The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Friday, Dec. 1, 2023 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

Professor Teaches With Pictures

New UNC instructor Pat Davison received the Pulitzer Prize for his photo coverage of the Columbine High School shootings.

Nowadays, Davison sits at a desk in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. And behind him hangs a plaque that reads "Pulitzer Prize in Journalism for Breaking News in Photography."

Davison, the school's newest faculty member, was awarded journalism's highest honor for his contribution to a project documenting community reaction to the April 1999 murders at Columbine High School.

But it's what took place between the ditches and the Pulitzer that made him realize his desire to teach and help his students touch the world through photography.

After graduating from high school in 1978, Davison left his Ohio home, finding work in a series of odd jobs. His first job led him to Colorado where he worked in forestry.

Another job had him digging graves in Glenwood Springs, Colo., but Davison turned in his shovel shortly thereafter. "I realized I wasn't in the right place when I noticed that I was only 20, and I was working with 40- to 50-year-old men," he said. "I decided then that I needed to go to college. Unfortunately, I had no money."

Davison chose Colorado Mountain College, where one academic credit cost $15. "Colorado Mountain College had two really good programs: animal health technology and photography," he said. "I chose photography."

After two years, he earned an associate's degree in photography but could not find a job. He needed a four-year degree.

Davison enrolled at the University of Missouri and earned a bachelor of arts in photojournalism in two years.

But his job prospects were no more plentiful than before.

He then interned for The Albuquerque Tribune, where he found a challenging work environment but little pay and no job security.

After the internship ended, Davison went to Japan and married his college girlfriend. But his honeymoon was cut short.

"I was hiking through Japan with my wife, and my new in-laws called every campground to tell me about my job offer," he reminisced. "It was incredible."

After a few years, he moved to Denver, Colo., to take care of his mother who had Alzheimer's disease. There, he took a position with the Rocky Mountain News, where a photo-story would change his life.

Davison was certain his mother would lose her battle with Alzheimer's. He was sure many others had the same experience. Thus, he was compelled to share his story.

His inspiration resulted in "Undying Love," a 20-page newspaper section that documented the slow but steady decline of his mother Viola. "I was cursing myself as I was doing the story," Davison said. "I'm a storyteller and not a doctor."

Davison remembers well the lesson of defiance in the face of helplessness and tries to convey this to his students. But his mother's death wasn't the only tragedy that helped alter his outlook on photography.

Soon after "Undying Love," Davison returned to school for a master's degree at Ohio University. He earned his M.A. and returned to the Rocky Mountain News only to face with another harrowing nightmare, the murder of 12 Columbine High School students and one teacher.

Documenting the aftermath of the murders proved challenging for Davison. "It is a fine line between respecting the mourning and taking pictures to tell the world what happened," he said.

No longer in the thick of the action, Davison said his job at UNC rejuvenates him. "I was completely refreshed by the academic environment, which was full of students who were young, hungry and idealistic."

Davison realizes his students can't change the world, nor can he, but photographers can play a vital role.

"I can't heal, but I can increase the level of awareness of society about social issues through my photography."

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.

The Features Editor can be reached at

Special Print Edition
The Daily Tar Heel Victory Paper for November 20, 2023