Javier Manzano was “shocked” when he found out he had won the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography.
“To be honest, I am still having a bit of trouble processing the magnitude of the recognition,” Manzano, a freelancer for Agence France-Presse, said by email Tuesday morning. “I feel privileged to be [in] the company of my colleagues who also work as freelancers in some of the most challenging environments with little or no outside support.”
Freelancers have won Pulitzer prizes in the past, but not nearly as often as full-time journalists have. Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler told Poynter that it’s been 17 years since a freelance photographer won a Pulitzer. (Two freelance photographers — Charles Porter IV and Stephanie Welsh — won in 1996.)
Manzano won for a photo of two rebel soldiers guarding their sniper’s nest in Aleppo, as light streams through bullet holes in the wall behind them. Karmel Jabl, the neighborhood in which Manzano captured the photo, separates many of the major battlegrounds in Aleppo.
— Agence France-Presse (@AFPespanol) April 16, 2013
AFP explains how Manzano got the photo:
Manzano, 37 … sprinted across two alleyways in the northern city of Aleppo accompanied by a fighter from the Free Syrian Army, praying he would not be targeted by army snipers as they went to meet up with the rebel unit.
After making their way through a sort of tunnel opened up between the walls of several abandoned houses, and then half crawling across a final open space protected by rubble, Manzano entered a dark room that had once been a warehouse.
“The second I walked in, I immediately saw this amazing photo,” the Mexico City native told AFP by telephone from Turkey.
This is just one of the many scenes Manzano has captured during his nine months in Syria — one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. While in Syria, Manzano has become an eyewitness to tragedy and history.
“All of us working inside have witnessed horrible acts of violence. Mortars, tanks, missiles, air bombings, snipers — modern weapons and their indescribable effects on the human body are used indiscriminately across Syria,” he said.
Manzano says he’s learned a lot about himself while in Syria. He’s gained a better sense of what his limitations are, and he’s learned how to adapt to constant change. Staying safe and having enough money to pursue his work have been two of his biggest challenges.
“It is very expensive to travel and operate in the region when very few news outlets are willing and able to provide the necessary resources,” said Manzano, who has covered Mexico’s drug war and the war in Afghanistan. “Contrary to the popular notion about freelance journalists working in war zones, most of the colleagues I’ve had the pleasure to work with inside Syria (and I can only speak of those I’ve collaborated with), go to great pains to minimize the risk and exposure, the same way staffers from large news organizations do. Security is an issue we all take seriously.”
There are parts of Syria that are harder to cover than others, mainly due to limited access.
“Press visas are hard to come by and are heavily regulated. Since I’ve already covered the opposition, the likelihood of being issued a press visa for Damascus is very slim,” said Manzano, who spent two years as a fellow at the Rocky Mountain News before it folded in 2009.
While in Syria, Manzano has seen incredible acts of courage and has been moved by stories of friendship, love and marriage amidst the chaos of war. He’s come to admire many of the people he’s gotten to know in Syria — largely for their perseverance.
The last time Manzano was in Aleppo, he was at a cemetery, following a group of Syrians who were looking for a missing family member they hoped was buried there. While at the cemetery, Manzano ran into a man he had met at Al-Darshifa hospital several months before. The man had lived in Iraq most of his life but decided to return to his native Syria to volunteer at the hospital after the war broke out.
“When I met him again in the cemetery he was unrecognizable. He told me he goes there once a week to visit Busra, his wife that died when the Al-Darshifa hospital was finally destroyed by two missiles from a regime jet in November of last year (three weeks after they got married). She was crushed while assisting a patient in the operating room,” Manzano said. “Mankind is strong — this is what Syria has taught me.”
Related: Full list of 2013 Pulitzer winners