“In photography everything can be taught except how to see. When I see it, I get it!” -David Hume Kennerly

David Hume Kennerly, Pulitzer winner

It was 1972. The Vietnam War was raging on in Southeast Asia. American soldiers were fighting, being wounded and dying. David Hume Kennerly, a 24-year-old photojournalist covering the conflict, recalls how he learned he had earned the Pulitzer Prize.

“The big announcement in the spring of 1972 came via a telex message to the United Press International office in Saigon where I was the photo bureau chief. It read: ‘01170 Saigon-Kennerly has won Pulitzer for Feature Photography, which brings congrats from all here. Now need effort some quotes from him and pinpoint his location when advised for sidebar story, Brannan/NXCables.'”

Kennerly went on to explain his disbelief:

“I didn’t believe it. How could I have won my profession’s highest award and not even known I had been entered? I thought it was a mistake or, worse, a prank. Bert Okuley, the news chief at the Saigon bureau, fired back a note. ‘EXHSG Brannan’s 01170. Are you kidding? If so it isn’t much of a joke. Is there a Pulitzer awarded to a UNIPRESS photographer, and is it Kennerly? Okuley'”

Then the wire machine broke down. It wasn’t possible in those days just to pick up the phone and call the states. For three hours we were cut off from the world. Without warning the telex sprung back to life, and a torrent of messages flooded forth. The first said, “01181 Okuley’s 02054 No kidding and can you reach Kennerly for sudden comment need to know where he was when he got the news, Wood/NXCables.”

Seven of Kennerly’s Pulitzer portfolio photos are in the opening photo’s entire top row and the far right image on the bottom row.

Negatives gone forever

Kennerly’s negatives were housed in the files of the United Press International. Kennerly explains how these valuable images were stored.

“A common practice at UPI was to cut the strip of 36 black and white negatives into sections of three frames each, usually keeping the selected image in the middle with a photo on each side,” he said. “That was done to allow the more modern 35mm film to fit into yellow envelopes that were designed to accommodate the 4-by-5-inch negatives shot during an earlier era. Astonishingly UPI chucked the other negatives. In other words 90 percent or more of the images I shot during my five years as a UPI photographer were discarded, including at least a year and a half’s worth of Vietnam pictures. It was heartbreaking.”

On Photography: David Hume Kennerly, 1947-present
David Hume Kennerly in 2009. Photo: Kevin Ames

Wars and presidents

David Hume Kennerly has photographed 8 wars and seven presidents during his 40 plus years as a photojournalist. His assignments have taken him to 140 countries. He has contributed to Time, Newsweek, Life, George (John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s political magazine) and published several books. “Shooter” is his most well known book, in which Kennerly documents his Vietnam experiences.

Official presidential photographer

Richard Nixon resigned the presidency of the United States on August 9, 1974. Gerald Ford became the 38th President. David Hume Kennerly was Fords official photographer during the two and a half years of his time in office.

Kennerly had extraordinary access to the president and every aspect of the administration. Two of the opening photographs — bottom row, first and second B&W photos — illustrate the intimate nature of his access.

A singular career

Kennerly describes more of his work in this 3-minute Canon Explorer of Light video.

Sources: David Hume Kennerly Pulitzer Story, Getty Images,

More inspirational photographers are in On Photography.