CHICAGO — When I heard Jim Kirk, Editor in chiefof the Chicago Sun-Times, say the entire photography department was being eliminated I looked to my hero, my mentor, my friend John H. White, and my heart broke. After 35 years and a Pulitzer Prize, he was out of a job without even a thank you.
I walked out of the conference room in the Holiday Inn. The carpet was a dizzying swirl of colors and I felt sucker punched. Did I just lose my job with 27 other extremely talented photojournalists? Did he really say their audience wants more video content and photos would be shot by reporters with iPhones? Why are the producers of visual journalism being shown the door? All these things would have been good questions but Ididn’t do anything but what I do best. I started shooting photos with my iPhone, pictures that I felt needed to be made.
After 12 years of working in the company’s suburban Oak Park office, I was happy to be free. I shook hands with John and the other Sun-Times guys, grabbed my manila envelope with my separation agreement on it and headed for the BillyGoat, the world famous journalist hangout, at 9:30AM.
My co-worker, Curtis Lehmkuhl, and I sat there and just shook our heads. My phone started ringing and it wouldn’t stop for over a week. People from all over the globe were calling, texting and emailing. I was asked to prognosticate on the future of newspapers and photojournalism.
My biggest fear was facing my students. I teach Photojournalism at the Medill School at Northwestern University and how could the person who is supposed to inspire them be the one who is out of a job? So that night we looked at two pictures. After giving an interview to Crain’s Chicago the reporter asked to take a cell phone picture. We all got the irony of the situation. The Chicago Tribune’s Pulitzer Prize winner John J. Kim showed up and was making photos of us. My wife walked through the door and in one of the greatest moments of my life she brought me a cell phone. I hugged her and cried. John walked around us and made photos of us embracing, tears streaming down my face. I had been on the other side of that situation so many times.
That single situation sums up my entire argument that great visual journalism takes the viewer into the emotional center of the situation, draws them in, and delivers the gut punch.
By being let go with so many great photojournalists I hit the layoff jackpot. Had I not kept shooting and found a new way to tell my story this might have died. Had the union not had our backs and organized pickets and rallys we would have been deflated. The photojournalism community rallied around us and picked us up. My friends have done everything possible to introduce me to new clients, new revenue streams, new ways of storytelling. I’m so blessed to have worked in a job and a community that I love.