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Aug 22, 2011 | Carol E. Barnwell

Pulitzer Nominated Priest's Photo Chosen for Historic Exhibit

Howard Castleberry
Photographer Howard Castleberry (middle) in Somalia

In 1992, when Howard Castleberry was a photographer for the Houston Chronicle, he began seeing reports come over the wire of 10,000 people a day dying in a country named Somalia.


“No one in the newsroom even knew where it was,” he said, but finding out would also change his life. The ongoing civil war and subsequent famine had left the country in chaos.


At the time, the Chronicle was locked in tough competition with the Houston Post and management scented a possible Pulitzer in the winds of war and famine half a world away. They sent Castleberry to do an in-depth section for the paper and he was indeed nominated for a Pulitzer for one of his photographs from Somalia.  


The photograph was recently selected by Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts from more than a million photos considered in the seven years of curating an exhibition of war photographs since photography began in the mid-1850s. The exhibition opens November 11, 2012.


Castleberry said he suffered from post-traumatic shock for a long time after returning from a month from Somalia. “I flew in on a King Air from Nairobi sitting on a box of penicillin,” he recalls. When he landed, “It was otherworldly. Mogadishu felt like another planet, the sounds, smells, chaos, you just can’t imagine. The power was out, there were first burning everywhere, people looting.”


Castleberry spent two days finding a translator.  He paid $200 a day for the fixer, a driver, car and four body guards with guns who he describes as “one step away from being outlaws.”


He filed his stories on a cumbersome satellite phone and entrusted relief pilots with bags of film, which then went from gate agent to gate agent, until picked up at the airline counter in Houston by colleagues.


Castleberry says he was shot at two times, once right after taking his award-winning photo of a father digging his daughter’s grave in a soccer field (there was room no where else). Although he had asked for permission, the rebel forces assumed he had not and “just started shooting.” He escaped with the driver while the body guards fired back.


Two decades after he took the photo, Castleberry remembers his time in Somalia as a turning point in his life. It took a long time to get past the nightmares, anger and fear, he said. There was the injustice of the chaotic situation, but also he was frightened.


“There is evil in the world, and it scared me,” he said.


Castleberry grew up in Austin in a single-parent household, built a darkroom in his garage at 13 and used his uncle’s camera to take photographs. “I’d cruise the streets at night and take photos to send to the paper,” he recalls. 


After a year at the University of Texas, he opted to join the staff of the Dallas Morning News after an internship led to a job offer. After several years he moved to the Chronicle in 1983. He married his wife Joanne in 1994, and left the Chronicle in 1998 to start an industrial development business with his father-in-law.


But Somalia was never far away.

Pulitzer Photo Somalia
 This photo will be on display at Houston's Museum of Fine Arts starting Nov. 11


“Once you realize that evil exists, you have questions. Where did it come from? Why is it here? It led to my study of comparative religion and I found Jesus Christ at every crossroad. It was a big faith discovery on my part. I came to the church late in life,” he said.

Castleberry entered the discernment process while a member of St. John the Divine, Houston, and attended seminary at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN. He was ordained in 2009 and serves as assistant rector at Christ Church, Temple.


“I thought people would laugh at me when they heard I was ordained, but I was surprised at really honest questions about God that people asked,” he said.


When the museum first called about the photograph almost a decade ago, Castleberry had not yet entered the ordination process. “When they called back for biographical information recently, I told them I was ordained. They weren’t surprised. Things like Somalia force you to answer big questions, they lead you to transformation.”


In some sense the camera is a shield for the photographer, allowing distance and anonymity in horrendous situations, Castleberry said. It helped him covering what he saw in Somalia without becoming overwhelmed. “The hard part was giving the subjects as much dignity as I could while documenting what was going on,” he said.


The father in his photo is burying his daughter in a grave on the city’s soccer field, which, along with the botanical gardens, had become a grave yard because the city had run out of burial space. The photo shows him from behind, standing in the grave with his head bowed over the shovel and numerous mounds of other graves as far as you can see. It was Picture of the Year and the won the Robert Kennedy Award for International Photojournalism award that year, besides being nominated for a Pullitzer.


What started as a “hobby on steroids” brought Castleberry to some new awakenings about himself and the world around him.


“God brought me here in His time, through [Somalia] and my marriage,” he concluded.'


EDIT as of Nov. 7, 2011: An earlier version of this story indicated the exhibit would take place November 11, 2011. The correct date is November 11, 2012. The Rev. Howard Castelberry is now the rector at Christ Church, Nacogdoches.