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Duluth’s own Pulitzer Prize-winning war photographer to speak at fundraiser for relief organization

Surprised to see a woman in the midst of the 1,000-man Second Tank Battalion, Iraqi women and children warmly greet Cheryl Diaz Meyer, a photojournalist embedded with the U.S. Marines as they advanced on Baghdad on April 7, 2003. (Photos courtesy of Cheryl Diaz Meyer)1 / 2
Cheryl Diaz Meyers took this April 4, 2003, photo of Lt. Jeffrey Goodman and Lance Cpl. Jorge Sanchez of the 2nd Tank Battalion dragging a wounded civilian to safety after he was caught in the midst of battle on the road to Baghdad. This photo from the Iraq War was part of the work by Diaz Meyers and David Leeson that won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography. (Photos courtesy of Cheryl Diaz Meyer)2 / 2

Cheryl Diaz Meyer was at a crossroads in her college life. She had been studying French and German at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Political science professor Craig Grau sat her down for a talk. He asked what she’d like to do with her life. Sky’s the limit, he said. Money isn’t an issue.

Diaz Meyer appreciated the exercise. She told Grau she’d like to do something with photography, maybe photojournalism.

Grau was bemused. The year before, he’d talked to another student who responded with the same answer. UMD didn’t have much to offer for classes, but he put Diaz Meyer on the same track as the other student. Diaz Meyer worked with legendary campus photographer Ken Moran, graduated with a degree in German, and then headed East to study photojournalism.

“The rest, as they say, is history,” Grau said.

Without that push, Diaz Meyer said, she might not have found herself in Afghanistan and Iraq after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, taking photographs that would eventually lead to the pinnacle of journalism acumen — a Pulitzer Prize.

“If not for Craig Grau, I don’t know where I’d be,” she said. “All of this started in Duluth.”

Diaz Meyer was thinking about her Duluth days recently from her Washington, D.C., office, as she prepared for a trip home this week to give a presentation at a fundraiser that her mother, Sylvia Diaz Meyer, is a part of.

Diaz Meyer will show some of the photos she took during the war in Iraq for the Dallas Morning News and talk about her photography experiences across the world. Some of the photos will be available for auction at Saturday’s event for Gift of Love, a local nonprofit that raises money for disaster victims. UMD students from Nepal, where a devastating earthquake took place in April, will also speak after the dinner.

The fundraiser is an annual event for the Duluth-based charity.

Starting out

“I love the beauty of Duluth,” Diaz Meyer said of the city she moved to from the Philippines when she was 13.  

But it wasn’t the picturesque nature of the city that led her to photography. She stumbled into it while trying to find her feet at UMD after graduating from East High School in 1986.

She had a friend taking a photo class who asked her to come along on a shoot. In the darkroom, with the seeming magic of the print process, something clicked.

“I was absolutely mesmerized,” she said.

She soon found herself in the photo book section of the library, her heart racing with each print she encountered, especially those by the “street style” photographers.

In Minneapolis, she caught part of an installation for a Sebastiao Salgado exhibition. “Massive” prints of the Brazilian’s documentary work were being carried through the service doors.

“I was just standing there and crying,” she said. That was it, she recalled thinking. “I want to do this for a living.”

She continued to hone her craft while finishing a degree in German at UMD. She worked at Duluth Camera Exchange. She went to Paris to practice her own style of street work. She won a photo contest sponsored by Minnesota Power, where her mother worked.

“She knew,” her mother said simply of her daughter’s drive toward photography.

Cheryl recalled with a laugh the photojournalism conversation with Grau, when she had “no idea you could do that for a living.”

Bon voyage

Diaz Meyer went to Western Kentucky University to earn a degree in photojournalism. She did internships, including one at the Washington Post in 1993. In 1994, she became a staff photographer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

“How lucky was that?” she said of returning to her home state. She had a lot to learn and a wealth of experience to learn from there, she said. “I was super young. I had a lot to prove.”

Five years later, the Dallas Morning News came calling. It would be her home base for nine years as she traveled across the globe. Her language skills were an asset, she said.

“I couldn’t have planned it,” she said of her rise in the field. She said she could have dreamed that big, but she tends to stay in the “reality realm.”

And that’s sort of how she ended up covering the biggest stories of her life: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“I’m not one to throw myself at stories,” she said. She casually mentioned to her editor, “I’d like to put my name in the hat,” if the paper was going to Afghanistan.

She’d never been to a war zone but had shown her ability to get fresh angles through her work. She was chosen to go.

Photographer David Leeson looked at her and asked: “Are you scared?” she recalled. “Should I be?” she asked him.

Leeson just gave her a wan look and shrugged. He would later join Diaz Meyer in Iraq. Their work won them the 2004 Pulitzer in the “breaking news photography” category.

Her editor was a veteran of the Vietnam War. “He made the decision. I was comfortable” in his confidence that she was ready, she said.

Diaz Meyer will relay many of her war experiences in her talk Saturday. She said what first struck her upon arriving in the Middle East was the response of seeing a woman among the media. There, “it was so foreign from what we know,” she said.

“I was less than a dog,” she said.

In the journal she kept from her first days in Afghanistan, Diaz Meyer describes the dust and intricate dealings for transportation and lodging as she followed the news.

“I have been poked, prodded and grabbed more times than I have experienced in my entire life,” she wrote. “I have punched, cursed and kicked more men than I ever would have imagined.”

She didn’t wear a head covering, and her translator said “only prostitutes go uncovered,” she wrote. She was frustrated and on edge after hearing about the deaths of other journalists. “We are all unnerved,” she wrote.

The prize

Diaz Meyer remembers the date specifically: April 4, 2003. She was covering the invasion of Iraq, embedded with a Marines unit. There was a skirmish south of Baghdad, lots of gunfire back and forth.

In the chaos, Diaz Meyer learned that a civilian had been caught up in the crossfire and was injured and trapped in a burning van.

A few Marines decided to get the man out of harm’s way. Diaz Meyer had to summon her own courage to capture the moment. “I was there to cover a war, I mentally prodded myself,” she later wrote. “There was no time to write down the pros and cons.”

The photo she ended up sending to the wider world was the lead image of those submitted to the Pulitzer Prize committee. Two Marines are dragging the man toward their assault vehicle.

Diaz Meyer said that aside from noticing that it was a “nice photo,” she also realized that her battle experience had led her to that decisive moment. She had shuddered in and then conquered her fears.

When she returned from Iraq, she was told by an editor at the Associated Press news agency that they didn’t have a full report until they saw what Diaz Meyer filed.

“That’s a great honor,” she said. Her work could be found in every major publication in the country covering the invasion.

Back at UMD, Craig Grau wasn’t surprised to hear that Diaz Meyer had won the Pulitzer. “She’s just a hard driver,” he said. “It was just amazing.”

He let administration know that they had an alum with a Pulitzer. Diaz Meyer spoke at the school shortly after winning the award. She’s written about her experiences and spoken about them at venues across the country.

Sylvia Diaz Meyer said her elation on that April day in 2004 is difficult to describe. She recalled getting a call from her daughter while at work and screaming for joy, she said. When her boss heard, she screamed as well.

“It was very emotional,” she said. “I never would have dreamed it.”

A worried mother, she followed the news in Iraq closely. She’d look for Cheryl’s photos in the News Tribune and other publications. Her daughter would try to send emails once a week.

Even today, Cheryl Diaz Meyer sounds a bit stunned by the honor, especially as she is prompted to talk about those indecisive days at UMD.

“I didn’t go out and say: I’d like to be war photographer,” she said. Yet there she was, getting the highest honor in journalism.

She said more than 700 journalists covered the Iraq War, many much more talented than herself. “There was a lot of good work.”

Denouement

By 2009, she was out of journalism, a victim of the economy and the drastic downsizing of staffs in the newspaper industry.

The timing was right, Diaz Meyer said, because she and her husband were starting a family. She traveled and worked as a freelancer.

Last year, she became the visual editor at the McClatchy news service based in Washington. She covered the visit from Pope Francis last month, once again getting her byline shot across the country, including her hometown paper.

Duluth remains home. It’s a place that was “definitely a shock” coming from the Philippines. Her father figured it was a safe place to raise a family.

Duluth is where you make “friends for life,” she said. “It always feels like home.”

Gift of Love

A fundraiser for victims of the Nepal earthquake, hosted by the nonprofit group Gift of Love, will begin at 5 p.m. Saturday with a social hour, dinner and presentations at Coppertop Church, 230 E. Skyline Parkway. Two University of Minnesota Duluth students from Nepal will talk about the situation there after the April quake.

Cheryl Diaz Meyer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for her photography during the Iraq war, will talk about her work. She is a 1990 graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth.

She is the daughter of Sylvia Diaz Meyer, who helped form Gift of Love in 2006. The group raised more than $24,000 for victims of the typhoon in the Philippines in 2013. Diaz Meyer is from the Philippines and recalls visiting slums there with nuns as a girl

“It opened my eyes,” she said. One particular man, with a “face full of pain,” has never left her mind. She retired from Minnesota Power and knew that she would use her retirement time to help others, she said.

“It’s a very personal thing,” she said. She came to Duluth in 1981, when Cheryl was 13.

Gift of Love supports victims of disasters, assists orphanages to house feed and clothe children, aids medical missions, and assists area children with their education.

Diaz Meyer said there is a special invitation to Saturday’s event extended to veterans. She wants to have a chance to thank them for keeping her daughter safe in Iraq and for the service they do for the country.

The program includes a silent auction of gift certificates, donated items and several prints of Cheryl’s award-winning photographs.

For more information, call Diaz Meyer at (218) 464-4169. The donation request is $15. More information on Gift of Love can be found at giftoflovecharity.org. Donations can be made to Gift of Love, P.O. Box 805, Duluth, MN 55801.

Cheryl Diaz Meyer will also speak at UMD on Thursday as part of its “International Lecture Series” through the Alworth Institute for International Studies. She will speak at 7 p.m. in the Rafters, inside the Kirby Student Center.

Contact features reporter Michael Creger by calling (218) 723-5218 or emailing mcreger@duluthnews.com.

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