Behind the Lucies: John H. White

Resource Magazine, 10/26/13

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John H. White

Last but not least, as Resource wraps up its coverage of this weekend’s Lucie Awards, we sat down with this year’s honoree for achievement in photojournalism, John H. White. A resident of Chicago, White’s career spans nearly half a century, during which he has distinguished himself for his ability to capture the human spirit on film. The North Carolina native started off as a photographer for the Marines before getting a job with the now-defunct Chicago Daily News in 1969. When the Daily News went under, White moved over to the Chicago Sun-Times in 1978. Over the course of his career, White has received over 300 international awards for his work as a photojournalist, including a Pulitzer Prize and the National Press Photographers Association’s highest honor, the Joseph A. Sprague Memorial Award. After 40 years of service, the Chicago Sun-Times rewarded White and his fellow photographers by laying off its entire photography department in May of this year. The decision shook the photography and journalism communities, but White has maintained his steadfast good humor and optimism, reminding himself and others to always “Keep in flight.” He talked to Resource this week about turning a handful of Bazooka bubble gum wrappers into a career and what it means to be on line with the heartbeat of humanity.

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John H. White, via The Lucie Awards

What does it mean to you to be honored with a Lucie Award?

I’m happy and thankful, but I’m very nervous about the whole thing. I’m thankful and honored about the whole occasion, but also in awe that here’s this big event, and for a moment in life, a moment in time, I get the light of this great foundation, the Lucie Foundation. So that is overwhelming.

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© John H. White, “A black man. One of the nearly 1.2 million black people who make up over a third of Chicago’s population,” 1973

The award for me in life has always been the fact that I’m out there as the eyes for humanity, capturing life on a daily basis and sharing that. To me, that’s always been the “award.” Being the eyes for others, being a part of the heartbeat of humanity. And with the tsunami of what happened at the paper and with all the other ways and winds of life, this is like a ray of sunshine and light and rainbows and joy. I’m a photographer so I don’t know the words to use to capture what’s in the heart.

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© John H. White, “Homeless Families After Fire,” 1971

I think this is really an award for everybody that’s been on the journey, and not for one’s self but for others. The thing that touched me most was the fact that somebody cares; somebody appreciates what one has done. Because photojournalists, we don’t go through life looking in the rearview mirror. We’re always looking forward. And in one life, one lives countless lives—all the people I’ve been a part of for half a century. And so it’s like you finally cross the goal line and the world says touchdown, and you don’t think about it because it wasn’t like a Hail Mary pass, it wasn’t anything special. You just keep going from play to play, step to step, pothole over pothole, and you finally cross. It really affects the heart and the big ole smile.

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© John H. White, “Young woman soliciting funds for a Chicago organization in a shopping center parking lot,” 1973

One of the things that’s touched me is the Hubble Telescope. It was first launched in 1990, but the last space mission was to go repair, restore and reboot it. But they took it out of order to do that. It was in the cargo bay of the space shuttle for five days. And so I look at life and the journey now as sort of like the Hubble Telescope, which is out there. People say, “So what are you doing now that the paper laid everybody off?” And I say, “Well, I’m polishing my wings. I’m in life’s cargo bay. Getting restarted, rebooted, renewed.” So it’s like the Lucie Foundation came in and gave me some life for my wings, some wind for my journey. To say, it’s ok, you’re going to fly, we’re going to launch you into another orbit. So I don’t think there’s going to be anybody in that place that’s more thankful than I am.

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John White in his home in June
© Michelle Agins/The New York Times

What do you think makes photojournalism unique?

I like to think of the photojournalist as the one who has a connection with the heartbeat of humanity. I like to think that everything under the umbrella of photography is under the umbrella of photojournalism. The world is my studio; Chicago and the world is my playground. There’s no east or west or north or south or height or depth that’s not in my territory, my parameters. I can do any and everything, essentially. People think of photojournalism as a news situation or a tragic situation, that type of thing. And that’s part of the ingredients. But it’s like the body; the body is made of many parts—the eyes, nose, mouth, hands—and they’re all significant.

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John H. White, “Black youngsters cool off with fire hydrant water on Chicago’s South Side in the Woodlawn community,” 1973

So for me to have this affair with life, with the intimacy and spirit of life, every single day, I find that very nutritious, very rewarding. Because I’m not doing it for me. I have to get out there for others when people can’t get out. Nobody wants to be out there when it’s one hundred degrees above zero, or one hundred degrees below zero, but I have to. Nobody wants to get out there at the edges of the crowd, but I have to. I have to be on line with life. And so it keeps me a part of the spirit of life, the intimacy of life. Every day, every day, every single day.

That’s the photojournalist’s beat. The world is my studio.

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© John H. White, “Empty housing in the ghetto on Chicago`s South Side,” 1973

What is your earliest memory of photography? How did it all start?

Well my first camera was when I was 13 years old, for fifty cents and ten Bazooka bubble gum wrappers. That was my very first camera. But I’m a PK—a Preacher’s Kid—and people were always taking pictures of the family. I remember standing looking at all the people taking our picture. And I’ve always had, in my mind-heart, this knack for observing people and what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and all those things. And I remember for Christmas one year we got a Viewmaster, and there were two slides. One was a slide of Biblical stories, and looking at that, it was so real. And then the other one was Mickey Mouse. So two slides: Mickey Mouse and Jesus, Jesus and Mickey Mouse. And I always remember looking at that, and I think that must have been when I made my big discovery, going over it, over and over.

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© John H. White, “Black products was one of the themes at the annual Black Expo held in Chicago,” 1973

I’m not an academic person. But I’ve always retained anything I see or hear. And I would listen to the mothers and the fathers talk, and they would teach us by talking. And I can always picture all of this in my mind. And then my greatest textbook has been nature. So I like to think that that’s some of the ingredients that prepared me to be a photojournalist.

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© John H. White, “Black sidewalk salesmen arranging their fresh fruits and vegetables on Chicago`s South Side,” 1973

My father was a big influence, too. I remember once, we were living in North Carolina, and we went to South Carolina and stopped at the border. And we put one foot in North Carolina and one foot in South Carolina, so we were in two states at the same time. And I remember going to Charlotte, and I came back and was so excited. And my father said, “Johnny, the world is bigger than Charlotte.” I thought, “You’ve got to be crazy! What place could be bigger than Charlotte?”

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© John H. White, “Ice House”

Life itself has been my classroom: the diversity of people and places and cultures. And I’m thankful for that. I’ve been around the world, seen people every day, and I realize that there’s a oneness—not sameness, oneness—that binds us. And that’s the heartbeat that I talk about, the heartbeat of humanity. And I capture that. From birth to death, and all the in betweens. And everybody can read what I do, because it’s a universal language. Educated, uneducated, rich, poor, red, yellow, black, white, grey, green, whatever—it’s the same. I’m that glue for humanity. It’s a privilege and an honor but it’s a tremendous responsibility. As a journalist, at the end of the day, whatever fuel life has given us, we have captured it.

john-h-white, photojournalist, lucie-awards, lucie-foundation, chicago-sun-times

© John H. White, “Religious fervor is mirrored on the face of a Black Muslim woman, one of some 10,000 listening to Elijah Muhammad deliver his annual Savior’s Day message in Chicago,” 1974

Obviously this has been a tumultuous year, from the Chicago Sun-Times laying off its entire photography staff, yourself included, to winning this prestigious award for photojournalism. Where do you see the future of photojournalism in this country?

Well all the universities are still teaching photojournalism, and the enrollments are full. I just came from a workshop in upstate New York where 1200 students applied for 100 positions. So photojournalism is not dead. People want it; people need it. And everybody is a part of it. If I were to say “Boston Marathon,” you think of the image; if I were to say “9/11,” you think of the image, or “Mother Teresa” or “Pope John Paul II,” you think of the image. We have the hard drive in our souls and our minds, and they’re filled with photojournalism. And that will always be. Anybody can use a camera, but the photojournalist is the one who captured that moment. Everybody can take a picture, but not capture a moment. And with new and multi- media, it just continues to expand, and that’s wonderful. But you always need that one person who’s going to go out and capture that moment. No robot’s going to do that, be connected with the moment.

john-h-white, photojournalist, lucie-awards, lucie-foundation, chicago-sun-times

John H. White at a June 6 protest in front of The Chicago Sun Times’s headquarters
© M. Spencer Green/Associated Press

If you hadn’t been a photographer, what do you think you would have done instead?

A lamplighter. Light the hearts of people, put a smile on their hearts. When I was younger I thought I was going to be the world’s greatest artist; my degree is in art, commercial art and design. But it’s simpler to click a shutter than to use a paintbrush. Whatever I did, I always wanted to be a servant to God. Whatever I do, let me serve thee. And I like to think that I do that through the camera. And I can capture nature, both human and environment. And I know that what I’m doing today is for people today, but it’s also for generations that are not yet. Whenever I click the shutter, it’s timeless. I want to be that eye, and as much as I can I want to keep my mind pure, my thoughts pure, my heart pure, my focus pure, and know that it’s not me—it’s my assignment for life.

john-h-white, photojournalist, lucie-awards, lucie-foundation, chicago-sun-times

© John H. White, “Black ouths play basketball at Stateway Gardens’ high-rise housing project on Chicago’s South Side,” 1973

You’re one of two honorees this year from Chicago (along with Victor Skrebneski). What do you think it is about that city that fosters art and creativity, particularly in photography?

Well everything is the people of course. Chicago is a playground for opportunity; it’s a big studio for creativity. And everything that one would want is in Chicago. I love the lake; I love that with all the millions of people here, I can go out there and I can be alone. If I want to go around Michigan Avenue and State Street and be in a crowd, I can do that. If I want a meal at eleven or twelve o’clock at night, there are places. The pace, the heartbeat—it’s a creative place. And it’s a challenging place. It’s an interesting light in the midst of the lights of countries and cities. There’s a lot of joy and a lot of pain; for some there’s more pain than joy. And I see it all the time. I get a front seat to everything, even the pain and the violence. But I try to use the camera as a light.

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© John H. White, “The Fruit of Islam,” 1974

And in a larger sense, it’s not just the camera—it’s being there. The thing about the photojournalist is that you’re there, and there are people who will talk to me that won’t talk to a police officer or a firefighter or anybody, but they’ll talk to the photojournalist. And I will listen. I think people know that photojournalists care, and I find that to be maybe a part of my assignment in life, to be there, to comfort, to encourage.

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Photograph of John H. White by Jerry Tomaselli, 1977

Everybody is somebody. Everybody has a song. I think a lot of times people outside the profession don’t realize that, or they forget. And sometimes when you take a frame of somebody, if you just ask them about the weather or the ball game or something, whatever, you’re saying to them, “You’re somebody. You count.” And I think that’s important, and that’s part of the lamp lighting, I think. I never fail to use that opportunity whenever the chance comes up. People just need somebody to believe in them. The camera is more than a thing that captures moments; it’s a passport that allows me to go into people’s homes and hearts and to say to people, “You’re special. And I’m taking a picture because you’re special.”

© John H. White, "Black soul singer Isaac Hayes performs at the International Amphitheater in Chicago as part of the annual PUSH [People United to Save Humanity] `Black Expo` in the fall of 1973," 1973

© John H. White, “Black soul singer Isaac Hayes performs at the International Amphitheater in Chicago as part of the annual PUSH [People United to Save Humanity] `Black Expo` in the fall of 1973,” 1973

One time I took a picture of a gentleman on St. Jude day, which is a big celebration in Chicago. It’s the only day when all the policeman not on the beat are at this big long parade that goes on for hours and hours. And at the end of it, there was a gentleman standing there—and I always at the end of the day just walk around before I leave to see if there’s a picture that says, “Take me!”—and I could tell from his body language that there was mourning in his heart. So I went up to him and I said, “Sir, I took a picture of you. Can you tell me what you were thinking?” He looked at me, and he gave me the most eloquent thing about how police officers serve and things like that, and this was a reminder. And I thanked him and went to leave, and he said, “No, you really want to know what I was thinking?” I said yeah. And I just stood there for fifteen, twenty minutes while he talked about the problems with the system. And at the end he said, “Thank you. You’re the first person to listen to me.”

john-h-white, photojournalist, lucie-awards, lucie-foundation, chicago-sun-times

© John H. White, “Artist who was helping with a wall painting on 33rd and Giles Street in South Side Chicago,” 1973

That’s one thing I learned from my father. Everybody is important. And I’m out there, and sometimes the only applause they’ll get in life is having the cameraman take their picture. I remember in 1969, in north Atlanta, I was waiting for a bus. And my photographs had just been published in the Charlotte Observer for winning an award. And at that time, a black photographer winning an award like that, it was a big deal. So I was waiting for the bus, and this old man stopped right in the middle of traffic, cars blowing their horns, and he was just beaming, smiling, so happy. And he said, “Yes, that’s you son! I know that’s you. I saw your picture in the paper. You’re the picture-takin’ man!” He was so happy, and I never said anything, just smiled. But he was so proud. And he said, “Keep on takin’ them pictures. You can always be the picture-takin’ man.” So people say “John H. White, the Pulitzer Prize winner” or “John H. White, photojournalist,” “John H. White, press photographer.” I smile. I’m just the picture-takin’ man.

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