Todd Heisler of the Rocky Mountain News won the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography this week for the intense and intimate moments he captured in “Final Salute,” a special report published last Veterans Day. “Final Salute” chronicled a year in the life of Major Steve Beck, a Marine casualty assistance officer, as he guided several families through the grief and ritual of saying goodbye to loved ones lost in Iraq — bringing Pulitzers for both Heisler and reporter Jim Sheeler. Heisler, 34, worked as a chief photographer and photo editor for a group of community weeklies in Illinois before joining the Rocky Mountain News in 2001, where he was part of the team that won a Pulitzer for breaking news photography in 2003 for coverage of Colorado’s worst wildfire season.
Edward B. Colby: How did it feel to hear your paper’s managing editor call out your name to the newsroom announcing your Pulitzer win Monday afternoon?
Todd Heisler: I was relieved, but it was actually surreal. I was kind of in a daze. As soon as I heard that I might be a finalist, that week right before, I was kind of in a daze, all week. I thought the closer I got, the easier it would get, but it was even more surreal the closer I got to the moment. And once we got to that point, it was just unbelievable. …
I was relieved because everybody was talking about it, and it was on the Editor and Publisher [Web site], and you keep hearing about it and hearing about it, and there comes a point where you want it to be over with so you can get the news either way. And if you win it, well, then it’s all gravy.
EBC: The most famous photo to emerge from “Final Salute” shows passengers peering out their airplane windows as Marines unload the casket of Jim Cathey from the cargo hold below. Were you envisioning a photo like that, or did it just happen?
TH: It just happened. I think it’s one of those photographs [where there] was a lot of serendipity involved. I had photographed that scene a couple of times before, and I knew about the people [above, but] I was never able to catch it. I actually didn’t think it was possible, just because I had seen it a couple of different times, and I read this quote that ran with the photo … where Major Beck says, from the first airport we went to, [that] ‘You see the people in the windows, they’re gonna remember bringing that Marine home for the rest of their lives, and they should.’ And so we had that quote, and we knew about the people, but every time I tried to photograph it, it never worked, so I didn’t think it could happen.
And then, when I was actually in that scene, when I went out to Reno [Airport], I thought, ‘Well, I should keep an eye on the people, see if I can make it happen.’ And just all the elements came together — the fact that it was at night, the fact that I was with the family, standing next to the family when it was happening, gave me the right angle and the right expressions … You hate to express gratitude for elements coming together in a photograph like that because of the subject matter, but I guess it was one of those magical moments.
EBC: How did your three trips to cover the war in Iraq — including the roadside explosion that you and a News columnist survived last April — prepare you for this project?
TH: Well, I think it gave me a better understanding of a lot of elements in this project — about military culture, and about commitment, and things like that. But it also gave me insight in the abstract, of understanding what it feels like to leave. One of the photos — actually one of my favorite photos in the piece — is Katherine [Cathey, a 23-year-old pregnant widow] sleeping in front of the casket, her husband’s casket, the night before his burial. She said, ‘You take it for granted the night before they leave, and you don’t know if they’re going to make it home.’ And I know what it feels like to lay in bed at night before you leave for Iraq, next to your wife, and that’s what’s on your mind, and so I went to that place.