Photographer went from unknown to renown

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Photographer went from unknown to renown

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Max Desfor poses in front of a picture of himself taken in Seoul during the Korean War. By Oh Sang-min

With a single picture taken during the Korean War, Max Desfor, a 97-year-old photographer who spent 45 years with the Associated Press, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1951. The picture shows the broken Taedong River Railway bridge near Hungnam, on the North Korean side, filled with men and women fleeing southward from the approaching North Korean and Chinese military.

“It shows hope for life and hope for survival. Those are the things I learned from the Korean War,” Desfor said as he recalled what it was like to watch the Korean refugees that day. “I think they considered it more worthwhile to at least try crawling up the broken pieces of the bridge than to stay in Pyongyang doing nothing and getting killed.”

The refugees found numerous ways to utilize the remnants of the bridge. Some tied themselves to empty oil drum cans and jumped into the water, after which they would hold onto pieces of the bridge until they reached the southern end of the river - and safety. One of the people who survived this way agreed to meet with Desfor in 1999.

“I once told a Korean reporter that I would like to meet someone who was on the bridge at that time. And the reporter arranged for us to meet. The person I met may or may not have been in my picture, but that was not important.

“I was amazed and honored to meet him because he provides living evidence of hope,” Desfor said.

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Pulitzer Prize-winner, Max Desfor

Desfor, who has seen six wars, shot his award-winning photograph in December 1950. The temperature had dropped to 29 degrees below zero Celsius (-20.2 degrees Fahrenheit). In the biting wind, Desfor could take only eight photos.

“Winter in New York was nothing compared to the winter in Korea. I had my gloves on but still could barely maneuver my mechanical camera,” Desfor recalled.

The eight photos were delivered safely to the AP office in Japan, where all materials related to the Korean War were gathered prior to distribution.

“Since photographers weren’t able to fly back and forth to Japan very often, the task of delivering the film fell to strangers. But I’d never had any of the film I sent lost. Even the eight photos that got me the Pulitzer Prize were delivered safely,” Desfor said.

During the three years he was in Korea, Desfor took thousands of pictures.

“Sometimes I went through a couple hundred in one day,” said Desfor.

Acquiring enough film was not easy. Photographers only had a limited period in which to secure new rolls of film. Often, they would share film with each other until each person’s supply was depleted.

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Refugees wait to board a vessel heading south from Hungnam, in what is now North Korea.

Desfor talked about some of the most moving moments he witnessed. In one instance, he saw a woman being shot dead as her two children stood nearby crying.

“It was heart-rending. It’s difficult to photograph something like that but that was what was happening. That was what I saw. I had never been a politician or activist. I was not trying to prove anything. I just wanted to show people how the war affects civilians.”

Although reporters and photographers worked together as a group during the war, there was one thing Desfor refused to do - carry a gun.

“My camera is my shield and my weapon. I was not there to fight. I was there to do what I was supposed to do - report what I saw,” said Desfor.

That kind of thinking later led him to other conflict zones, including Kashmir, where he reported on the territorial dispute between India and Pakistan.

“I just followed the news. That was what I was paid to do,” he said.

Unfortunately, Desfor does not have the camera he used during the Korean War.

“I handed the camera over to the AP as soon as I got back. At the moment, I didn’t really think much about it, but looking back, it would have been nice to have kept it myself,” Desfor said. He added that the camera might have been one of the cameras the AP donated to the Smithsonian Institution, but he is not sure.

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Desfor says this scene of a dying mother and her two children was one of the most moving moments he witnessed. [JoongAng Ilbo/AP]

Desfor started working in the AP’s photography department after college. His passion for photography kept him in the business for the next 50 years. After his 45-year stint at the AP, he worked for five years as the director of photography for U.S. News and World Report.

He said that he appreciates the recognition he received after he won the Pulitzer, but that there has been one drawback to covering regular everyday events such as signing ceremonies and ribbon cuttings.

“Winning the prize was of course a surprise and an enterprise. But when subjects were told that I won the Pulitzer Prize in photography, they expected to see something incredible. I cannot produce something out of nothing,” Desfor grinned as he recalled his life after the prize.

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Desfor poses in front of his Pulitzer Prize winning photograph from 1951. By Oh Sang-min

Desfor is now retired and lives in Maryland with his wife. On his 95th birthday, she got him his first digital camera. It has changed his life.

“This is the first digital camera I’ve ever owned and I love it,” he said.

With no limitations on his film supply, he is constantly taking pictures, recording everything that happens around him, increasing his contribution to history.


By Lee Sun-min [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]

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