Wide Lens, Open Heart: The work of legendary photojournalist John H. White

From the first time award-winning photojournalist John H. White held a camera, it was the beginning of a love affair. “I was just 13. I bought my first camera with 10 Bazooka Bubble Gum wrappers and fifty cents,” he says.

When it comes to photojournalism, White is one of our national treasures. His celebrated images capture the heart and soul of humanity. When you see what this man has brought to the table, it makes recent events all the more baffling.

In a shocking move that took place just weeks ago, the Chicago Sun-Times fired its entire photography staff. White and his colleagues, twenty-eight of them, will be replaced by reporters trained to take pictures and videos with their iPhones.

White is a very philosophical and spiritually grounded man. Everything he says and does is a reflection of that. I had the sincere pleasure of talking to him about his life behind the camera, his reaction to the layoffs, and about all of the good things that his upbeat perspective ensures must lie ahead.

A front seat to history

“I am a photojournalist. I’ve had a front seat to history,” White proclaims. But his story has simple origins.

“When I was in third grade our father took us out of school and brought us to the train station in Winston Salem, North Carolina. He made sure we were standing right in front,” recalls White.  “A big train pulled up, with all of this fanfare, music and flags waving, and there was a man on that train. My dad said, ‘Johnny, that is a great man, he’s the president of the United States.’ And even though there were a lot of people there, that man looked me right in the eyes and waved. President Eisenhower waved at me. So those early images have been a part of latent photography for me. Sometimes it takes time for those images to develop, but they are pieces of the puzzle: family, friends, relatives, and the church. All of these innate images inspired me. I started using the camera of the heart before I started using the camera.”

Soon after that came White’s first assignment. When the family church burned down, his father asked him to photograph the rebuilding of the church, and he was fully hooked.

“I am so thankful for the journey from then until now,” says White. “Dreams come true when you keep them alive, that’s why the nutrition of love, vision, and hope are important ingredients for the road map of life. My family gave me roots and wings, and a four letter word called ‘love.’ I don’t remember a time when I was with my parents and they didn’t tell me, ‘We love you, Johnny.’ It’s an important ingredient, as nourishing as water.”

Armed with that confidence and support, White began building the professional body of his work at the Chicago Daily News when he was in his 20s. In the early ’70s, the Environmental Protection Agency hired White to photograph Chicago’s African-American community for its DOCUMERICA project.

While those images capture many vicissitudes of black life, they also capture the spirit and hope of humanity.

In 1978, White became one of the first African-Americans to be hired by the Chicago Sun-Times.

He has photographed luminaries such as Pope John Paul II,  Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Muhammad Ali in his prime, and President Barack Obama, just to name a few. In 1982, John H. White received the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.

Photography: A daily divine assignment

The man loves what he does, plain and simple. “It’s never a job. I never refer to it as a job,” says White. “It’s a privilege and an opportunity, a daily divine assignment. What does it entail? It’s simple. It’s being the eyes of others, seeing life, capturing it and sharing it.”

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