The story behind The Denver Post photo Pulitzer

In February, Craig F. Walker of the Denver Post earned a gold medal in SND’s Best of News Design competition for his story chronicling the journey of Ian Fisher from high school student to Iraq War veteran. It was one of only 5 gold medals awarded among over 10,000 entries in the competition. On Monday, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography, the most prestigious award in journalism. Tim Rasmussen served as photo editor on the project. The design was handled by Jeff Neumann in print and Meghan Lyden online.

The project took 27 months to complete, weathered layoffs at the paper, a struggling market in Denver that saw the closing of the Rocky Mountain News, and the ever-present possibility that it could end abruptly. What began as an idea to follow a student from high school to war in Iraq became much more. It turned into a story of a young man growing up and going through not only the challenges that a soldier faces but also the challenges that every teenager faces when transitioning into adulthood.

The scale of “American Soldier” – running over 18 pages in print and showcasing more than 200 images and hours of videos online – is inspiring during a time of crisis for American newspapers. “We started the project before a massive crash, before the Rocky closed, before two rounds of layoffs at the Denver Post, one rank and file, one management,” said Denver Post AME, photography. “I frankly just tried to ignore all that and do the work, and frankly that’s where I still am. I’ve tried to remind myself why I got in the business. Craig reminded himself why he got in the business and he went out and told a story.”

The idea for the story came from a 2007 speech by then President George W. Bush regarding the state of the Iraq war, before the surge, before the situation had begun to turn and change. Post Managing Editor Damon Cain asked “Why would anyone join the Army now?” Craig F. Walker was assigned as the photographer to find out. Walker, 43, called Army public affairs and began to work with spokeswoman Major Anne Edgecomb to find a recruit who would fit the story. “We asked for someone who was signing up for combat, someone that they were confident would make it through basic training,” Walker says.

When he met Ian Fisher, Walker had a serious conversation with the recruit and Fisher’s father about the commitment that would be required to do the story. Fisher believed in what he was doing, he wasn’t doing it because he didn’t have any other options.“Ian said, ‘If it’s good, I’ll tell you it’s good. If it’s not good, I’ll tell you it’s not good’”.

One previous recruit had fallen through, so Walker was concerned that he should choose someone who would hold up their end of the commitment. “That’s what I needed to hear” he said “that he was going to be open and honest throughout, and God bless him he was. He was very open – to say the least.”

Walker then proceeded to give a window into the world of a 19-year-old kid: hanging out with high school friends, girlfriends and parties. The trust developed between the photographer and his subject became the key to giving his viewers a front row seat, and at times, a place in the room with Fisher as he went through intimate struggles and challenges ranging from drug use to broken relationships and self doubt. He also took us to the euphoria of youth, the excitement of new love and the pride of service to his country. “I was really fortunate that Ian did understand the project.” Walker said. “It was going to take time to get used to having a photographer there and forgetting that I was there, but he did so well and he got comfortable real fast.”

Fisher was the leader of his pack of friends. He asked them to accept Walker – and they did. His parents and the Army did as well. It was a special relationship. “I feel really fortunate just to be given this access and be accepted by these people,” Walker said. “It’s something that I’ll actually have a hard time letting go of.”

Originally, the plan was to have Walker make two trips to basic training, two to advanced training, two to his first assignment and then to Iraq. They figured it would take about a year to cover, Rasmussen said.

Then, Fisher was assigned to Fort Carson, Colorado, just an hour and a half from Denver. Suddenly, the entire story changed. “It actually made it a lot harder” Rasmussen said. “There was much more to cover, but it also made the story a lot more interesting.” With Fisher so close to home, Walker was able to follow his whole life more extensively – at Fort Carson and at home. It ended up taking a lot more time.

“That’s where the problems come,” Walker said, “He was living in two worlds. During the week he was training for war and on the weekends he was at home with his friends living the life that he had before he went into the Army. It was a lot of partying, and a lot of fun.” The fun became a distraction to Fisher at times, and he started getting into trouble with the Army. Walker kept in touch with military superiors to determine what was happening at Fort Carson, but for Fisher’s personal life, he had to keep tabs on a young man half his age. “I called him a lot” he said. “I learned how to text, did a lot of texting. I asked him to call me and explained that as a photographer I can’t tell your story unless I’m there and can make pictures.” It worked.

One weekend Fisher did what his captain referred to as “turning a 3-day weekend into a 5-day weekend” failing to report and getting himself into hot water with the Army. “I’ll never forget he called me one morning. He was supposed to be in Fort Carson that afternoon and he wasn’t going. He was having a really hard time. He had broken up with his fiancé and, God bless him, he called me to talk to me about it. I asked him where he was and he said he was at his dad’s house. I said ‘I’m coming over’ and he said ‘Okay’.”

The picture that came out of the situation was an intimate look inside of Fisher’s world. Cigarette in hand, with an ashtray on his chest, with a female friend and Fisher’s father there as he lays contemplating whether he made the right decision going into the Army. It’s one of many photographs that gets you into Ian Fisher’s head. It makes the story personal, intimate. The photos become a window into his life. “At that point in the story they were so comfortable with me that I was able to make this picture. They just forgot I was there,” Walker said.

Those relationships extended into Walker’s dealing with the Army. Having intimate access to Army business is typically not done by an outside photojournalist. Walker built relationships with Fisher’s superiors so that they would also trust him to be in the room when important things happened. “We were deep,” Rasmussen said. “There is a photograph in it where Ian is getting reamed by his captain after he copped to some drug use and we’re sitting right in there taking photographs of everything. I think it’s pretty impressive that the United States military allowed us to tell the story of a young man, the good and the bad, side by side because that really is the story of a lot of young people and a lot of young people in the military.”

That access allowed for Walker to paint a human experience of Fisher as a young man, searching to find himself. “As I kept saying in some of these meetings, he’s me,” Rasmussen said. “ He wasn’t perfect, he wasn’t GI Joe, he wasn’t Gomer Pile either. Ian Fisher is everybody’s brother, everybody’s sister, daughter son, cousin. Everybody knows somebody who has gone through this at some point of their life, to become a soldier or join the military.”

The Ian Fisher story is a linear, classic approach that resists keeping a photographer’s stamp on the images. The strength of the package is not in the artistry or aesthetics of the images. Rather, it is a work of is journalism communicated with the camera that gives us an intimate experience with Fisher’s life. “Craig does not come out in his photography,” Rasmussen said. “But the people who Craig is photographing do – and for me that’s more important. I want to learn something about the subject, not the photographer.”

Walker says that his photography is about the moments and reacting to them. When the moment happens, the composition is simply the best effort he can make to capture that moment. “It’s not about me, it’s about Ian, I’m telling Ian’s story. I guess my style is what you’re looking at.”

Years of working on the story made it enormous. Hundreds of thousands of images were narrowed down to thousands, thousands to 211 frames. And, in the end, 52 pictures ran in the paper. More than two years for 52 pictures. “(Craig) had great support from my boss Damon Cain the managing editor, from Greg Moore the editor who let us stay with it the whole time – even though I think there were times when not a lot of people in the newsroom believed in the story,” Rasmussen said. “There were times when people questioned “why are we doing this.” We had three different reporters on the story, we had a change in management. The managing editor who helped get the story off the ground was laid off in the middle of it all. Pulling Ian Fisher off was probably one of the toughest things I’ve ever done in the industry.”

Through one stretch of time when Fisher was at Fort Carson, Walker himself took over the reporting, and he recorded hundreds of hours of video interviews for use on the web. “The multimedia editor (Meghan Lyden) edited 136 hours of video” Rasmussen said. “We’re talking basically 3 months in a room doing nothing but logging video tape to get it edited down before we even started to finalize the edits or build the project.

Walker credits Rasmussen for helping him stay on track during all of the ups and downs of logistics and through the emotional roller coaster that can happen when a photographer gets so close to a story. “At times he had more confidence in me than I did,” Walker said. “At times when things got bad for Ian and I thought he was going to get kicked out of the army, Tim would just tell me to follow the story, just follow the story, see what happens, which is the most simple advice but when you’re in the middle of it, you’re not necessarily thinking that way.

Even before the Pulitzer was announced, the story had generated support and response from all over the world, running in at least seven different magazines in Europe. Walker received emails from across the globe from people touched by his story. It never had anything to do with the awards for him anyway, it was about doing the story right. Ian Fisher, who was with Walker when the prize was announced, responded well.

“I think he liked it, he loved it,” Walker said. “When he looked at it, he just said ‘That’s me’. This story wouldn’t be what it is if not or a lot of people – especially Ian Fisher – and his honesty even at the worst times.”

“I have yet to concede that photojournalism is dead or that photojournalism needs to change because our bottom line has changed,” Rasmussen says. “Our bottom line can change us but we can also change it. I think that telling great stories is really the mandate that we have at the Denver Post. If that is our mandate, how we do it and how we get to it isn’t as hard as I think people think it is. If we focus on what’s going wrong with the business then that’s what we’re focused on, and we’re trying really hard to focus on telling stories here. What’s going right with the business and going wrong with the business I think will work it’s way out if we continue to do what we’re supposed to be really good at which is telling great stories, so that’s what we try to do.”

See Denver Post links to the project.

James Gregg is a photographer at the Arizona Daily Star. He served as one of five judges at SND’s 31st annual Best of News Design competition in the photography and small newspaper team. He can be reached at: james@jamesgreggphoto.com