Steve Gonzales, director of photography at the Houston Chronicle, gives us a peek into the world of judging the Pulitzers.

I was 20 when I helped judged my first photo contest. That was a small regional amateur photo snapshot competition. The winners submitted more scenic photography than news photography. In the 27 years since, I have judged too many contests to count.

In the first week of March 2010 however, I was honored to be a juror in the most prestigious photo contest in the world, The Pulitzer Prize. This started out as an invitation from Pulitzer Prize Administrator Sig Gissler. The invitation clearly states that confidentiality in the judging outcome is very serious. The rule for the signature is so serious that your signature is required before you can be accepted as a juror.

At the end of February I boarded a plane to New York for “jury” duty so to speak. A little over four hours later I was in a bitterly cold Big Apple. I arrived at my hotel late and ordered room service. Between eating and watching the Houston Rockets game, I reviewed the guidelines for the Pulitzer Prize nominating jurors.

The letter that had been mailed to me said we were to assemble at 9 a.m. in the Joseph Pulitzer World Room which is on the third floor of the journalism building at Columbia University. With the guidelines in hand, a warm jacket and hat, I exited my hotel lobby Monday morning, confident I knew where I was going. After walking several blocks I realized I had walked in the wrong direction from my subway entrance. Fearful I was going to be late for the first day of judging, I hailed a taxi.

After arriving at Columbia and admiring the large statues facing Broadway, I suddenly felt the great weight of responsibility. I would be entering the journalism building to assist in the selection of the highest honors awarded in journalism. I was following in the footsteps of other jurors who had made this trek since 1917.

I made my way through the snow-lined walkway to the doors of the journalism building. A security guard welcomed and directed me to the Joseph Pulitzer World Room. There 75 jurors were chatting and drinking coffee under a stained glass artwork of the Statue of Liberty dwarfing two worlds. Directly under the stained glass were five large wood and leather chairs. Around the room were many large folding tables surrounded by five to seven chairs. On each table were stacks of binders, books and folders containing the 2010 Pulitzer Prize entries.

At 9 a.m., Sig Gissler took to the podium and welcomed the jurors. He delivered a pep talk that would have made Knute Rockne proud. He stressed the importance of honoring the confidentiality agreement regarding their selections. Our duty was to pick three finalists in each category. We were not to give the selected three any ranking he instructed. We were to explain why we picked each and give their merits in a short-typed narration. It is the Pulitzer Board who picks the winners from our selections. They also hold the right to go back to the pool of entries to find a finalist of their own.

I was picked to serve on judging two photo categories: Breaking News and Feature Photography. We had a total of 75 entries in Breaking News and Features combined.

Our team of jurors included:

Nancy Andrews, managing editor of Digital Media for the Detroit Free Press
Richard Murphy, photo editor of the Anchorage Daily News
Sherman Williams, assistant managing editor/visual journalism at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Nanya Friend, editor and publisher of the Charleston Daily Mail

Williams was our chair and he started out the process by asking us to use yellow Post-it® notes to rate each entry on a scale of one to five, five being best. We began the task of reading the cover letters and viewing the entries. When done with an entry we would pass it along until each of had read the letter, viewed the entry and given it a ranking. Then it was moved to a keep or reject pile.

I never thought we’d get through viewing all of the entries. The first night after judging, I dreamt of entries taking over other entries; each one morphing into a larger entry. Was this a nightmare or an anxiety attack?

We worked tirelessly to make it through the first category and then decided to continue into the next category in the off chance we needed to move an entry from one category to another.

After we made it through the first round, we then placed all of the highest-ranking entries back on the table and now the hard part began. We had to start weeding out entries that we would have all been proud to enter. Each of us were professional and made our case for why we felt an entry should stay or be put in the large stack of entries that would not be honored for consideration. I have to say at times it was gut-wrenching to debate for or against an entry, but the talented jurors in the room showed great respect for one another’s opinion.

After several days of looking through the best work entered in visual journalism, the cream of the crop rose to the top. We were all exhausted, but felt we had fulfilled our roles of identifying the top three entries in each category. We all pitched in to make sure our narration was a complete statement for each of the finalists. We called for Sig Gissler, who kindly reviewed our submission, graciously thanked us for our service and then dismissed us from our duty as jurors.

So, after this grueling day after day of looking at images, what did our group of jurors do on our afternoon off? We went to the International Center of Photography to look at more images!

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