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

Kai Ryssdal Jun 4, 2013

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

Kai Ryssdal Jun 4, 2013

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. 

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