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Obviously, there's much cause for joy among the shutterbugs -- yet freelancer Matt Inden, whose image of a slurry bomber falling apart in midair near Pinewood Springs last July was included in the Pulitzer package, feels conflicting emotions. He was paid well by the Rocky for his snapshots (he won't say how much) and has won numerous honors, including a best-in-show bauble from the Colorado Associated Press Editors and Reporters contest, plus first places in spot news at the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar and the National Headliner Awards. These credits could help him land a plum job at a newspaper, and since he graduated from the Colorado Institute of Art in December, gainful employment might be nice. Inden, though, isn't sure he wants to go into traditional newspaper journalism, and he can't contemplate the good things his photos have brought him without also thinking about the two pilots who died right before his eyes. Even now, he speaks about that scorching day and its aftermath with great difficulty.
An outdoors-lover from Wilmington, Delaware, who moved to Colorado in the late '90s, Inden didn't set out to be a news photographer. When he first starting taking pictures seriously, he concentrated on landscape shots. He's also a writer, and likes the idea of combining words and images in ways that complement each other. This idea inspired him to head to Pinewood Springs with his digital Nikon in tow after hearing about the fire. "I was there maybe an hour and a half or so, just kind of tracking the helicopters and planes," he recalls. "When the accident happened, I guess it was just reacting. I kind of knew what was going on and kind of didn't know. For a couple minutes afterward, I was standing on the side of the road, stunned." The notion that the photos might be newsworthy didn't occur to him at first: "It was a friend of mine who thought of that. He said I had to call somebody about it -- and people were interested."
That's putting it mildly. But Inden is still ambivalent about the subsequent acclaim. "It's weird to me," he says haltingly. "I don't know if [my photos] were for right or wrong."
To make matters that much more awkward, there's been a whispering campaign in some quarters questioning the ethics of including Inden's work in the News's Pulitzer submission. After all, one of his shots was published in the Boulder Daily Camera and aired on Channel 4, a Rocky partner, before any of them appeared in the News. Moreover, the Pulitzer is credited to the paper's staff, of which Inden is not a member. The closest he came to this status was an after-the-fact internship that he remembers as being quite brief. "I was busy with school at the time, so I didn't have a lot of time to give toward it," he says.
No one at the News refutes these particulars; indeed, most of them were included in a July 20, 2002, article about Inden that ran alongside a photo sequence showing the air tanker breaking up. Then again, nothing that took place seems to be a technical violation of Pulitzer rules. For one thing, the News, which purchased the rights to Inden's photos when given the chance, forwarded to the Pulitzer committee a different shot than the one published first in the Camera. "We ran the photo that appeared in the Camera small later on, but that wasn't the best image. We submitted the best one," Temple says. "It was ours exclusively." Because the Camera also ran a series of Inden shots (four in total) on July 20, complete with a credit line reading "Special to the Camera," the exclusivity claim can be debated. Still, the News's submission wasn't among these photos, either. It's ever so slightly different -- perhaps a frame or two away.
On top of that, the Pulitzers don't prohibit newspapers from including photos purchased from freelancers in a staff submission. Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, says the New York Times collective that won the Pulitzer for its 9/11 photos consisted of nine staffers and five freelancers. He adds that the Times also earned a Pulitzer in 1994 for a single image taken by late South African freelance photojournalist Kevin Carter. Titled "Waiting Game," it pictured a desperately ill Sudanese child with a vulture in the background.
"It's no different than a stringer contributing to a story, or a witness to an incident writing something that's included in a package," Gissler says. "The main thing is that it's published by the paper that's responsible for the work. Then there's no problem with submitting it as part of the paper's entry."
Such details haven't entirely squelched gossip about the News's latest Pulitzer -- rumors so bothersome to Janet Reeves, the paper's director of photography, that she wouldn't discuss them here. For his part, Temple doesn't want a mini-controversy to overshadow the efforts of other contributing photographers, whose work was certainly prize-worthy. Neither does he wish to imply that the News has taken Inden for granted. He says the paper helped him sell some of the images to Sygma, a photo syndicator, provided him with the internship, and invited him to award presentations. Temple sees Inden as "really an amazing story -- a guy who, with one series of photographs that he got because he was in the right place at the right time, has earned national recognition."