By Albion Land (AFP) – NICOSIA — When Javier Manzano, a freelance photographer for Agence France-Presse, walked into a dimly lit sniper’s nest in Syria he did not know a photo he took there would win him a Pulitzer prize.
Manzano, 37, had already sprinted across two alleyways in the northern city of Aleppo accompanied by a fighter from the Free Syrian Army, praying he would not be targeted by army snipers as they went to meet up with the rebel’s unit.
After making their way through a sort of tunnel opened up between the walls of several abandoned houses, and then half crawling across a final open space protected by rubble, Manzano entered a dark room that had once been a warehouse.
“The second I walked in, I immediately saw this amazing photo,” the Mexico City native told AFP by telephone from Turkey.
“These shafts of light were coming through” holes in the closed metal shutter of the warehouse made by bullets and shrapnel.
“I immediately moved so that the light was coming directly at me,” with two men gripping Kalashnikov assault rifles to the right of him, one aiming out through a whole in the wall.
Manzano was travelling with Associated Press photographer Narciso Contreras, another Mexican, who also took a shot inside the sniper’s nest, but from a different angle.
Asked if he thought Contreras must have been disappointed that his photo did not win a Pulitzer, Manzano laughed and said “but he did win one.”
Contreras was part of a five-man AP team working in Syria that won the award for breaking news photography, and Manzano said he was “proud of them.”
Just a year ago, AFP photographer Massoud Hossaini scooped a Pulitzer honour in the same category for his image of a girl crying in fear after a suicide bomber’s attack at a crowded shrine in Kabul.
Six months after shooting the photo, Manzano is in Antakya, reflecting on his “pretty surprising” good fortune of Monday’s award, after coming out of Syria three weeks ago.
He says he found out about the award on Facebook.
“I had logged on and saw that someone tagged me, so I clicked on the tag and saw the news, and I go ‘holy ….!'”
Manzano said he entered the photo himself, and “I definitely didn’t expect it. You’re hopeful, of course, but there’s a lot of great work out there; a lot of great money-backed work.”
For that reason, he said “it was definitely very welcome. I’m proud of having been recognised as a freelancer.”
The Pulitzer, one of the biggest honours in the US world of news and letters, is not Manzano’s first award.
He has also won World Press Photo’s third place in the spot news category for a series on Aleppo that includes the same picture and also a silver medal in the China International Press Photo Contest, again for that image.
AFP Middle East and North Africa deputy photo director Hassan Mroue recalled fielding the photo, which he called a “masterpiece” and which was among the first of Manzano’s to be published by the agency.
“Another colleague was with me when we chose them, and we both could see that this was winning material of superior artistic skill, besides its newsworthiness and the courage it takes to be in such a dangerous spot,” Mroue said.
Manzano, who is unmarried and calls Istanbul home for now, said he does not have any immediate plans for the future. But he said he will go back to Syria and head for other hot spots in the region “for the next couple of years.”
He has been a freelancer, covering the drug war in Mexico and the wars in Afghanistan and Syria since his last employer, The Rocky Mountain News, shut down in 2009, the Pulitzer site said.