We explored the Newseum in Washington, D.C., an interactive museum that shows important points of American history and the news media surrounding each moment. The last exhibit I visited was a collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning photos that would not allow me to forget them and left me in a contemplative, melancholy mood.
The oversized photographs, lighted by spotlights in the dim room, were the main focus. Some photos were action shots of people running for freedom or away from danger. Others held tension as the subjects were awaiting their doom.
Alone, each piece was exceptionally compelling and successfully captured raw human emotion. The images held shock value that drew me in and gave me the urge to want to know more about their stories.
The short captions beneath the photos gave me a little satisfaction about the history surrounding the event and amplified the impact of each photograph. The snippet of information divulged whether the subject survived or died a gruesome death seconds after the photo was shot.
Some captions also quoted the photographers and expressed what they were thinking or feeling in these moments of intensity. The information given for each photograph was vital for viewers to fully experience the exhibit.
For example, one black-and-white photo of a young woman falling with a building in the background may appear simple. Without the caption, the viewer wouldn’t know that the girl was attempting to escape the deadliest hotel fire in American history and plummeted to her death seconds after the photo was shot. The photograph was set at the Winecoff Hotel Fire in Atlanta, Ga., in 1946, a tragic fire in a building with no fire escapes, sprinklers or alarm system that ended in the deaths of 119 people.
This is one example of how photography and writing complement each other to provide a complete picture of life-changing events.
One of the most important lessons I took from experiencing the Newseum was the importance of rhetoric in journalism and how the most minute details – from the punctuation and grammar to the word choice – can alter the perception of the news. Even the captions beneath museum photographs have to be carefully written to give the correct message.