TAKING THE picture was easy.

Vietnamese police escorted a scruffy captive down a Saigon street; Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams tagged along. Vietnam's national police chief raised his pistol to the captive's head; Adams raised his camera. The chief pulled the trigger; Adams clicked his shutter. As the police chief lowered his pistol and Adams released his shutter, the bound man collapsed with a bullet hole in his head.

"Any idiot who was there could have taken that picture," Adam would say later.

Accepting awards was harder.

Adams' picture of a quickie back-street execution won almost every photojournalism contest in 1969, including the Pulitzer Prize, which Adams considered returning.

"I was getting money for showing one man killing another," Adams said after winning a Pulitzer. "Two lives were destroyed, and I was getting paid for it. I was a hero."

Photographers love to win Pulitzer Prizes but some, including four recent winners, hate to think about why they won. They know a great picture can be a quirk of fate or stroke of genius -- the product of a professional who worked tirelessly or the accident of an amateur who fell on his shutter. "It's one five-hundredths of a second," said Adams.

It's a microsecond that can attain a life of its own, a whisper in time that resounds like shouts in an echo chamber. By the slightest twist of chance and timing, that moment can change -- and sometimes torment -- the life of its creator.

Adams couIdn't look at his prize-winning picture for two years. He publicly defended the chief and personally apologized for altering his life. He thinks about the picture constantly, he said, and still searches for a soul-cleansing successor, the photograph that will bring him as much gratification as the execution picture brought remorse.

Dallas Kinney, a 1970 winner, said his photos of migrant farm workers merely appeased an era bent on liberal chic. He tried to run away, he said, because he felt he used a trusting people's misery to win a larger-than-life award. "Terrified" because the Pulitzer "wasn't happiness and light," Kinney "put on a facade, trying to sound authoritative." Doubts and guilt, he said, "just about destroyed me."

1971 Pulitzer winner John Filo clicked his shutter as a girl screamed beside a slain Kent State student. Emotions caught up with him later as he realized he freakishly survived a fusillade of bullets, he inadvertently traumatized the girl's life and he prematurely entered big-time photojournalism while fellow students lay dead. He still asks himself "Why?"

A 1975 Pulitzer winner, Jerry Gay, for years sacrificed his personal life to cultivate his "psychic ability to create images" and repeatedly win national photo contests. When he won the "ultimate granddaddy," he felt confused. "The Pulitzer had to be more than just a big award," he said. "It had to do more than feed my ego." He searched for answers, at one point seeing a psychiatrist and at another living in seclusion.

These four photographers recently talked about their troubles after winning a Pulitzer Prize.

Edward Thomas "Eddie" Adams thought the South Vietnamese police chief, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, was only threatening the disheveled Viet Cong whose hands were tied behind his back. When the gun went off, Adams "accepted it. I'm not hardened or coldblooded, but you expect people to die."

Adams didn't know what his film had captured as he deposited it at A.P.'s Saigon office. But 24 hours later, "messages were coming in from all over the world," Adams recalled. "It started turning people against the war. They were saying it was a civil war and Americans shouldn't be there."

To some newspaper readers, the chief was a murderous monster and to newspaper editors he was a hot followup story. Against colleagues' advice, Adams went to Loan's office. Loan, in his own style, accepted what Adams had done and looked the other way.

"He got up from his desk," said Adams, "put his nose right next to mine, looked me directly in the eye and said, 'I know the Vietnamese who took the picture.'" Adams added, "Loan told me his wife gave him hell for not taking the film."

Afterward, Adams followed the chief for two weeks and found some "people loved the guy."

Adams stays in touch with Loan. After the fall of South Vietnam, there was a move to deport Loan from this country. Loan now runs a pizza shop in Northern Virginia. "He's treated like a freak show," said Adams. "People go there just to stare at him."

Adams' guilt about Loan has never waned. "I feel responsible because I took the picture," explained Adams, who sometimes gets photos by conning people with fabricated sob stories, "But if it happened tomorrow, I'd probably photograph it again. I'm saying that's what I get paid for; that's what I do. But I hate to see people suffer for something I've done."

Sometimes the guilt stabs. When Adams arrived in Holland for the 1969 World Press Photo awards, a Dutch reporter asked, "Why didn't you stop him from shooting that man?"

Adams, 36 at the time, bristled. "I thought that was the stupidest question I'd ever gotten," he said. "There's a war going on, and you don't stop people from shooting people." But, he added, "That's when I started feeling all mixed up."

A life-long contest winner who'd wear a white jeans suit to a black-tie affair, Adams squirmed at the World Press ceremony. "It's almost like the Olympics," he recalled. "There's the Royal Dutch Band and people representing about 50 countries. They're playing the national anthem. I'm up there receiving the award, and all sorts of things are going through my mind. I'm winning a prize for one man killing another man."

Adams said, "I'm identified with that picture, nothing else. I feel pressured to find another picture I'd rather be remembered for. I'd like it to be a non-news picture that requires a lot of thought, has impact, makes you laugh or cry or does something to you emotionally."

Adams, described good-naturedly by colleagues as a "plain slob of a guy," has covered 10 wars. When he returned after 10 months in Vietnam, his 2-year-old daughter asked, "Mommy, is that my daddy?" Said Adams, 49, "I wanted to be a good father, but I don't know how."

Because he won a Pulitzer, Adams feels pressured to live up to other people's expectations. "Every assignment I go on, I have to do better than the person before and after me. I'm scared on assignments. I run scared all the time."

Adams now free-lances for Time Inc. and Parade, and still searches for a redeeming photograph. He almost found it in 1977.

That year, Adams joined 48 refugees in a 30-foot boat that sailed to Thailand, where Thai marines showed the boat back out to sea. "We presented the pictures and story to Congress," he said, "and it [helped] convince President Carter to admit the boat people to America."

Adams added, "I'd rather have won the Pulitzer for something like that. It did some good, and nobody got hurt."

Dallas Kinney, staff photographer at the Palm Beach Post in Florida, "kidnaped" his two bosses one day and drove them 40 miles to a migrant camp. The editors gasped at the poverty of migrant families living in 10-by-12-foot shacks of tarpaper walls, sheet metal roofs and broken windows. And they told Kinney to do the story.

"I can't approach a story without becoming personally involved," said Kinney, who once apologized to a grief-stricken woman for taking her picture. "The greatest weapon against me is my camera; it's an intrusion. The moment I step into an environment, I destroy the objective situation. To eliminate the barriers, the subject and I become partners."

When the 1970 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced, the Post newsroom went wild. Kinney, 33 at the time, got a champagne shower. Just 45 minutes later, he began to feel the pressure.

"It was the responsibility of living up to something that big," said Kinney. "I've usually been more surprised by the response [to] my successes than anyone."

When Kinney awoke the next morning, he cringed at the Post's front page. On one side was Kinney's favorite picture -- three ragged migrant children beside a dilapidated shack. On the other side was a picture of Kinney being doused with champagne. "Those children didn't have enough milk for the next day!" Kinney exclaimed. 'Dear Lord, what are those people, who opened their doors and hearts to me, going to think?

"You better believe there was guilt. All of a sudden, there was more attention being paid to Dallas Kinney, Pulitzer Prize winner, than to those migrants."

Kinney got numerous congratulatory calls but sensed no concern for the migrants -- save for his church providing some clothing, food and shelter. "Down deep inside I was aware that a success may have been a failure, because I really did want to communicate for those people."

Kinney has long suspected he won a Pulitzer merely for his photos' 'fantastic dramatic appeal," which "reinforced what people thought of in terms of a Pulitzer winner." The Pulitzer jurors, he said in 1979, "had no emotional involvement beyond an overall look, that appeal, that impact."

The Pulitzer, Kinney said, "was a frustration I wasn't mature enough to handle. I ran from it. I left the Palm Beach Post shortly afterward. I took off to bind up my soul and look for that story to wash away my sins."

On sabbatical, Kinney traveled with his family in a motor home and produced an "unsuccessful" series on the American Indian. He spent an unfulfilling year at the Philadelphia Inquirer, returned to the Post for four years, later directed a 24-hour telephone crisis line, and went to the Christian Broadcast Network. Now he's a communications consultant for Mailers and Consultants, a marketing firm in Richmond, Va., and no longer shoots pictures on a daily basis.

Virtually "destroyed" by the Pulitzer, Kinney said in 1979, "I put too much importance on myself and not enough on the photograph. I was very vain. All of a sudden, the photographs became me. Deep down inside was the fear of not being able to keep up the image. I was wondering, 'What do I do next?'"

Kinney said he was "making more money than I'd ever thought I'd make but the one thing that hadn't clicked was the spiritual. The relationship with God became very personal in 1975. It put a perspective on me. I was once again able to appreciate individuals and want to communicate about them without worrying about fulfillment in the profession. Slowly but surely I had been getting into the situation of having to use them to continue on that image."

Kinney rekindled his old passion for communicating. A former song-and-dance man and portrait photographer, he had embraced photojournalism long ago because it "brought together different ways of communicating."

Recently, Kinney, 45, readapted his migrant series, adding film and narration. "For the first time," he said, "I saw the migrant series the way I wanted to see it."

When Gerald Gay went on a routine assignment -- the aftermath of a house fire -- he found a "surrealistic atmosphere" of smoke and fog hanging over the smoldering skeleton of a waterfront home.

The firemen had run hoses up and down a steep bank, Gay said. "Suddenly they took a break and created in front of me this scene -- it looked like a war scene rather than a fire."

Gay's photo of resting firemen ran on the front page of the Seattle Times and then moved on the wires.

"The psychic energy inside me told me to enter it in the Pulitzer contest," said Gay, the Seattle-bred son of a labor negotiator. "We were approaching the Bicentennial, and I'd read that people were asking publishers to stop running such negative things. I thought the jurors might look for a picture that talk8673s about the American spirit."

Gay said he withhled from the Pulitzer contest "a real grabber shot" of striking teachers shouting into the cars of scab replacements b because "I wanted to be known for something that influenced people rather than shocked them."

The Pulutzer culminated Gay;s quest for recognition and underscored a deteriorating family life. Gay ended his nine-year marriage -- "A lot of it was 'How come your job is so important?'"

The Pulitzer "was a catalyst," said Gay, 28 when he won. "It put me in the fast lane of my profession. My speaking engagements quadrupled. I suddenly came out from behind the cameras and was put in front of them."

Gay had worked obsessively behind the camera, putting in 60 hours a week, cultivating a unique approach. "Before assignments, I'd meditate," said Gay, who kept scanners in his car, radios at home and ran out to fires at 3 a.m. On the way to assignments, "I'd generate a thought process about what the readers would see, how the subjects would like to be seen."

Gay's obsession "numbed" him to his personal life -- he was married and divorced twice.

He is given to rambling, entangled discourse. "A lot of photographers are pent up and not very communicative with words," Gay said, "because they're afraid of losing that power."

After winning the Pulitzer, Gay, a former seminary student, became disenchanted with work. "It was hard to go on assignments," he said, "because you knew they weren't Pulitzer material. It was hard to get up for themonthly clip contests again. A certain edge was taken off my career in photography. And I was learning about burnout."

Gay squirmed when introduced to people as a Pulitzer winner. "I uanted to be seen as more than [an] achievement in life; I have feelings," he said. He kept asking himself "Why me? I was questioning my own talent. I wondered, is there more?"

Gay said the Pulitzer launched him on a spiritual search rather than an ego trip. Some colleagues thought he was totally lost. Shortly after accepting a job with the Los Angeles Times, Gay took a four-day Hawaiian vacation, went to a phone booth, called his boss and said, "I'm not coming back."

He returned to Seattle, where he published Picture Magazine, a Parade-type tabloid inserted in weekly newspapers. The magazine folded in nine months.

Gay's mother died, he had to fire his business manager. Rather than "write off his debts" by declaring bankruptcy, Gay told his creditors that he'd eventually pay them back. So far, he hasn't.

About two years ago, Gay's life took a turn that's difficult even for him to explain. After winning the Pulitzer, Gay reflected, "You get delusional, because you're put into a different reality context." That comes as close as anything to describing why he called a press conference in Seattle.

During that sparsely attended conference, Gay announced he was the son of God. He was trying to tell people, he said, that they "have the same potential in their life of attaining those powers that were attributed to the Christ spirit of 2,000 years ago."

After a year in seclusion, Gay also began using his Pulitzer to advance projects in behalf of the Year of the Child, criminal rehabilitation and Iranian-American relations.

Gay, now traveling out west and working on independent projects, professes a belief in the power of the media. Someday, he said, he'd like to operate a center "for thought processes on how we in the media can help influence a positive world with the stories we're doing."

Kent State journalism major John Paul Filo aimed his camera at a lineup of National Guardsmen and focused on a rifle-bearing figure looking directly at him.

"When his gun went off, his bullet hit this huge metal sculpture, penetrating the quarter-inch plate steel then ripping the bark off a tree," recalled Filo, who was a 21-year-old, four-year student working 40 hours a week. "I said, 'My God, they're using live ammunition.'"

When the fusillade stopped, Filo saw people lying on the grass. The 6-foot-3 1/2-inch photographer, who had assumed guardsmen were using blanks, was the only student still standing. "There were people woulded next to me," said Filo, the oldest son of a Pennsylvania Steelworker. "Jeffrey Miller, behind me and to my left, was shot in the neck and bleeding profusely."

As he photographed Miller's lifeless body, Filo saw a girl run up and kneel beside it. "She was looking down," he said. "You could see her starting to shake and sob. I was moving closer, making a semicircle to get her head-on rather than in profile."

Throughout the afternoon of May 4, 1970, Filo photographed the melee, trying "to be truthful with the facts, showing students throwing stones at the guardsmen."

Fearing Ohio guardsmen might try to seize his film, Filo drove to Pennsylvania to develop and print his photographs. After the picture hit the wires, Filo was inundated with interviews. Later, hw would receive hate mail accusing him of lying and fabricating the photo.

"The hardest thing to accept out of the whole thing," Filo said, "was that some people won't believe you even if you show them a hundred pictures. It's ignorance where ignorance is yelling back at you."

In the days ahead, Filo found himself "preoccupied with survivor's syndrome.: He explained, "I couldn't sleep nights. For several years I was pondering 'Why me? Why was I not wounded or killed?' I became very moody and a little morose."

Filo was standing around the journalism department's A.P. wire machine when he learned he had won a Pulitzer Prize. "I was ecstatic inside, but I didn't show it," he said, "because the whole school was still embroiled in the tragedy."

Winning a Pulitzer "puts you in a higher speed lifestyle," said Filo. Shortly after graduating from college in 1971, he got a job with A.P., which included a flurry of out-of-town assignments. In early 1974, his three-year marriage broke up.

Filo sometimes balked at recounting the Kent State story to friends because "it was a very emotional, wrenching experience." But he willingly testified when parents of the slain students tried to sue guardsmen and state officials for damages. His appearance at the trial intensified guilt feelings about "coming out of the same situation so differently than the murdered students," especially his friend Bill Schroeder.

"I go to the trial, and I'm the one who ends up on the noon and 6 p.m. news. The parents are looking at me, and I'm wondering what they're thinking. God, what do you say to Schroeder's parents? They lost a son, and I came out of it quasi-famous."

Filo's feelings of guilt didn't end with the trial. The visibility and vulnerability forced on Mary Ann Vecchio, the riveting focal point of his Kent State photo, also troubled him.

"I indirectly keep track of what she's doing" through wire stories and colleagues, he said. "At one point, she said in an interview that my photograph ruined her life. That's pretty heavy. I mean it's terrible."

According to a December 1976 wire story, Vecchio was reviled by anonymous letter writers as a "dirty hippie, Communist bitch and whore." In 1973, she was arrested for prostitution.

Filo, who worried for a while about the possible consequences of every picture he took, would like to talk someday with Vecchio. "I'd just like to hear what she'd say about how her life has been affected by that picture."

But in a way, her plight doesn't matter, admitted Filo, now 34 and a Philadelphia Inquirer photographer. "Given the same circumstances, I'd still take the picture," he said. "It's just something that eats at your mind during slow times or rainy days."

For Filo, coping with those rainy day thoughts is an internal thing.

"It all gets resolved within yourself," he said. "You have to deal with it yourself. That's the biggest enemy. Actually, friends really don't know. They really don't know, other than Eddie, who went through it."

When Filo won his Pulitzer, former prize winner Eddie Adams sent a congratulatory note. The last line of the message read: "Let's see what you can do tomorrow." CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, "I go to the trial and I'm the one who ends up on the news. The parents are looking at me, and I'm wondering what they're thinking. They lost a son, and I came out of it quasi-famous." -- John Paul Filo, photos by Sarah Leen and John Filo; Copyright (c) Tarentum Valley News Dispatch; Pictures 3 and 4, "I'm identified for that picture and nothing else. I feel pressured to find another picture I'd rather be remembered for." -- Eddie Adams, photos by Michael Mertz and Eddie Adams for the AP; Pictures 5 and 6, "It was hard to go on assignments because you knew they weren't Pulitzer Material. A certain edge was taken off my career in photography and I was learning about burnout." -- Gerald Gay, photos by Nancy Kaye and Gerald Gay; Copyright (c) Seattle Times; Picture 7, "You better believe there was guilt. Suddenly there was more attention being paid to Dallas Kinney, Pulitzer prize winner, than to those migrants." -- Dallas Kinney, by Bob Brown; Picture 8, Dallas Kinney's prize-winning photos of migrant workers. By Bob Brown for The Washington Post