Pulitzer-Prize winner Cheryl Diaz Meyer is a freelance photographer based in Washington, D.C. Their “eloquent photographs depicting both the violence and poignancy of the war with Iraq” garnered her and her colleague, David Leeson, the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography during their tenure as senior staff photographers for The Dallas Morning News. Her work in Iraq was also awarded the Visa D’Or Daily Press Award 2003 at Visa Pour L’Image in Perpignan, France.
Diaz Meyer covered the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq as an embedded journalist attached to the Second Tank Battalion of the First Marine Division. After the fall of Baghdad, she continued to cover the aftermath of the violence as a unilateral journalist. She has travelled to the Philippines and Indonesia to photograph violent Muslim and Christian extremism and to Guatemala to document a country healing from 36 years of civil strife. She has also photographed stories in China, Kuwait, Bahrain, the Czech Republic, Mexico, Slovakia and Russia, among others.
Diaz Meyer’s photographs have been published in The New York Times, The Guardian (London), The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, Der Spiegel, Cosmopolitan and Glamour magazines. Her work is also featured in several books: on the cover of The Long Road Home by Martha Raddatz, in Desert Diaries by Corbis, The War in Iraq by Life, A Table in the Presence by Lt. Carey Cash and Reporting from the Front by Judith Sylvester. The History Channel, CNN, MSNBC, ABC News and CSPAN have featured her work and interviews. She has written articles for The Dallas Morning News, Harvard University’s Nieman Reports, as well as Digital Journalism: Emerging Media and the Changing Horizons of Journalism.
How did you get interested in photography and how did you get your first paid assignment?
“As photojournalists, we cannot allow ourselves to be bored and every assignment deserves our utmost attention.”
When I was a teenager departing for a one-year exchange program to Germany, my oldest brother handed me his 35 mm Minolta camera and told me to record what I experienced there. With only one manual setting familiar to me, I managed to eke out a few fun photos of my life, friends and travels in Europe.Later, as a university student, an artist friend invited me on a photo shoot and showed me how to process film and print photos. I thought it was magical how chemicals made images appear on negatives and how light could make them appear on paper. Yet even more than that, I was entranced and terrified by the creative process, where from nothing, an artist makes images and develops concepts using the camera as a tool.
I followed a rather regimented path to photojournalism, attending Western Kentucky University, which was and still is known for its excellent photojournalism program. I submitted photos to the school paper and was paid for them, but my first newspaper internship gave me my first real taste of assignments. The first day on the job, the photo director took me on a shoot of a construction site and I thought it was boring and unimportant. He photographed for about 30 minutes while I watched. Then he told me to take some pictures.Having been on a student budget for film, I took about 10 frames from one angle and declared myself finished. He gently encouraged me to continue to shoot, to explore. I recall my embarrassment when I understood his lessons for me that day—taking photos is like sketching, we draw, erase and then draw again. Secondly, as photojournalists, we cannot allow ourselves to be bored and every assignment deserves our utmost attention. We must constantly seek ways to communicate clearly with our cameras.We have to always challenge ourselves to make our pictures better.
What do you love most about your job as a photographer?
“In telling stories that speak truth about people, one must become a student of humanity.”
One, the creative process. As a photographer, it’s just your vision and the camera. No one can tell you how to make a picture, you have to discover it, or paradoxically, at times, you must wait until it reveals itself. Two, I love being a voice for people whose stories would otherwise never be heard.In telling stories that speak truth about people, one must become a student of humanity.
From studying art photography to switching to photojournalism and then traipsing half the world capturing its conflicts. How and when did this transformation happen?
Very, very quietly. In the half-empty halls of the university library’s photography section. Sometime after the introductory photo shoot with my friend, I started taking photography classes, but there were a very limited number of classes where I was attending university at the time, so I looked elsewhere for inspiration. Between coursework, I’d sit on a stepstool in the middle of all the photo books and I would peruse them one after the other, studying the images, reading the photographer’s philosophies, trying to understand what made a good photo and also, trying to understand what moved me. On one occasion I found myself crying over a picture, my heart racing in my chest.I felt at that moment like I was on drugs, high as a kite. I wish I could remember what image that was, I only recall that it was an image that told a very moving story. When I learned that I could become a photographer who tells stories with pictures, I went on to attend a school that specialized in photojournalism. From there, I got my first internship, then the next and eventually a job. In my first job, I was very focused on learning the craft of photography and before I knew it, my managers entrusted me with bigger and bigger assignments, including travel. Then in my second job, the assignments included travel but they also grew more dangerous. The extreme challenge and the personal growth that come from photographing conflicts have continued to fuel my work.
It is only because of the works of photojournalists such as yourself that we in third world get to see and feel the pain of the war-torn countries. What would you have to say to the people who haven’t resorted to fighting for their problems yet?
Having grown up in the Philippines under the dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos, I understand what oppression means. It numbs one’s soul, strips people of their humanity and their dignity. There is no honor in being a lamb to this kind of wolf.But fighting the status quo means chaos, sacrifice and often loss of lives. At the end is the hope for a brighter future, a world where each person is free to pursue their dreams and be respected. Is war worth it? Can a revolution be achieved peacefully? Each person must determine this for themselves.
“As a photojournalist covering wars, I am cognizant of the fact that I need to be healthy, mentally and emotionally, to be effective.”
Is war inevitable? If yes, would you want to witness it with your camera each and every time it happened?
I don’t want to believe that war is inevitable. It’s simply depressing. There are countries that have transitioned peacefully from repressive regimes to democracies, so it is possible for change to occur without war. Do I want to be a witness to every war? No. It would shake my faith in humanity. As a photojournalist covering wars, I am cognizant of the fact that I need to be healthy, mentally and emotionally, to be effective. Covering every war around the world is not a recipe for good health.
You have a flair for writing as well. How and what makes you so good at so many things?
Thank you. My family immigrated from the Philippines to the US when I was a teenager and it was very frustrating. My father gave me a journal so I began to write. Journaling started an internal conversation, if you will, that helped me flesh out my thoughts into words. Also, as a young photographer, I quickly learned that being able to articulate, in writing and orally, helped me better negotiate the newsroom, as well as made me a better journalist.
“Covering the capture of Saddam Hussein was surreal”
You have covered the capture of Saddam Hussein. How was the feeling of being there first hand and knowing that your work here was now over and probably with it the war too?
Covering the capture of Saddam Hussein was surreal—from the US military’s circus-like tour of the site where some 50 journalists were competing to catch a glimpse of the “spider hole,” to seeing the conditions in which Saddam actually lived, half-eaten Belgian chocolates in the little refrigerator, fresh dates drying just above the entry to the hideout, dirty clothes strewn on the bed—it was just bizarre and ultimately, sad. But I never felt like that was the end of the war or my coverage, because I knew that that story would be followed by another about what would happen to Saddam after his capture and by another about who would take power and lead the country and on and on. As we know, his capture was a small hiccup in the Iraq War. The country is still at war. I have returned several times after his capture to continue telling stories about the country’s progress.
Could you describe to our readers the wondrous feeling of winning a Pulitzer Prize? Is it the best recognition you could have aspired for all your hard work?
“Winning the Pulitzer Prize was a gift I couldn’t have fathomed.”
Winning the Pulitzer Prize was a gift I couldn’t have fathomed. When David Leeson and I won it, I was stunned and awed. And then I immediately felt an overwhelming sense of humility and gratitude to all who helped me reach that point in my career: my husband, my family, my managers, my colleagues, my friends.I knew that I could not have attained such acclaim without their love, patience, kindness, encouragement and belief in me. I also felt so grateful to all my subjects, who through the years, have entrusted their stories to me, allowing me to be their voice. The Pulitzer, to me, is the sum of all the special people who are in my life and who have touched my life.
There must have been many a life defining moments for you. But, could you show us a photo that has changed your life and is also etched in memory as a personal favourite.
“Most of the men walked past me as I photographed her, hurriedly, embarrassed.”
I once took a photo in northern Afghanistan of a handsome widow begging outside a mosque. It was Friday, the day of prayer and because she was widowed, she was forced to beg from men as they exited the mosque. She revealed her face somewhat, for sympathy perhaps? Or was it brazen of her to uncover herself? In Afghanistan, I was told, when a woman does not cover herself, it’s the equivalent of offering oneself like a prostitute. My male translator refused to translate my questions to her because he explained that it would be inappropriate. Most of the men walked past me as I photographed her, hurriedly, embarrassed. One man stopped, stared at me piercingly—lust and hatred mingled in his eyes. At that moment, I felt like I was lower than a dog. This photo is one of my favourites, not because of the humiliation I endured, but because at that moment, I felt an intense fellowship, or perhaps shall I say, sisterhood, with the stranger begging at the mosque.It didn’t matter that the passing men thought she was a whore—in my eyes, she was regal.
Which country and its people have warmed up to you and embraced you as their own? Tell us of the place away from home that you often miss the most?
Iraq is a place that is so dear to my heart. Despite tremendous challenge and moments of sheer terror, I have met so many beautiful and honorable Iraqis who are exceptional human beings. From my staff to my subjects, I found Iraqis to be generous, funny, intelligent and so genuine. On many occasions, they risked their lives for me. It’s such a special place for me that when I return home to the US, I have to find a way to bring back that warmth, so from time to time, I make Iraqi chai for myself. I even brought back Iraqi tea glasses to make the experience as authentic as possible. I once asked an Iraqi woman what made her tea so delicious and she replied with a twinkle in her eye, “Love.”
Considering, there must come times when a photo-journalist has to be more intrusive for the better good. Is it just part of the job or do you get sleepless nights over them?
“Philosophically, I’ve always believed that great photographs can only be made when the subject shares themselves with the photographer”
Philosophically, I’ve always believed that great photographs can only be made when the subject shares themselves with the photographer—this is sometimes a verbal agreement and other times a subtle understanding between the photographer and the subject, but ultimately, the person must want their story told. So, to take advantage of someone who is not willing to be photographed goes against my core beliefs.In those situations, I have sincerely tried to empathize with my subjects—I have walked away from photos when I could and other times, when I had to take the picture regardless, I would ask forgiveness afterwards. But then I feel morally compromised. When I do have sleepless nights over a situation like this, I ask myself, how much damage is this photo causing my subject? If the photo endangers their lives, a discussion with the editor follows and the photo will not be submitted for publication.
How important is both personal and financial safety in your line of work? Have you always had an unwavering support from your near and dear ones when the times have been rough?
“At times, I am forced to ask myself, if something terrible happened to me right now, is this worth it? Can I live with this decision?”
My family and loved ones support the kind of work I have chosen, but it is not without pain. Early on, I recall my mother threatening that she would be dead by the time I returned from Afghanistan. It broke my heart. And every time I depart on such trips, she is sick with worry the entire time, even though I’ve learned to minimize my descriptions of the assignments to her. My husband has also had moments of profound angst. So I try to keep in touch with phone calls and emails as much as possible. I realize that if something were to happen to me, that it would be my husband and family who would help care for me and I hope to never put them through that. But in truth, each trip is a game of Russian Roulette, so I have to be smart about the risks I take. At times, I am forced to ask myself, if something terrible happened to me right now, is this worth it? Can I live with this decision?
Financial safety is something I have to think of more now that I am freelancing. I do not advise, nor do I find it viable, to travel to war zones on speculation. It is important to make responsible financial decisions regardless of a story’s importance.
What equipment and software do you make use of in your work flow?
My workflow is quite simple. I use a MacBook Pro loaded with Photo Mechanic for editing and captioning images, then Photoshop for toning, cropping and correcting images.
Where can our readers keep a track of all your works and the news you make?
Please refer to my website cheryldiazmeyer.com.
Do you have any kind words of advice for our readers who are inspired by you and would want to emulate your success?
“A kind professor once asked me what I would do with my life if money were not a factor. That conversation changed my life”
I sincerely believe each of us has a unique path in life, with individual strengths and talents. Of utmost import is that we be true to ourselves. A kind professor once asked me what I would do with my life if money were not a factor. That conversation changed my life—because although money was a factor, it gave me permission to dream. And when I knew my dream, which was to become a photojournalist, I made a plan about how to pursue my dream. And from there on, I worked my hardest to be the best photojournalist I could be.