When Renée Byer, a photojournalist with twenty-five years of experience, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography, Ulster County Community College took pride in the achievement of a graduate whose studies at the College included photography, design, and fine arts. Renée’s achievement was not only a tribute to her skill as a photojournalist, but a reflection of her compassionate and dedicated character.
The Pulitzer Prize was awarded to Renée Byer for “A Mother’s Journey,” a four-day photo essay series that appeared in the Sacramento Bee, the California daily where Byer is on staff. Cyndie French, mother of 10-year-old Derek who was being treated for a rare form of cancer, agreed to allow Byer to record the efforts to save the child’s life. Renée and Cyndie became allies and close friends during the year-long battle. Renée’s photos focused on the close relationship between the boy and his mother, whose spirit and devotion made his final year a triumph in spite of Derek’s tragic death. The photos and stories in the Sacramento Bee resulted in over $40,000 in donations to help the family pay for Derek’s treatment. In Derek’s memory, the newspaper started the Derek’s Wish Foundation to raise money for other families facing similar problems.
Renée Byer received a plaque and a $10,000 cash grant in April 2007 at the Pulitzer Prize awards ceremony, held annually at Columbia University. As a Pulitzer winner, her work will be represented at the recently opened Newseum in Washington, D.C., an interactive, multimedia museum dedicated to winners of the coveted journalism award. “A Mother’s Journey” also won an award from the Society of Professional Journalists in 2006 and the World Understanding Award in 2007 from Pictures of the Year International. The photo series was exhibited at a San Francisco gallery, featured in a Japanese magazine, and appeared in the annual publication of Pictures of the Year International, which featured her as a speaker at their awards ceremony. Her present and upcoming assignments include teaching photojournalism workshops in the United States, France, and Japan. Renée has received other state and national photojournalism awards during her career. These include the National Press Photographers Association Pictures of the Year, Society for News Design, Associated Press, Best of the West photo and design contest, and the AP News Executive Council’s top honor, the Mark Twain Award.
Renée Byer’s career in photography began at home, learning from her father, Walter Byer, an amateur photographer. During her attendance at SUNY Ulster from 1976 to 1978, she pursued her interest in photography, inspired by a photography teacher who took one of her photos—a self-portrait she had shot in high school with a time exposure—to an art show in New York City. The young photographer gained self-confidence from the praise her work garnered at the show. After earning an associate in arts degree with a major in liberal arts at Ulster County Community College, she completed a bachelor’s degree in photojournalism from Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois and went to work as a photojournalist at newspapers in Peoria, Syracuse, Hartford, and Seattle before joining the Sacramento Bee in 2003.
In an interview, Renée expressed strong positive feelings about her years at SUNY Ulster and about community colleges in general. Her view is that community college is “a great stepping stone to a four-year college and career.” Ulster County Community College is proud of Renée Byer and pleased to have been a stepping stone to such a distinguished career.