When I first saw this photo, a decade and a half ago, I marveled at the mythology that could be framed around the shot. The award-winning photo by then Ensign John Gay was described as an image snapped at the moment an F/A 18 Hornet broke the sound barrier, a rare view of a physical phenomenon.
But a recent report in AtlasObscrura.com sought to clear up exactly what the picture depicts, and by so doing, triggered excitement in my mind about how Ensign Gay had no idea his photo won the 2000 World Press Photo Award, and that he had not even entered it into the competition.
Gay took the photo of the navy strike fighter while assigned to a photo shoot aboard the USS Constellation off the coast of South Korea. He sent it to the office of the Chief of Naval Information. It was released it into the public domain, where most government work winds up.
Sports Illustrated picked it up as well as Life Magazine. Sports Illustrated submitted it to the World Press Photo Awards and it beat out 42-thousand other photos to take first prize. It also won the National Press Photographer’s Association Award.
To me, the most beautiful part of this story is that Ensign Gay, who is now Deputy Public Affairs officer for the United States Fleet Forces Command, was simply being conscientious and excited about doing his job. He did not set out to win awards, but he did set out to do an excellent job.
Those are the best accolades… praise that comes when you do your work at such a consistently high level that others, en masse, stand back and marvel at your accomplishment. Gay is now 53, and still pursuing his Navy career after 28 years in the service. He told Atlas Obscura that with the photo being in the public domain, he had not benefitted from it financially. But he added, “It’s been an honor that the photo represents the U.S. Navy.
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