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

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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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