When you see a large neon sign outside a brothel exclaiming “GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS” on the side of a road in the Nevada desert, it’s not a typical response to pull over for a photo op. Pulitzer Prize winner Deanne Fitzmaurice has never shied away from a controversial subject, and she couldn’t resist what promised to be an interesting locale.
“I’m drawn to social issues and telling stories of people’s struggles,” says Fitzmaurice. “I just try to capture moments as they’re unfolding, but I try to make those images as compelling as possible.”
Although initially wary upon finding Fitzmaurice on her front step, the brothel “mother” eventually consented to let the photographer and a writer inside to look around. This particular instance of spontaneity would lead to Fitzmaurice’s series “Sex Trade – USA,” a raw, behind-the-scenes look at the life of sex workers.
Fitzmaurice began her career as a photojournalist after leaving her hometown in Massachusetts to attend the Academy of Art in San Francisco. Although she had initially moved out to California with aspirations of becoming a painter, she soon realized this wasn’t the right medium for her to express herself creatively, and she began digging deeper to find what really excited her. It was then, after a brief stint in graphic design, that she discovered photojournalism.
“There’s that moment when everything just clicks, and you say, ‘Okay, I found my thing.’ I immediately dove headfirst into photography, and I began taking every class I could,” says Fitzmaurice of her passion for photojournalism. “I just loved being on the pulse of what was happening, I loved telling stories, and being out there. I loved the unpredictability of it, and the challenge of having to go into a situation, figure out what the story was and show it in a powerful visual way.”
Fitzmaurice had her first brush with greatness early on in her career when she was asked by one of her instructors to accompany him as his photographer on a story he was writing about Ansel Adams.
“I was thrilled, and jumped in a car to go down to Carmel to his beautiful home, but I was really a rookie, I had no experience at all,” Fitzmaurice recalls. “There I was, just standing in front of Ansel Adams with a camera that I barely knew how to use, just trying to somehow muster up some confidence and look like I knew what I was doing.”
The camera she brought was a Yashika Mat twin lens reflex.
“I have no idea why I brought that camera,” laughs Fitzmaurice. “It’s not even a camera that I was using. But I thought, ‘Hey, I’m photographing Ansel Adams, I need to have a cool camera.’”
During the interview, rather than putting on his regular glasses, Adams put on a pair without lenses to avoid reflection while he was being photographed. During a moment of spontaneous silliness, he began making funny faces at Fitzmaurice.
“He just got goofy and started poking his fingers through them and joking around, and I just missed this really great picture,” says Fitzmaurice. “I thought I had it, and then I get back and look, and it’s completely out of focus.”
This encounter would end up being a teaching moment for Fitzmaurice, as well as one that would stick with her for the rest of her life.
“I didn’t have enough experience to say, ‘Here’s what I want to do,’ to scout out a location and bring him over there,” says Fitzmaurice. “I was just winging it and trying to look cool with my Yashika Mat, and then there was this great moment that I missed. It still haunts me to this day.”
It was shortly after she finished school that Fitzmaurice got her first big break. After working freelance to build up her portfolio and gain more experience while she was in school, Fitzmaurice was hired as a freelancer for Palo Alto’s Peninsula Times Tribune. The next year she was hired by The San Francisco Examiner, and shortly thereafter, in 1989, she moved to The Chronicle in San Francisco. It was at The Chronicle where she was first assigned to the story that eventually would lead to her Pulitzer Prize win in 2005.
Fitzmaurice was assigned to photograph a young Iraqi boy who had come to America for medical treatment after he was left on the brink of death from an explosion. The boy, Saleh, was receiving medical care at a hospital in Oakland, and Fitzmaurice was sent to get photos of the nine-year-old for the next day’s paper. The impact from the explosive device, which the boy had believed to be a toy ball, had ripped open his abdomen, torn off his right hand as well as most of the fingers from his left, and blown out his left eye.
“I was shooting all kinds of different assignments at The Chronicle, but I was trying to spend time working on stories that I cared about,” says Fitzmaurice. “This story just came along as an ordinary daily assignment.
“The writer and I walked out of that hospital room, and we just had to stop for a minute and collect ourselves after what we had seen,” she says of the haunting experience. “We went back to the paper and put out a story, but I went to my editor and said I wanted to stay with this story.”
Fitzmaurice proceeded to document Saleh and his father Raheem over the course of the next year, covering the ups and downs of the approximately 35 surgeries he underwent, as well as his acclimation to life in the United States.
“The way I approached this story was that I would try to be there at the hospital when something important was happening, like a major surgery, but I would also just try and show up when nothing was happening,” says Fitzmaurice. “I found out that some of those moments, the unpredictable moments, were the most powerful moments.”
One such instance occurred a few months into Saleh’s recovery, when hospital officials told Raheem that they would need the hospital’s house, where the two were currently residing, for other patients.
A Bay area couple stepped in, Leslie and Daniel Troutner, and found an apartment in Oakland for Raheem and Saleh. While Fitzmaurice made sure she was there on the day of their big move, she also decided to return a few days later to get a sense of what daily life was like for them in their new home. During a trip to the supermarket, Saleh drew stares and unwanted attention from customers. He had forgotten the sunglasses he normally wore to avoid attention to his missing eye.
“He ran home and fell to his father’s feet crying, just sobbing, and that was such a difficult picture to shoot. The human response is to console him, and the last thing you want to do is pick up your camera and shoot this moment, but it was so important to show the arc of what he was going thro
ugh,” explains Fitzmaurice. “That was a tough one for me. I still remember how I felt lifting that camera up to my eye, feeling like, okay, am I crossing the line here?”
Fitzmaurice continued to capture Saleh’s story after he and his father were granted asylum, eventually traveling to Iraq to document family members immigrating to the United States.
And, she’s still following Saleh’s story today, even photographing his high school graduation earlier this year.
In 2008, after the success of the photo series, Fitzmaurice decided to walk away from her job at The Chronicle in order to become a full-time freelancer.
“I just thought, if I’m ever going to go do this, this is the time to do it. I do think having a Pulitzer behind me sometimes helps me get in the door, but then once I get in the door, I still have to prove myself.”
One area in which Fitzmaurice has proven herself is in the predominantly male-dominated field of sports photography. “It has become a niche of mine, and it was completely unintentional,” says Fitzmaurice. “When I was working at The Chronicle, one of the things we were asked to photograph was sports. I ended up really enjoying it. I loved the challenge.”
Fitzmaurice found that shooting sports was changing the way she approached other assignments, as well. The hectic pace of the sidelines and the mental agility needed to capture sports served her well on other assignments.
“The work I did with sports translated to all of my documentary photography,” she says. “I have to anticipate where things are going to happen and how to position myself in a certain place. I have to be ready in any situation.”
Naturally, Fitzmaurice not only was interested in what was happening on the field with the players, but off the field, as well. She wanted to go behind the scenes and find out who the athletes were as people, not just as celebrities.
“I decided to approach one of the most difficult people in sports, Barry Bonds. He was breaking all the records and setting all these milestones, but no one knew anything about him. All we really knew was that he didn’t like to be photographed, and he didn’t like the media.
“One day I was photographing him and he glared at me,” Fitzmaurice continues, “and I thought, ‘You know, I’m not going to let him intimidate me,’ so I just walked straight up to him and said, ‘Barry, do you have a problem with me photographing you? Are there some boundaries I should know about?’ He just paused for a moment and then said, ‘No, I don’t have a problem. What’s your name?’ And from that point forward he let me into his world.”
After the Barry Bonds series, other publications, including Sports Illustrated, started hiring Fitzmaurice to do similar behind-the-scenes work with athletes.
“When I started photographing, especially sporting events, there were very few women on the sidelines of games,” says Fitzmaurice. “It feels like it’s changing to me. I see a lot of young women who want to tell these stories, and tell them in a deep and meaningful way, and it’s great to see that.”
Today, Fitzmaurice is working on a variety of different projects, including a documentary film about street kids in Africa.
“It’s an absolutely fascinating story about these children who live on the street in Kenya, and about an orphanage that’s rescuing them,” says Fitzmaurice, who has taken three trips to Africa in the last two years to work on the film.
“I’m really enjoying the challenge of putting together a story like this,” she says of working on the project with another filmmaker. “It’s challenging and exciting, and different from a lot of other things I’ve done.”
Fitzmaurice also recently celebrated the 10-year anniversary of Think Tank Photo, the company she created, along with her husband (and a photographer) Kurt Rogers, and designers Doug Murdoch and Mike Sturm. Think Tank Photo designs and manufactures camera bags and accessories for professional and advanced amateur photographers.
Regardless of how many different areas of photography Fitzmaurice manages to succeed in, or how big her camera gear company grows, she has no plans to slow down.
“I love being on the go, I love being able to get a call for an assignment and jump on an airplane,” Fitzmaurice says. “That really feels right to me, it resonates with me, and it’s really the life that’s satisfying for me.”