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Photo Staff Firings Won't Shake Pulitzer Winner's Focus

Jun 7, 2013
Originally published on June 7, 2013 4:07 pm

The Chicago Sun-Times made a shocking announcement last week when it fired its entire photo staff. The paper says it will now rely on freelancers and reporters to shoot with cellphone cameras or whatever equipment they have.

Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist John H. White was among the nearly 30 full-time photographers let go. White spent decades at the Sun-Times. He told Tell Me More that the firings have hurt the Sun-Times, but the future of photojournalism remains bright.


Interview highlights

On how the Sun-Times made the announcement

"We received an email that there would be a meeting, and it was mandatory, and so I thought, 'Well maybe we're all gonna get new equipment.' And no one knew what it was about. ... The editor came in at 9:30 and made a statement to the point that, 'As we move towards the technology and the digital things of this nature, we're eliminating the photo department — the photographers and staff.'

"I think somebody said [the announcement] was 20 seconds, I don't know. But there was one person [who] said, 'Is this real? Did he just say that?' "

On why there's a need to pay for professional photographers in the era of camera phones

"Anybody can walk around with a camera in their pocket. You could give a camera to an animal. But the photographer, the photojournalist captures the soul. You can't just walk into a tragic situation or a sacred situation and be the hotshot person because you have a camera in the hand. No, it doesn't work that way. Great photographs take themselves, but the photojournalist has to be there and recognize it. ... The photojournalist is that person who sees through a different set of eyes: the eyes of the heart, eyes of history. Capture something that is forever. And you know that when you're doing it."

On what the loss of the Sun-Times photography department means to the paper

"It's like taking the eyes from the body. My former students, there's a team, there's a family. You know, for the Sun-Times, that's lost.

"We were there because it was a great paper. And Sun-Times won a Pulitzer Prize — the news — just two years ago in 2011. That was before this management purchased the Sun-Times. So the Sun-Times has always been that light, that beacon, that symbol of journalism — and the best of journalism. The consistent pursuit of excellence. Everything I photograph, as far as I'm concerned, is for Page 1. And that's the idea.

On how photojournalism differs from other professions that have disappeared

"A robot's not gonna go out and do what we've done. Anybody can take a snapshot. ... If somebody looks at a still photograph, and they look at that, if it's for two seconds or six seconds or a minute, it's etched forever. That doesn't work in any other media."

On moving forward

"I will not curse the darkness. I will light candles. I will live by my three "F" words: faith, focus and flight. I'll be faithful to life, my purpose in life, my assignment from life. Stay focused on what's really important, what counts."

On lessons from his father and passing on inspiration

"My father was a great minister. ... One time he had all of us together — children and everything. It was night, and he was giving us lessons. There was a lightning bug flying, and he reached and he grabbed one. ... He held it in his hand and he said, 'What is this lightning bug doing?' I said, 'Well it's making a light.' And he put it in his jacket and he says, 'That's right. It cannot contain its light. It must make that light. And so you do the same thing in life. ... You better always pursue the best, look for the best in others, and do your best.' And I live by the motto, 'Good, better, best; never let them rest until your good is better and your better best.' These are the things I remind my colleagues. There's hope.

"I love people. I love seniors, and I love children. And to give them every day a dose of, prescription of inspiration — I don't know any other profession where one can get into the hearts and lives of anybody other than the camera. The camera's that universal passport. And I love it."

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

And now, we'll talk about a job that might be disappearing, photojournalist. The Chicago Sun-Times fired its entire photography department last week, and many people, both inside and outside the journalism industry, were shocked. Nearly 30 full-time photographers were let go, including John White. He's a Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist and he spent 44 years at the paper. He joins us now. John White, welcome to the program.

JOHN WHITE: Thank you.

HEADLEE: I'm sure it's painful, but could you take us back to the moment when the announcement was made? How that occurred and what was said.

WHITE: We received an email that there would be a meeting and it was mandatory, and so I thought, well, maybe we're all going to get new equipment. And no one knew what it was about. And it was scheduled for, like, 9:30 and the editor came in at 9:30 and made a statement to the point that, as we move towards the - the technology and the digital things of this nature, we are eliminating the photo department - the photography staff and turn it over to human resources. The first thing I heard was...

HEADLEE: Really, it was that quick?

WHITE: I think somebody said it was 20 seconds, I don't know. But there was one person who said, is this real? Did he just say that? Those were the first words I heard and that was the unexpected at that point.

HEADLEE: The Chicago Sun-Times says it will now rely on its freelancers and its own staff reporters with whatever camera they have, whether that be on an iPhone or whatever they may have with them, to capture photos of the events and to a certain extent, you know, people have cameras with them all the time in a way that we never did before. So why would there be a need to pay for a professional journalist if everyone's, or most everybody is walking around with a camera in their pocket?

WHITE: Anybody can walk around with a camera in their pocket. I mean, you know, you can give a camera to an animal but the photographer, the photojournalist captures the soul. You can't just walk into a tragic situation or a sacred situation and be the hotshot person because you have a camera in your hand. No. It doesn't work that way. Great photographs take themselves. But the photojournalist has to be there and recognize it. Look at Iwo Jima, for instance.

HEADLEE: Your talking about the raising of the flag with the U.S. Marines on Iwo Jima.

WHITE: Exactly, and so the photojournalist is that person who sees through a different set of eyes, the eyes of the heart, the eyes of history, captures something that's forever and you know that when you're doing that.

HEADLEE: I found it particularly poignant that some of your colleagues at the Chicago Sun-Times were, in fact, former students of yours, people that you trained and they were being laid off in one fell swoop, the same swoop that laid you off, as well. Can you talk about some of the institutional memory that is leaving the Chicago Sun-Times?

WHITE: It's like taking the eye from the body. And the people you mentioned, my former students, there's a team, there's a family, you know, for the Sun-Times, that's lost.

HEADLEE: And what you're describing, though, if you take the eyes away from a body, you're talking about leaving the Chicago Sun-Times blind.

WHITE: Well, it is. Yes. We were there because it was a great paper. The Sun-Times won a Pulitzer Prize, the news just two years ago in 2011. That was before this management purchased the Sun-Times. So the Sun-Times has always been that light, that beacon, that symbol of journalism and the best of journalism, the consistent pursuit of excellence. Everything I photograph, as far as I'm concerned, is for page one and that's the idea.

HEADLEE: Well, let me push back on you just a little bit, John White, because it could be, it could be that as cameras become more sophisticated on people's iPhones and iPads, that more newspapers follow suit, that the profession of photojournalism begins to disappear. What makes that different from any other job that has disappeared, from the lithographers of days past, from typesetters? How is photojournalism different from that?

WHITE: A robot is not going to go out and do what we've done. Anybody can take a snapshot. You know, a lot of these things...

HEADLEE: I can't really, John, I have to admit. I'm a terrible photographer, but continue.

WHITE: You get to enjoy the benefit of a photojournalist. If somebody look at a photograph, a still photograph, and they look at that, if it's for two seconds or six seconds or a minute, it's etched forever. That doesn't work in any other media.

HEADLEE: So what are you going to do, John White, and what are you advising your other colleagues and perhaps former students to do? Will you become a freelancer for the paper?

WHITE: What I will not do is I will not curse the darkness. I will light candles. I will live by my three F words - faith, focus, and flight. I'll be faithful to life, my purpose in life, my assignment from life. Stay focused on what's really important, what counts.

HEADLEE: But when you say, I won't curse the darkness, are you comparing the Sun-Times management to the darkness?

WHITE: No, no. That's not me and that's not my colleagues. I'm not going to get caught up in - I think it's an evil act, I think it's a very unpleasant act. I'm not going to get caught up in that. I am going to fly above the clouds. My father was a great minister, okay. One time, he had all of us together - the children and everything, it was night and he was giving us lessons. There was a lightning bug flying and he reached and he grabbed one. And I said, what is he doing? So he held it in his hand; he said, what is this lightning bug doing? I said, well, it was making a light. And he put it in his jacket and he says, that's right - it cannot contain its light. It must make the light. And he says, so you do the same thing in life.

HEADLEE: I'm told that your father also commented once because your teacher said you were so bad at math that you'd end up working on a garbage truck. And your dad said he didn't care if you were going to work on a garbage truck, but you'd better be the driver, that whatever you do, you should be the best.

WHITE: That is true. I came out crying and he said, what's wrong and I told him. He got all of us together - my sister, my brothers and he said, I would never tell any of you what to do in life, but I tell you, you better always pursue the best, look for the best in others, and do your best. And I live by the motto, good, better, best, never let them rest until your good is better and your better the best. These are the things I remind my colleagues. There's hope. Of course, I have dreams, I have things I want to do. I've lived the lives of thousands of people because I've covered their story. I have stories I want to share. When I was 13 years old I bought my first camera for 50 cents and ten Bazooka Bubble Gum wrappers.

HEADLEE: You bought your first camera with 50 cents and collected Bazooka gum wrappers?

WHITE: I say, 10 Bazooka wrappers - bubble gum wrappers. My grandmother gave me 50 cents and I wrote a letter to Bazooka and asked for the camera. It was called the Cardinal (ph) camera. And I still have the letter and that was my first camera. And, in fact, our church burned and my first picture story was my father had me to document the ruins of the church and things of this nature.

HEADLEE: Do you still have the camera?

WHITE: I have the letter that I wrote to get the camera, the original letter, and I have a camera that's the exact duplicate of that, the second one. And I have images from that, you see. Those are the treasures. And there's so many things I'm thankful for. I was a Marine photographer.

HEADLEE: What did you photograph while you were in the Marines?

WHITE: I photographed everything. I've seen more war in Chicago than I did when I was in the Marine Corps. I like to think that God gives me so much of that eye of the heart and I like to think that I see through his eyes and know that, okay, it's not - John White won't keep it, but John White put it out there where people can see nature or a raindrop or people or smile or singer. I love people. I love people - I love seniors and I love children. And to give them every day a dose or a prescription of inspiration - I don't know any other profession where one can get into the hearts and lives of anybody other than the camera. The cameras is that universal passport and I love it.

HEADLEE: Well, I wish you nothing but the best. John White is a Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist. He spent more than 40 years working at the Chicago Sun-Times, which of course, recently shut down its entire photo department. John White joined us from WBEZ in Chicago. Thank you so much.

WHITE: Thank you and for you, my dear friend, you keep in flight. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.