The Chicago Sun-Times announced Thursday that it would lay off its entire staff of 28 photographers, including John H. White, the legendary Pulitzer Prize winner who trained and mentored many of those who were pink-slipped along with him.
Some of the photographers told the Chicago Tribune that they were called to a mandatory meeting for all photographers early Thursday morning and given the news. The entire meeting took about 30 seconds.
I love photos, especially historic black and white prints. The National Association of Black Journalists has a photo auction every year to raise scholarship money for aspiring photojournalists. I have spent so much money at the auctions over the years that I have been given a permanent paddle number. The photos on my walls include prints that chronicle moments in history involving Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and James Baldwin.
Having one of White’s prints would be a major highlight of my art collecting life.
White won the Pulitzer Prize for photojournalism in 1982 for his “consistently excellent work on a variety of subjects.”
His work graced the 1990 project Songs of My People, an iconic book that documented slices of African-American life. A copy sits on my coffee table.
White has also won three National Headliner Awards, five Chicago Press Photographer Association’s Photographer of the Year awards, the Chicago Medal of Merit and he was the first photographer inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame. In 1973 and 1974, White worked for the Environmental Protection Agency`s DOCUMERICA project, photographing Chicago and its African-American community.
Many of these photographers will go on to freelance and become videographers, but there also is something to be said for the still shot, that moment in time that tells an entire story in that one glimpse.
I am certain that when I was a young reporter, many of my stories got better play than they might have otherwise because of the beautiful photography that went along with it. I was honored to work with some of the best in the business, including Pulitzer Prize winners Ozier Muhammad and David Turnley.
I worked with photographers whose works have been lyrical, like the late Hugh Grannum. I’ve worked with, and am friends with, those who captured great historic moments, like Sarah Glover, Mark Gail, Dudley Brooks, Fred Sweets and Bob Black.
The idea that a news organization could just wipe out an entire department like that on the basis of a business decision has just been unfathomable to me.
The Sun-Times has decided to hire freelancers and rely more on reporters to shoot video and still shots. While that has been a growing trend in journalism and is touted as a way to save money, there is still something to be said for those who are experts at one skill. I can go out and shoot a halfway decent photo, but if I am also reporting, audio- and videotaping and shooting still images, something is going to get lost in the shuffle.
It will take time for reporters to learn when is the best time to only tell a story visually or to put down the camera and let someone have a private moment and just focus on the prose. In the rush to get things online, video editors will have their hands full trying to make the best out of photos shot with phones or digital cameras, which probably won’t be as refined as those that professional photographers use.
Just look at YouTube; all videos are not equal.
For decades, journalists did it all, taking photos and reporting stories. Many photographers and cartoonists made their way as freelancers, taking their work from newspaper to newspaper and selling to the first taker. Courtroom sketch artists still do it in many cities, selling their work to newspapers and to television stations when cameras are not allowed in courtrooms during trials.
So in some ways, technology is forcing news organizations to close the loop. Reporters are back to double duty, all in an effort to save money. That is not exactly a lofty journalistic standard.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Newspaper Guild, the union that represents the laid-off photographers at the Sun-Times, has said it will file a bad-faith bargaining charge with the National Labor Relations Board. But that could take months to resolve.
Fortunately, White will still be there to train photographers, regardless of where they end up working. He teaches photojournalism at Columbia College Chicago. They are fortunate to learn a craft that is as much art as it is skill.
Many more people, however, will miss the daily art of visual storytelling captured one frame at a time. And that’s a sad story.
Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”