Plymouth Whitemarsh High School graduate Sarah Silbiger, a photojournalist who has covered some of the highest-profile political races in recent history for national media outlets, can now add “Pulitzer Prize winner” to her impressive list of accomplishments.
Sarah is a member of a team of photojournalists, writers, and editors from the Washington Post that won a Pulitzer Prize in the Public Service category for coverage of the events leading up to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Her photograph of Rudy Giuliani at a press conference was one of the images used to tell the story of the political events that happened leading up to the attack. The image is a memorable one that captured perspiration mixed with hair dye running down the side of Giuliani’s face as he addressed the media in his role as personal lawyer for former President Donald Trump.
When she heard about the Post winning the prize, she went onto the award website to learn which of her colleagues had been a part of the coverage, and was surprised to see her own name.
“When I went onto the website and clicked through, I was like, ‘I was part of this coverage,’” said the 2014 Plymouth Whitemarsh graduate.
The 38,000-word series reported on the events leading up to, during, and after the attacks, so it was a massive project that included the talents of many people. While she won’t be going to the awards ceremony to make an acceptance speech, she has been celebrating the achievement with peers, whom she noted have been through so much over the last several years as they chronicle a tumultuous time period in the country’s history.
“This whole experience has been a long journey, it was nice to raise a glass to enduring all that,” she said.
Even more meaningful was being able to share the news of her accomplishment with her supportive parents.
“Making those calls to my parents was awesome,” she said. “It felt really good.”
Her father Steven’s interest in politics and being a “news junkie” were primary reasons for her going into the field of photojournalism in the first place. She was influenced by the photos she would see in the newspapers and magazines that were always in her house when she was growing up. As a child who enjoyed taking pictures with a digital camera her parents gave her, she became intrigued with the field of photojournalism when she started investigating photography careers for a middle school assignment.
While she didn’t completely understand what being a photojournalist entailed at that young age, she knew she was not the type of photographer who would be content with shooting weddings or creating fine art.
“I would go into Philly and take street portraits of strangers. I was intrigued by people who were not in our community,” she said.
Candy Maggioncalda, photography teacher at Plymouth Whitemarsh High School, remembers this well, since it was a project Sarah did for her AP 2D Studio class. Sarah took all of the photography classes offered at the high school and was active in the Photography Club and the National Art Honor Society.
“Sarah was an amazing photography student while she was at Plymouth Whitemarsh High School,” said Mrs. Maggioncalda. “She excelled with her photography skills while she was a student in my classes.”
It was in one of Mrs. Maggioncalda’s classes that Sarah found out she had been accepted to Boston University, her school of choice to study photojournalism.
“I cried my eyes out,” she said.
At Boston University, she joined the school newspaper and hit the ground running. While she was a college student, the U.S. presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was in full swing, and she took every opportunity she could to attend political rallies for both candidates. Luckily, her school newspaper was called The Daily Free Press, a name that was generic enough for her to get press credentials to most events she wanted to cover, even though she was not employed as a professional.
“I fell in love with the circus of politics,” she said. “It’s such a hotbed of extreme personalities. People who come out to the rallies are particularly passionate…and it was fascinating to cover.”
She confirmed her commitment to being a political photojournalist in late 2016, when she had spent many days and nights out covering election rallies. Worn down and sick from her exhausting schedule, she was late getting into a Trump rally and couldn’t find a seat with the rest of the photographers. She found a spot next to a smoke machine that made her cough worse, the music was deafening, a laser light show was flashing – yet there was no place she would rather be.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m still so happy to be here,’” she said.
Following college, she started working for a newspaper on Capitol Hill called The Roll Call and from there was hired to work for the New York Times as a contractor at the height of Trump’s presidency. One of her most memorable moments included spending a Thanksgiving at Mar-a-Lago, the resort frequented by Trump while he was in office. Sarah has also worked for Getty, Reuters, CNN, and is always “on call” for the next assignment.
Being a photojournalist has been exciting and chaotic, and while her profession is certainly competitive, she said it is also often a “team sport” as photographers have to work together to tell the story.
In a field that is dominated by men, she has been able to draw strength from an organization she helps lead called the Women Photojournalists of Washington. Her advice for students seeking to join the news industry is that they should find mentors and have a secondary interest that they feel strongly about covering, as she did with politics.
“If they are thinking about going into journalism, they should be tuned in and passionate about another subject,” she said.
Sarah continues to support and mentor those who want to pursue photography careers by visiting her high school alma mater. During her college years, she spoke in Mrs. Maggioncalda’s classes and shared information about her career path. She also served as the guest speaker at the February 2020 National Art Honor Society induction ceremony.
“I am very proud of Sarah and her accomplishments,” said Mrs. Maggioncalda. “I always share her latest photography with my students.”
To see Sarah’s portfolio, visit her website: www.sarahsilbiger.com