February 8, 2010



“It’s not about pretty pictures. Photojournalism is the tool to help people see their life.”--John H. White (as quoted on Columbia College website where Professor White teaches photojournalism http://www2.colum.edu/cps/demo/portfolio.php )

I’ve chosen the work of Chicago photojournalist, John H. White. I say “the work” because he received a Pulitzer for his body of work, rather than just one photo or a series of photos, which seems to be a rather exceptional state of affairs. (White is halfway down in left-hand column. He is the only one receiving a Pulitzer for his body of work.) http://www.pulitzer.org/bycat/Feature-Photography
“1982--John H. White, Chicago Sun-Times
For consistently excellent work on a variety of subjects.”

I chose White because I was blessed to hear him speak at a regional CPA (Catholic Press Association) meeting, and I was very impressed by his spirituality, his humanity, his ethics, and what he had to say about the vocation of a photojournalist. The man can’t say more than a sentence without reference to God. He lives so close to God, and it shows in his work.

John H. White was born in Lexington, North Carolina. His father, a preacher, gave him his first photography assignment when John was fourteen: to photograph the ruins and reconstruction his father’s church which had burned down.

White joined the staff of the Chicago Sun-Times in 1978, and received a Pulitzer for his body of work in 1982. The photo that he describes as “launching his career” is the photo below of a 1981 Lake Michigan baptism.

White has worked on various projects and books and has received many honors and awards since receiving the Pulitzer. Best of all, he has been teaching photojournalism at Columbia College (Chicago) since 1978, training several generations of photojournalists.

The following video is a celebration of White’s 30-year career at Columbia. Photojournalist as SUBJECT of the camera! LISTEN to the scores of cameras clicking away!

White did not have an easy life and experienced much prejudice getting his career off the ground. He says simply: People were “unkind” about giving him the “the good” photography jobs. But he believes that his life and work have been according to “God’s syllabus.”

White says that there are times when he will not take pictures—even when the competition is snapping away. These would be intimate times of grief, in the ICU, etc. Sometimes, he says, he has been so overwhelmed by the moment that he just didn’t take the shot. Because he’s in constant conversation with God, White prays before his shots. He interacts with his subjects, and constantly wears his camera around his neck like a third eye. He has been known to come upon a family reunion in a park, ask if he can take some pictures (no one knows who he is), and then hand the family a roll of the best pictures they will ever have of themselves and anonymously walk away.

Biography sources:
--CPA regional meeting, Cardinal Meyer Center, Chicago, September, 2009

“I get excited when I see God in the details.”
“Do all to the glory of God.”
“Those who don’t explore others deprive themselves of God’s precious gift of diversity.”
“People need love. You’re God’s tool.”
“Isn’t life beautiful just the same?”
“I don’t worry about anything. That’s an insult to God.”
“I get through the news and tragedies of the world because of the divine in nature.”
(He uses the word “replenish” a lot.)
“I want to be God’s picture-taking person.”
“Keep in flight.” (His website is http://www.keepinflight.com/)

So, after exploring the life of my photojournalist, which photo did I choose for this project? The photo below. When we think about Pulitzer prize winning photos, I think we usually think of something dramatic, negative, horrific. But White’s vision of life is about the ordinary, the magnificence in the everyday. When he was chosen to chronicle life in Chicago (particularly the African-American community) in the 70’s for the National Archives, he wanted to show the joy, the pride, the camaraderie in the life of the people that he photographed, and he did. He says that he made a conscious choice NOT to show the violence and crime. (And I wonder if this can also perpetuate the negativity.) In the best-selling book “The Tipping Point,” there’s a famous case-study of a neighborhood being repeatedly cleaned up (windows fixed, graffiti erased) and the crime went down drastically (it seemed the cleaning-up was the only variable). It was believed that if a neighborhood looked well-kept, it sent a message that people in this neighborhood were vigilant, would not tolerate crime, and that one should be on their best behavior here. If a neighborhood was run-down, it meant that nobody cared, nobody was watching.

If White is about “telling people their stories,” and letting people “sing their song,” then he is choosing to show people’s best side back to them, or rather the greatness in their ordinary, everyday actions, jobs, duties, responsibilities, hobbies, leisure, creativity. I tend to believe in the great value of the ordinary also, and memorized this poem when I was young:

“We see a tiny bird, and it reminds us that troubles can take wing and fly away,
and in the fragrance of one perfect blossom, a special sweetness fills an ordinary day.”

It’s interesting that this poem was also about “flight.” White takes a lot of pictures of gulls when frequenting the Lake Michigan lakefront (where he goes to pray in the morning).

The ballet dancers in the photo I chose are caught “in flight.” White said he prayed before taking this photo. He asked God for fifteen minutes of good light, but God was busy, so he asked for five minutes of good light, and he got it. I love black and white photos, and I love dance (because I don’t!) I admire people who can do such things with their bodies and, vicariously, I feel like I’m dancing and leaping through the air. The dancers are also young, and youth are usually full of hope.

When I first saw this photo, I didn’t even notice there were two dancers in the air, so this photo also teaches me to look deeper, look again, and keep on looking. I think these three ways of looking are the secret to finding the richness in the ordinary, to finding God in the ordinary, and God is love, so there is love everywhere.

I also chose this photo because I think there is something wrong with a culture that doesn’t dance. Africans (and African-Americans) are known for their gifts of dancing and movement. Even though this form of dance depicted (ballet) is more of a studied, European art form—dance is dance. This photo made me think of the African proverb: “Everything breathes, everything sings, everything dances.” Dancing to me denotes an irrepressible joy. Which I think we need more of.

We just had one of our young Sisters from Cameroon make her first profession in our chapel at our Motherhouse in Boston, and since dancing is part of the African liturgy/Mass, Sr. Neville Christine and her family danced in procession at the beginning of the Mass! (We’ve had our Samoan Sisters’ families dance in our chapel before, but this is the first time one of our own Sisters has danced in our chapel.) I feel like something has turned awfully right.

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