John H. White: Legendary photojournalist

by Malaika Kambon

John H. White
John H. White

Legendary photojournalist John H. White is world renowned in his field. A lecturer, a former U.S. Marine Corps photographer and an honored artist in residence in the photojournalism department at Columbia College in Chicago, where he has taught continuously for more than 30 years, Professor White has received over 300 awards from local, national and international organizations.

Born March 18, 1945, in Lexington, North Carolina, the son of Rev. Reid Ross White Sr., an African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church minister, and his wife, Mrs. Ruby Mae Levertt White, Professor John H. White’s career spans over 45 years in photojournalism, and his list of awards includes but is not limited to the following:

  • 1982: Pulitzer Prize for feature photography for his “consistently excellent work on a variety of subjects”
  • 2013: Lucie Award Honoree: Achievement in Photojournalism
  • 1989: The National Press Photographers Association’s Joseph A. Sprague Memorial Award, NPPA’s highest honor, for commitment and leadership
  • Chicago Press Photographers Association’s Photographer of the Year award a record five times
  • 1993: First photographer inducted in the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame
  • 1998, 1990, 1974: Three first place National Headline Awards in spot news (1998) features (1990) and sports (1974) “White’s photo of a gas leak that erupted into a 15-story fireball and scorched a Chicago senior living center was one of the most memorable news photos of 1998.”
  • 1999: The Chicago Medal of Merit, the city’s highest honor, awarded by Mayor Richard J. Daley and the Chicago City Council
  • 2002: Chicago State University Hall of Fame
  • 2003: Chicago Headliners Club Lifetime Achievement Award
  • 2006: Nikon Award for years of service and friendship to photojournalism
  • 2007: Chicago Journalists Association Lifetime Achievement Award
  • 2008: Associated Press Spot News Award
  • 2008: Teacher of the Year Award from Columbia College Chicago Student Association during the “PJ Love” Seminar, an annual educational workshop in photojournalism
  • 2009: Southern Short Course in News Photography Lifetime Achievement Award
  • 2009: Peter Lisagor Award for Best News Photo
“Nuns offer spiritual support for prisoners,” winner of third prize, World Press International, 1977 – Photo: John H. White
“Nuns offer spiritual support for prisoners,” winner of third prize, World Press International, 1977 – Photo: John H. White

Professor White’s first camera was purchased at the age of 13 for 50 cents and 10 Bazooka bubble gum wrappers, his first assignment was for his father at the same age, and he went on to receive an associate of applied science degree in commercial art and advertising design in 1966. This he followed one week later with active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps. There he rose to the rank of sergeant, received numerous awards and honors as a Marine photographer, and his work was featured regularly in military publications.

In 1973-74, he worked for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Documerica project, producing a body of work entitled “Portrait of Black Chicago.” A partial representation of this body of work can be viewed at DOCUMERICA – John H White.

“A Tender Moment with Mother Teresa” – Photo: John H. White
“A Tender Moment with Mother Teresa” – Photo: John H. White

Beginning his newspaper career at the Chicago Daily News as a photographer in 1969, he moved to the Chicago Sun Times in 1978 when the Daily News ceased operation. In 1978, he also began his part time teaching career in the photojournalism department at Columbia College in Chicago, where he has taught for over 30 years and is honored as artist in residence; and in 2002-2004 he served as adjunct lecturer in photojournalism at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

In 2009 he celebrated his 40th year as a Chicago photojournalist.

John White’s original caption: “South Side group of Black children in Chicago at a playground at 40th and Drexel Boulevard, part of nearly 1.2 million people of their race who make up over one third of the city’s population. They comprise several of many Black faces in this project that portray pride, love, beauty, hope, struggle, joy, hate, frustration, discontent, worship and faith. In short, portraits of people who feel they are individuals and are proud of their heritage.”
John White’s original caption: “South Side group of Black children in Chicago at a playground at 40th and Drexel Boulevard, part of nearly 1.2 million people of their race who make up over one third of the city’s population. They comprise several of many Black faces in this project that portray pride, love, beauty, hope, struggle, joy, hate, frustration, discontent, worship and faith. In short, portraits of people who feel they are individuals and are proud of their heritage.”

Legendary photojournalist John H. White lives by three words: faith, focus, flight. “I’m faithful to my purpose, my mission, my assignment, my work, my dreams. I stay focused on what I’m doing and what’s important. And I keep in flight – I spread my wings and do it.” All who know him know he encourages all to keep in flight! He says his greatest joy is being the “eyes” for the people of Chicago on a daily basis and sharing “what I see and what I feel” through the lens of his camera.

He does it all to perfection: all depths of field, stop action, utilization of highlights and shadows, different focal lengths, color palettes, compositional strategies, symbolism and contexts. He has shot everything. His Pulitzer Prize noted that he has done “consistently excellent work on a variety of subjects.” His photographs have layers and textures, love and life, and speak to the heart of a Black community. If I’m going to emulate anyone, it will be him, because overriding everything is that, like me, he shoots from the heart and we love what we do.

I seriously wish that I were in his classes. He both sees and respects his students and their work.

Malaika H Kambon is a freelance, multi-award winning photojournalist and owner of People’s Eye Photography. She is also an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) state and national champion in Tae Kwon Do from 2007-2012. She can be reached at kambonrb@pacbell.net.

John White’s original caption: “Sidewalk merchandise on Chicago’s South Side. Many of the city’s Black businessmen started small and grew by working hard. Today Chicago is believed to be the Black business capital of the United States. Black Enterprise magazine reported in 1973 that the city had 14 of the top 100 Black owned businesses in the country, one more than New York City.”
John White’s original caption: “Sidewalk merchandise on Chicago’s South Side. Many of the city’s Black businessmen started small and grew by working hard. Today Chicago is believed to be the Black business capital of the United States. Black Enterprise magazine reported in 1973 that the city had 14 of the top 100 Black owned businesses in the country, one more than New York City.”

 

“The Face of Mexico” – Photo: John H. White
“The Face of Mexico” – Photo: John H. White

 

“Joy” – Photo: John H. White
“Joy” – Photo: John H. White

 

“Muhammad Ali, Champ Forever” – Photo: John H. White
“Muhammad Ali, Champ Forever” – Photo: John H. White