White, John H. 1945–
John H. White 1945–
John H. White bought his first camera for fifty cents and ten bubble gum wrappers. Later, as a staff photographer for the Chicago Sun-Times, White toured the world, often facing danger to capture historical moments. As a teacher at Chicago’s Columbia College, he has shared his experience with aspiring photojournal-ists. In nearly thirty years as a photojournalism he has earned over three hundred awards, including the prestigious Pulitzer Prize.
Born March 18, 1945, in Lexington, North Carolina, White was the son of an African Methodist Episcopal minister who often moved the family from city to city in order to teach his children life lessons about the world around them. White remembers another kind of lesson when he was in the second grade; his father took him and his brothers out of school so they could “see a great man.” He took them to a railroad station in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where, on the back of a train car, stood President Dwight Eisenhower. Another time, White’s father took his children to the site of a fatal car crash to teach them the consequences of violating the laws of man and nature. “He taught us about life, about love and respect for humankind which literally saved my life,” White said in an interview. “I think if I hadn’t had that sense of love for people instilled in me from early on, I would have taken a bad road in life.”
A slow student, White cried once when told by a teacher that he’d grow up to be nothing more than a garbage man. His father comforted him by telling him that it was okay to be a garbage man—as long as he was the one driving the truck. White learned that the goal, no matter what one pursues, is to strive to be the best. Although he bought his first camera at the age of 13 for 50 cents and ten bubblegum wrappers, the idea to become a professional photographer didn’t occur to White until much later. As a commercial art student at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina, he decided that photography was the “best and simplest means of expression for me ...” and he pursued it passionately.
Although a stint in the Marine Corps gave him the opportunity to work as a photographer, White had a tough time finding work back in civilian life. Employers weren’t even talking to blacks then, let alone hiring them, White remembered. But he landed a job at the Chicago Daily News in 1969, and stayed in Chicago. After the Daily News stopped publishing, White moved to the Chicago Sun-Times, in 1978.
Not only a full-time photojournalist for a major Chicago daily, White also was a photo teacher and head of the photojournalism department at Chicago’s Columbia College. He was known for giving his students a taste of what real life as a photojournalist was like. He regularly
At a Glance…
B orn March 18,1945, in Lexington, NC Education: Associate of Applied Science degree in commercial art and advertising design, Central Piedmont Community College, Charlotte, NC, 1966,
Career: Photographer, Chicago Daily News, 1969-78; Chicago Sun-Times, 1978-; artist in residence, teacher, Columbia College, 1978-; Photojournalism Department of Columbia College, dept head, 1988-. Exhibitions; My People: A Portrait of Afro-American Culture, Rockefeller Center, New York City, 1991; The Soul of Photojournalism, Comenius University, Slovakia, 1993; John H. White: Portrait of Black Chicago, National Archives Exhibit, 1997; Witness to History, 55 Years of Pulitzer Prize Photos, Bunkamura Museum, Tokyo, Japan, 1998.
Member: President, Chicago Press Photographers Association, 1977-78.
Awards: Photographer of the Year, Chicago Press Photographers Association, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1986; Marshall Field Award, from Chicago Sun-Times, 1976; National Headliner Award, 1979, 1990, 1999; World Press Photo Competition, 1979; honorable mention, Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, 1979; Pulitzer Prize Award, feature photography, 1982; Outstanding Photojournafist Award, Chicago Association of Black Journalists, 1981, 1982, 1984; first place, general news, Chicago Press Photographers Assn., 1986; Joseph A. Sprague Memorial Award, National Press Photographers Assm, 1989; National Press Award, 1991; inducted, Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame, 1993; National Press Photographers Assn. Award of Excellence in General News Photography, 1994; Chicago Medal of Merit, 1999; Studs Terkel Award, 1999.
Addresses: Business —Chicago Sun-Times, 401 N. Wabash Ave., Chicago, IL 60611.
put them through what he called a “quick-draw drill.” Two students stand back to back, when White says “Go,” the students walk away from each other, and when he says “Draw,” they spin around and shoot. The goal is not only to get the first shot, but to get it in focus. Photojournalists on the street rarely get a second chance. “You’d better have what it takes to drive through traffic jams or rush hour, past the radar cop, know [shortcuts] that might cut travel time,” he would tell his students, “then get there, set up for the best shot, take it, get back, and print a picture by deadline.” As a photojournalism White had to practice what he taught and follow the action no matter how dangerous, and has admitted to being frightened. He excelled at this, and earned over 300 awards for it, including the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. While in South Africa with the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a gun was held in his face by a police officer who’d just shot some people and was enforcing the law there against documenting police activity.
Capturing the action at just the right moment was what White was good at. On Halloween morning 1998, White was radioed by his editor at Chicago Sun-Times to investigate a suspicious report he heard on the fire radio—some senior citizens were being evacuated from a building because of a ruptured gas main. The area of the incident was blocked off, so White had to take side streets—he later declined to give away his secret route. He arrived, jumped out of the car with two cameras loaded and set for the proper time of day and exposure. Moments later, an explosion shot up the side of the building, and he captured it on film. White called the shot a crisis demanding “everything you know” with no time to think about it. “Somebody made a statement that Sammy Sosa, for instance, can see a baseball at 100 miles an hour,” White told the News Photographer. “You see everything in an instant. You’re comprehending things all in an instant. Our lives, our work, our profession is about capturing an instant that’s forever. So we see more than just a fireball, more than just a building, more than just a person—you see all those things. I don’t know how you do that, but it’s done.”
White first met and photographed Joseph Cardinal Bernardin at an airport in 1979, while both were awaiting the arrival of Pope John Paul II. White was struck by the Catholic cardinal’s presence, and felt an immediate connection with him, despite their obvious differences. “There I was,” he told the New Catholic Explorer, “a black photojournalism the Protestant son of a Protestant minister, the brother of three Protestant ministers, and I felt Cardinal Bernardina luminous spirit when we met.” White followed Bernardin more closely after Bernardin was named Archbishop of Chicago in 1982, and the two became friends. He photographed Bernardin often for the Chicago Sun-Times over the next 14 years, documenting his initial mass in Chicago’s Grant park, his acquittal from charges of sexual misconduct, and his struggle with cancer.
White’s first book, a visual diary of Bernardin, was published in 1996. This Man Bernardin proved a critical success for White, and a record-breaking bestseller for its publisher, Loyola Press. White called the photographic memoir “an assignment from God” in the New Catholic Explorer. The follow up, The Final Journey of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, was published in 1997. In it, White documented the Cardinal’s last days struggling with cancer, and those who mourned him after he died. The cardinal invited White into his hospital room after his cancer surgery, telling others, “John is my friend.” White treasured his years covering the cardinal. In the New Catholic Explorer, he called the task “a privilege—a front-row seat to his life, and an opportunity to be exposed to his life and to the people he shepherds.”
White considers his camera his passport to the world. He toured Russia, South Africa, Europe, Mexico, the Middle East, and Asia on assignment. He also was involved in photo conferences all over the world. He was one of the few Vatican-approved photographers to cover Pope John Paul II’s 1979 visit to Mexico. White also was one of 200 photographers to participate in the “Day in the Life of America” campaign, the largest photographic project in American history, in 1986. His photos of Nelson Mandela, who was released after 27 years in a South African prison, garnered White numerous awards in 1996. On a trip to former Yugoslavia with Reverend Jesse Jackson in 1999, White documented the momentous release of three captured United States soldiers. “A photographer can be the eyes for the world,” White told the New Catholic Explorer. “It’s a privilege and a tremendous responsibility.”
This Man Bernardin, Loyola Press, 1996.
The Final Journey of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, Loyola Press, 1997.
Works in Progress
The Private Moments of a Public Man, a Jesse Jackson book.
Hallelujah, about the black church.
Fuel for the Journey, on nature.
Keep in Flight, a retrospective of his work.
The New Catholic Explorer, September 6, 1996.
News Photographer, April 1999.
Additional information was provided by John H. White, 2000.
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