Most people familiar with Vietnam War reporting will recognize the names of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers Nick Ut, David Hume Kennerly, Horst Faas and Eddie Adams. But does anyone recall the first Vietnam war photographer to be awarded the honor?
Japan’s Toshio Sakai of United Press International was the first Pulitzer Prize winner in the category of feature photography. Joining UPI in Tokyo in 1965, Sakai began covering the Vietnam War as American combat troops arrived that same year.
When the Pulitzer category for feature photography was established in 1968, Sakai’s photography made history as the first winner. The category, according to UPI, was created “to highlight powerful images outside the realm of ‘spot news’ and day-to-day developments.”
The photo that earned Sakai this honor was taken in summer 1967 after Sakai flew to Phuc Vinh near the Central Highlands. While there, Sakai was struck by the image of a soldier of the U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division resting on top of a pillbox bunker after facing enemy attacks. Sakai was quick to capture the image and captioned it “Dreams of Better Times.”
This made Sakai not only the first Pulitzer Prize winner in feature photography, but also the first photographer to win the award for coverage of the Vietnam War. He forged the path that others followed.
Sakai continued to cover the Vietnam War and endured personal tragedy when his friend and fellow Japanese photographer Kyoichi Sawada was shot and killed while traveling through war-torn Cambodia.
After the Vietnam War, Sakai became the photo director of the Tokyo bureau of Agence France-Presse, or AFP. He died in November 1999 of a heart attack in Kamakura, Japan, at age 59.
Sakai is largely forgotten by the general public today, and his contributions to war photography are often overlooked. Yet his legacy lives on. Sakai’s groundbreaking image is featured in UPI’s online gallery dedicated to the 20th century’s most iconic pictures. V
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