At many of the crime scenes he documented, Wambsgans and Tribune reporter Peter Nickeas sometimes showed up before the police did. They stayed for hours, witnesses to horrors that have defied Chicago city officials and community leaders. “Sometimes we will stand there for three or four hours if nothing is happening, waiting for something to reveal itself in a subtle way,” Wambsgans says. He feels guilty, and he is not alone. Many photojournalists who document violence on their city’s streets find themselves wrestling with the same question. It tails them each time they race to a crime scene, or knock on a door, or return from a funeral with a memory card filled with images. “All of them wonder why they keep showing people this violence and nothing changes and things seem to be getting worse—or at least that’s the public perception,” says James Kelly, a photojournalism scholar at Indiana University. “There hasn’t been a large social movement to correct the problem. Society hasn’t responded the way society responded to photographic coverage of the war in Vietnam or poverty in Appalachia.”

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