John White’s 44-year career at The Chicago Sun-Times has been rooted in faith and professionalism. It's a career he refers to as “an assignment from God.”

John White

Earlier this week, that career came to an end on what some photographers have called the darkest day in Sun-Times photojournalism history. The paper announced Thursday that it had laid off its entire photojournalism staff and would rely on freelance photographers and reporters instead.

White -- who has seen the paper go through many owners and changes -- says he never imagined that his and his colleagues' careers would end so abruptly.

In a phone interview, the 1982 Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist and teacher recalled a day that he is still “trying to make sense of.”

“This is what I remember hearing: ‘As you know we are going forward into multimedia and video, and that is going to be our focus. So we are eliminating the photography department.' Then they turned it over to HR,” recounted White, who had already been doing video at the paper.

White said it all began with an email alert on Wednesday evening directing the staff to attend a 9:30 am meeting on Thursday -- which White said was “only the second meeting with the new managers." He called the meeting "intimidating" and said "there was a toxic and unkind spirit in the office.”

White said the 28 full-time photography department staffers who received the news seemed shocked: “It was as if they pushed a button and deleted a whole culture of photojournalism.”

Those being laid off were asked to return company equipment, White said, and their access badges were demagnetized while they were receiving their layoff packages.

The changing photojournalism landscape

The Sun-Times plans to rely on reporters to take photos and videos and has begun mandatory "iPhone photography basics." Its decision is just the latest example of a disconcerting trend in American media: professional photojournalism is being downsized and devalued, with news organizations increasingly turning to wire services, citizen-submitted content and independent/freelance contributions.

The elimination of an entire photography staff is fairly uncommon among daily larger newspapers, but it's not unprecedented. In 2008, Newsday terminated its 20-person photography staff and then allowed them to reapply for new multimedia jobs. It comes as no coincidence that Tim Knight, who's now the publisher of the Sun-Times, was the publisher at Newsday when that transition was implemented.

Former Sun-Times managing editor Gregory Favre was disturbed and perplexed by the news. Favre said by phone that he “can’t imagine not having a devoted staff that is focused on accurately portraying the city. ... I cannot think of how you capture the culture and essence of such a vibrant city without a photographic staff. There is no substitute for professionalism in the craft.”

Favre added that “with freelancers and independent photographers, there is a loss of loyalty. ... Most reporters will deliver point-and-shoot snapshots, not penetrating and revealing coverage. Skilled professionals bring a unique eye and feel to their craft."

Favre compared the loss of a paper's in-house staff to "cutting the eyes out of the body. ... John White was the eye that was always looking for the soul of Chicago."

Dealing with the shock

While several of the dismissed Sun-Times photographers gathered at the Billy Goat Tavern on Lower Michigan Avenue to console themselves, White hopped into his car and headed to the lake in dire need of meditation, recalling that he "just wanted to disappear and needed to be alone."

John White on Chicago's lakefront at sunrise on Easter Sunday, 2012.
Photo by Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune

He and his Sun-Times colleagues are just the latest professional photographers to face a daunting revelation: Their employers know their work is at the highest level of excellence, but aren't willing to pay for it.

White said he was most concerned about his colleagues -- the former students, young families and folks who came in while on medical leave. He also worries about readers, who will no longer be able to experience "the most important ingredient of communication and understanding" in quite the same way.

"Humanity is being robbed," he said, "by people with money on their minds.”

While by the lake, White turned to a reading from Psalm 20:4: "May he give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed."

He reiterated: “My assignment comes from God.”