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The man behind the camera

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Newspaper photographers never get much money or attention. I know because I got my first job as one in the 1940s. In 1957, a guy named Will Counts learned it when he made the best pictures of the desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School.

Counts was born and grew up in Rose Bud, Cabot and Plum Bayou, the son of a poor Arkansas family. He managed to go to Central High, and not long after he graduated he came to work at the Arkansas Democrat in 1956. I was the editor of the Democrat's Sunday magazine, but when nine black kids tried to get into all-white Central High, the paper's editor took him away from the magazine and sent him to make pictures at the school.

He was young, had a slight limp and used small 35mm cameras. He didn't look like a newspaper photographer so he was ignored and got in close, making dozens of pictures of the angry rednecks trying to keep black kids out of the school. His best picture was his picture of tough white men and women and students yelling at Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine black kids trying to get into the building.

That picture was exciting and so clearly telling about what was happening in the South that the Associated Press asked for a copy, which was sent and printed in newspapers and magazines all over the world. Will got lots of pats on his back and $5 (that's right) from the world's biggest news agency.

We at the Democrat sent his picture to Columbia University in New York, which every year gives Pulitzer Prize medals and thousands of dollars to the people who produce the best newspaper writing and photography. Leading journalists go to Columbia every year to decide what were the best stories and pictures that year in newspapers. Sadly in 1958, the judges gave the photo award to an ordinary picture taken by a photographer at the Washington (D.C) Daily News. Naturally, all of us at the Democrat — and even some friends at the Arkansas Gazette — were angry.

I had studied journalism a year at Columbia in 1954, and I knew the professor who helps the Pulitzer Prize judges who come there. I called him and asked him why Counts' picture didn't win. The answer: a Pulitzer Prize was awarded to Harry Ashmore at the Arkansas Gazette for his editorials and to the paper itself for public service, and a third Pulitzer was given to Relman Morin of the Associated Press who wrote stories about Little Rock that were sent around the world. The Columbia professor said the judges for photographs wanted to give Counts the Pulitzer but they said it wasn't proper to give four Pulitzers to what was going on in the same town.

Counts never complained that he didn't get the prize. He was like that. The Associated Press hired him in just a few months from the Democrat and made him a photo editor. Later he became a professor at the Indiana University School of Journalism.

Will Counts died in 2001. His wife, Vivian, lives in Bloomington, Ind. Last week she came to the celebration of the 50th year after Little Rock schools finally allowed black children into their white schools, knowing that it was her husband who told the world about it.

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