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Bee photos win Pulitzer

Originally published April 17, 2007

Sacramento Bee photographer Renée C. Byer was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography Monday for her work in "A Mother's Journey," a series that chronicled a dying boy's final year.

Byer's unflinching photographs illustrated the four-part series, which was written by reporter Cynthia Hubert and ran in The Bee last summer. Byer and Hubert told the story of 11-year-old Derek Madsen, who was battling a rare form of cancer, and the anguish and courage of his mother, Cyndie French.

The Pulitzer Prizes, regarded as American journalism's highest honor, are presented annually by Columbia University.

The Wall Street Journal was the only publication to receive two Pulitzers this year, winning both the public service award, for its probe into backdated stock options, and the international reporting prize, for its coverage of capitalism's impact on China.

In presenting the $10,000 feature photography prize to Byer, the judges described her entry as an "intimate portrayal of a single mother and her young son as he loses his battle with cancer."

At noon Monday, in what has become a ritual of modern journalism, Byer sat at a newsroom computer and awaited confirmation of the award via the Associated Press. Dozens of her colleagues broke into applause and cheers when the bulletin announcing her Pulitzer arrived.

Later, after the congratulatory speeches and hugs, Byer, who is 48, talked about working on the project. She said that Derek's story was wrenching -- but important -- to chronicle.

"In a situation like this, your instincts as a person are to try to help," she said. "But as a journalist, you have to step back and let things unfold as they naturally would. It can be very, very painful.

"I was documenting a story that needed to be told, and it was a gift to be allowed to be there. Throughout, I had a bigger vision that -- because of what I was witnessing -- it would bring hope to other families."

Byer said she saw "A Mother's Journey" as an exploration on several levels: the financial impact on a family struggling with a tragic situation, health care shortages that led to maddening delays, and, finally, the very personal and heartbreaking loss of a child.

Janis Heaphy, The Bee's publisher and president, gave Byer a hug after the AP bulletin flashed on the screen. Heaphy praised Byer's work and noted that this marked the newspaper's fifth Pulitzer Prize -- the most recent in 2005, when editorial writer Tom Philp won for his writing about Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley.

The publisher also saluted Executive Editor Rick Rodriguez's vision in assembling a talented photo staff. "It's not by accident that we are here today," she said.

Rodriguez described Byer as a remarkable photographer.

"These photographs are some of the most emotional and real photos you'll see in print," Rodriguez said.

"A Mother's Journey" was published July 9-12. It concluded with the sad news that Derek had lost his struggle with neuroblastoma, a rare childhood cancer, the previous May. The series focused, however, not only on a mother's loss, but also on her love and devotion.

Minutes after learning that she had won the prize, Byer was on the cell phone to Derek's mom, sharing the news. Later, in a visit to the newsroom, Cyndie French said she wasn't a bit surprised by Byer's honor.

"Derek always loved Renée, and he told me she would win, and he was right, he was right!" she said. "I'm just ecstatic. Renée was there the whole journey with us. Derek told me: 'Mom, Renée gets it.' And that just shines out of her photographs."

The series prompted an avalanche of reader response. That outpouring has helped French launch Derek's Wish, a nonprofit corporation that financially assists families with sick children. She said she gave out the first $500 check to a needy family last week.

Byer's work in "A Mother's Journey" has won several other national awards, including the Society of Professional Journalists' 2006 Sigma Delta Chi Award for best feature photography and the World Understanding Award from Pictures of the Year International.

Byer, a news photographer and editor for more than 25 years, joined The Bee in 2003, coming from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. She is married to Bee photographer Paul Kitagaki Jr., who was part of the news team at the San Jose Mercury News that won a Pulitzer in 1990 for coverage of the Bay Area earthquake.

Other 2007 Pulitzer Prizes honored journalism ranging from an expose on a local housing agency by Debbie Cenziper of the Miami Herald to an in-depth explanation of the oceans' peril by a team at the Los Angeles Times.

The prize for breaking news reporting went to the (Portland) Oregonian staff for coverage of a San Francisco man's disappearance during a Thanksgiving blizzard. The investigative reporting prize was presented to Brett Blackledge of the Birmingham (Ala.) News for exposing corruption in the state's two-year college system.

Charlie Savage of the Boston Globe won for national reporting on President Bush's use of "signing statements." The Pulitzer for breaking-news photography went to Oded Balilty of the Associated Press.

Derek's Wish

For more information on Derek's Wish, the nonprofit established by Cyndie French to aid families struggling with terminal illness, visit www.dereks-wish.com, e-mail her at mommy@dereks-wish.com, or call (916) 912-9059.

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