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Living in the moment

Carol Guzy has captured Pulitzer Prize-winning photos, but her connection to her subjects extends beyond the lens


Story and photos by Ashley Porter

The gothic gingerbread mansion stood dark and silent. Just outside, Carol Guzy settled in beneath the stars on a mattress pulled from the scarred façade. Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, was one of the few structures still standing after the magnitude 7.0 earthquake rattled the island nation on Jan. 12, 2010. Some survivors slept inside the hotel devoid of electricity and water. Others, like Guzy, opted to sleep in the open for fear of finding themselves buried in rubble, a standard result of aftershocks. Into the early morning hours, the petite blonde of German ancestry lay silent, listening to the sounds of wailing intertwined with soothing songs.
“During the night, Haitian voices would echo through the city singing hymns,” Guzy says. “It was one of the most ethereal experiences.”
Staring into the ebony sky, Guzy longed to take the pain from the people of the nation she had covered for decades and grown to care for through the years. Over 1.5 million people were displaced as a result of the earth’s convulsions that day, with death reports as high as 300,000.  
“It was overwhelming to grasp the vast loss of life and destruction,” Guzy says. “I had every technical problem on top of the emotional trauma of seeing the country I loved turned into such a wounded landscape.”
The best she could do was capture the moments of the earthquake’s aftermath through photographs and let her work speak for the Haitians by spreading the news to the rest of the world.
Those photographs earned Guzy the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in breaking news photography along with fellow Washington Post photographers Nikki Kahn and Ricky Carioti. It was Guzy’s fourth and most recent Pulitzer.
The emotional toll was matched with physical exhaustion. After a short night’s sleep out in the open, Guzy returned to her colleague’s hotel room and collected her camera to document the day’s events.
“[Guzy] would come in early in the morning, around 4 a.m., to gather equipment in the room and keep on going,” Khan says. “She had total, absolute commitment to documenting the devastation.”

Guzy is the only photographer to win four Pulitzer Prizes, and the first woman to win in the spot news photography category. She won her first Pulitzer in 1986, covering the eruption of Colombia’s Nevado del Ruiz volcano with Miami Herald photographer Michel du Cille. An ice cap atop the volcano melted during the eruption, resulting in deadly mudslides at the volcano’s base. One of Guzy’s award-winning photographs captures a young Colombian girl, Omayra Sanchez, who was trapped neck deep in murky water for 72 hours. “They never got her out,” du Cille says in his video interview at the Pulitzer Photography exhibit at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
Despite valiant rescue efforts, a will to live and her mother just an arm’s length away, Sanchez died of hypothermia. The eruption killed more than 20,000 people.
Guzy received her second spot news Pulitzer in 1995, covering the U.S. military intervention in Haiti. Operation Restore Democracy’s mission was to reinstate Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had been overthrown three years earlier.
Haiti and its people had worked their way into Guzy’s heart years ago. Her fondness for the Haitians began as a young neighborhood reporter at the Miami Herald in the early 1980s. Guzy was working on the local section “Neighbors” and found herself assigned to Little Haiti, an area filled with Haitian immigrants just north of downtown Miami. While involved in a large-scale project on the developing neighborhood, she became enamored with the culture and wanted to see and experience the nation in person. The first time her feet touched the Haitian soil, the fair-skinned, feisty photographer knew it would be the first of many trips to the island nation. The Haitian spirit, she states, is “in my veins, it’s in my DNA.”
Sandwiched between her Pulitzer Prize-winning accounts of Haiti, Guzy received her third Pulitzer covering genocide in the Kosovo War, a conflict between the Kosovo Liberation Army and the government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Over 500,000 Albanian refugees abandoned their homes, fleeing the Yugoslavian Army. The assignment won Guzy, along with colleagues Lucian Perkins and Michael Williamson, the 2000 Pulitzer in feature news photography.
Each of the awards is “bittersweet,” Guzy says. Photos of horrific events receiving impressive awards seems ironic. Yet Guzy believes that by snapping a picture of a Haitian schoolgirl killed by the earth’s tremors or capturing a human’s single arm stretching above the mud after being buried alive following a volcanic eruption, the darkness she documents can bring hope. By doing her job, she serves as a voice, speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves.
“Just because something is happening across the world, and it’s not affecting your little bubble doesn’t mean it’s not eventually going to affect us as a whole,” Guzy says.

Guzy’s “bubble” is a cottage in the hills of a quaint Arlington, Va., neighborhood just across the Potomac River. Her home is filled with three lively rescue dogs, Katie, Gracie and Halo, luscious green plants and photos of loved ones.
Two hundred miles north of Washington, D.C., Guzy began searching for her voice in her hometown of Bethlehem, Pa. Her father died when she was 6 years old. Her mother worked at a local factory to support Guzy and her sister. Commitment and dedication carried the girls through difficult times. The three women remained close, with Guzy serving as caregiver for her mother and sister during their battles with Alzheimer’s disease, until their deaths in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
At age 15, Guzy began working three jobs. Holding down positions at a nursing home, bakery and sandwich shop enabled her to buy the family their first car when she turned 18. It was a used, white Ford Pinto. Between school and work, Guzy spent time feeding her passion for art by drawing, painting and taking photos with her Instamatic camera.
She recalls the joy she felt capturing moments of her pets, flowers and Elvis Presley at one of his last concerts. While she admits the quality of the photos wasn’t great, for Guzy, it was the beginning of expression through pictures.
After high school, she pushed her artistic aspirations to the side, seeking a more practical profession. Guzy entered nursing school at Northampton County Area Community College to obtain an associate degree. After receiving her first SLR (single-lens reflex) camera as a gift from a boyfriend, she enrolled in a photography class to fulfill one of her electives. It was her favorite class. Following graduation, the honor student from the local community college found the confidence to take a giant leap toward her dream.
As a registered nurse, Guzy left Pennsylvania for Florida and enrolled at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. Her professor, Walter Michot, presented an assignment to the class: “Go shoot a feeling.” Guzy connected with the task, creating a photo story about a home for disabled children. Michot says Guzy captured images with just the right timing, expression and lighting.
“She was a natural,” Michot says. “You could tell she was driven to succeed in photography.” Guzy’s maturity and skills as a nurse served her well. She did not shy away from emotional stories. Instead, she was drawn to them. “She shot feelings, not pictures,” Michot says.
The opportunity to intern at the Miami Herald during her years at the Art Institute lead to a full-time position as a staff photographer. After eight years of shooting for the Herald, she headed back up north in 1988, accepting a job as a staff photographer at The Washington Post.

At home, dressed in purple, her favorite color, Guzy is propped up on the sleeper sofa, a computer resting on her lap. Her legs stick out from beneath her laptop like two lilac popsicle sticks. She stares at the big-screen TV. The arrow moves across the flat surface as she meticulously edits photos for a freelance project. Halo and Gracie snuggle up to her, and Katie sleeps on the dog bed below. The work appears monotonous.
Click. Enlarge. Click. Crop. Click.
Hundreds of photos fill the screen for her most recent project. Guzy says she takes more photos than most photographers. “I don’t ever want to miss moments,” she says.
From conflict and natural disasters to profiling Miss Classie, a 104-year-old lady caring for her ailing 92-year-old sister, Guzy finds moments that express the poetry of everyday life. “Wherever you go you find these little heroes, just everyday people,” she says. “They rise to the occasion and they humble you.”
Guzy gently strokes Katie, one of her little canine heroes. She rescued the 14-year-old Shih Tzu mix in New Orleans while photographing Hurricane Katrina and raising awareness of the animals that were also victims of the flood. After consuming toxic water and food, trying to survive on the streets, Katie developed pancreatitis and can only eat foods devoid of fat. After feeding her, Guzy scoops the dog into her arms holding her close against her soft purple sweater, and carries her back to bed for the fourth and final time that day.
When Guzy is on assignment, she always returns home with a new friend.  
“The relationship doesn’t end just because the story does.”  
True to her belief in the value of connections, Guzy has a habit of staying close to her subjects. Her goddaughter is Memuna, a Sierra Leonean war amputee Guzy photographed in New York while shooting a series on the victims receiving prosthetic limbs. She also has provided shelter, school, food and medical care for a Haitian family of three since their introduction in 1994. These are just some of the people that have become part of Guzy’s family.
Halo, the youngest terrier mix of the Guzy pack, decides it’s time to play. Hopping around and barking, Guzy barks back, “watch the cord!” Halo narrowly misses the wire that links the computer to the big screen television. Guzy shakes her head and laughs. “The technical stuff, like cropping, is important,” she says, “but it’s the moment that matters.”
Often, during editing sessions, aftershocks strike as she witnesses the scenes again without the camera as a shield. As she edits her photos, reliving the death and loss can be traumatic, but it’s not those moments that haunt her daily. It is the moments she missed.
“I remember them vividly, the ones I saw and didn’t get,” she says. The times she blinked, looked right instead of left, someone stepped in front of the lens, or the camera malfunctioned. They are moments gone forever.  
“People think it’s easy to take pictures, but capturing the most compelling moments takes not only skill but anticipation, instinct and luck,” she says. Gone forever, but still etched in her mind, she talks about one day sharing the images she missed behind the lens.
“That’s why I want to paint,” she says. “Someday I am going to paint all of these beautiful images I never made. That would be a good gallery show.”

 

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Carol Guzy has captured Pulitzer Prize-winning photos, but her connection to her subjects extends beyond the lens
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