Photojournalist John H. White on layoffs, 35 years at Chicago Sun-Times


  • Photo 1 of 8

    John H. White (center) and colleagues review layoff notices from Chicago Sun-Times. 

    - Al Podgorski (via Facebook)

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    World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Muhammad Ali in 1974.

    - John H. White/EPA

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    The Rev. Jesse Jackson Speaks On A Radio Broadcast From The Headquarters Of Operation Push, At Its Annual Convention. Photographed by John H. White in 1973 for the EPA project, DOCUmerica.

    - John H. White/EPA

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    A Young Black Man Showing His Muscle During A Small Community Program In Chicago On The South Side, photographed by John H. White in 1973 for the EPA project DOCUmerica. 

    - John H. White/EPA

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    Vote Registration Drive Was One Aspect Of Black Expo, photographed by John H. White, 10/1973, for the EPA project DOCUmerica. 

    - John H. White/EPA

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    Black Beauties With Colorful Hair Grace A Float During The Annual Bud Billiken Day Parade Along Dr. Martin L. King Jr. Drive On Chicago's South Side. Photographed by John H. White in 1973, for the EPA project DOCUmerica. 

    - John H. White/EPA

  • Photo 7 of 8

    A Class Of Black Student Welders With Their Instructor At a Former Grade School In The Heart Of The Cabrini-green Housing Project On Chicago's Near North Side. Photographed by John H. White in 10/1973, for the EPA project DOCUmerica. 

    - John H. White/EPA

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    Black Beauties Complement A Float During The Bud Billiken Day Parade, 1973. Photographed by John H. White for the EPA project DOCUmerica. 

    - John H. White/EPA

The Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire photography staff, last week, sending 28 people out the door. The plan, the paper says, is to train reporters to take pictures and videos on iPhones while they talk to sources. No photographers required.

Among those who lost their jobs is John H. White. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his body of work in 1982. He was there taking pictures when Nelson Mandela got out of prison. He's photographed Pope John Paul II, President Barack Obama, and a whole range of the faces of Chicago over the years.

"I've never liked being the story, I always liked being behind the camera," White said in an interview with Marketplace. The layoffs were, "such a shock to everybody."

White speaks eloquently about the importance of photojouralism, particularly in diverse communities like Chicago. "We're part of, and we cover, the heartbeat of humanity," he said.

"That's going to suffer," White says, as the Sun-Times moves toward iPhones. Not for the splashy presidential moments, but the personal ones. "Ordinary, everyday people, these are the treasures, that's what's important."

The business decision is not one he understands, moreover, "Right now I'm not trying to understand it."

Those who know White know his mantra, "Keep in flight." That's his advice to colleagues, today, too.

"You have a resume up there where it counts. You have a soul, and that's why you do this." 

White is living proof of that tenacity.

"I started June 23, 1969, and I thought, maybe after 2 years it will get boring," he says. "To this day, it's never boring, because you're doing it not for you, but for others."

After 35 years at the Sun-Times and nearly a half century in photojounalism, White had one regret about Thursday's layoffs.

"I never heard the two words, 'thank you,' that day. I never heard that. I didn't need to hear it, but... it saddens me." 

 

In the extended interview, White reflects on the skill and spirit needed to take great photographs. When asked which of his own he loves best, White had this to say:

I could say, well, a baptism photograph that I took in the South, or I could say, being with the Holy Father John Paul II on his first trip to Mexico, or being the first photographer in President Mandela's house in Soweto when he was released from prison. That type of thing. But the ordinary people.... This is the great thing about photojournalism. We're out there every single day. Every day. The hottest day. The coldest day. When you can't drive you walk. For others... To have that front seat to history and to the lives of people, and tell the story of humanity. Feeling the heartbeat of humanity. The heart of the world, the soul of the world. And capturing that from the cameras of our hearts... And sharing that. I always consider it a privilege. 

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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