John White: ‘Take Pictures With The Camera Of Your Heart’

CHICAGO (CBS) — Chicago Sun-Times photographer John White isn’t only a witness to history. He’s made history himself.

White won the Pulitzer Prize for photojournalism 30 years ago this spring. As the anniversary approaches, he invited CBS 2’s Bill Kurtis into his home for a snapshot of the world.

“There are moments; visual treasures that are timeless,” White said.

With camera in hand and a keen eye for the most compelling images, White puts the news in focus every day. His mantra is that every human being has a song.

White’s home is filled with his own song – his greatest works. Nelson Mandela is seen donning his trenchcoat on his second day as a free man. A hand reaches out in prayer, clutching a sacred scripture. A joyous crowd celebrates in Grant Park on the epochal night in 2008 when President Barack Obama won his office.

The essence of White’s work extends far beyond the simple act of snapping picture.

“At the end of the day, whatever happened, I recorded it,” he said.

White began his career with the Chicago Daily News, and joined the Sun-Times in 1978 when the Daily News folded. His Pulitzer in 1982 was the first ever recorded for a body of work.

He earned the prize for “consistently excellent work on a variety of subjects” for his images of life in Chicago.

The captivating shots included a baptism in the crashing waves of Lake Michigan, a newborn crying fighting for life with an oxygen tube, ballet dancers leaping graciously, and a police officer walking his beat among grim-looking residents of a public housing development. A jailhouse chaplain comforts an inmate, and a shirtless boy runs for the glory in a winning track team that was so poor, they had to share shoes.

“Everyday life, everyday life – it’s simple; almost reflective of humanity,” White said.

There is also an important shot that White didn’t take. Instead, he appears embracing his boss the night he found out he’d won the prize.

“He said, ‘Congratulations, you won a Pulitzer,’ and by that time, all the newsroom came out and they were taking pictures and things like that,” White said, “and I was so touched.”

White’s work honors dear friends such as Muhammad Ali, and a man he dearly misses – the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin.

One of White’s shows Bernardin officiating what was likely his last baptism.

“He was leaving, and all at once, he just stopped and looked back,” White said.

It’s clear that John White loves being behind the camera, but he also finds joy at the front of a classroom. He teaches at Chicago’s Columbia College.

“The students are my children. They’re an extension of my dreams,” White said. “I tell my students, ‘Take pictures with the camera of your heart.’”

White’s favorite message is “keep in flight, like an eagle looking the sun in the eye.” He got his first camera in 1958 for 50 cents and 10 Bazooka bubblegum wrappers, and he still has it now.

  • Maureen McInerney Mleczewski

    John H White is a great man & was the most inspirational teacher that I studied under at Columbia College. He raised the bar for us, we wanted to excel as artists and humans. I now teach photography to college students, and I now KNOW how difficult that job can be.

    • Scott Stewart

      My Teacher, My Friend, My Hero, all in one that’s John H. White. Everyday I have the honor to work side by side with this Great Great man. Like warm sunshine he brings the best out of our photo staff everyday. We are blessed to have him. He is our light, hope , and dreams. In his own way He still teaches us and we listen to our teacher. Who we all love. Scott Stewart/Staff Photographer Chicago Sun-Times.

  • Vincent Johnson

    The man who taught me and so many others how to be photojournalists and better people. Truly a Chicago Icon that so very few will know since he’s always behind the lens. Thank you for doing a story on him.

  • Pablo Martinez Monsivais

    John H. White, the teacher who helped me discover that photojournalism is as much about learning a craft as is about learning who you are. John is very rare, because he shares what he all he knows and teaches from the heart, while giving 100% of himself. Thank you Bill Curtis and your team at CBS for shining a spotlight on a true Chicago icon.
    Pablo Martinez Monsivais
    Columbia College Class 93
    Associated Press Photo Wash DC

  • Vanessa Bly

    John H White, don’t forget the H! I’ve always loved Photojournalism, but until I took his class, I never really understood it. He was the first teacher that taught me, not only how to love taking photos, but to love myself, and to love others. PJ Love. He has been such an inspiration to me, and every class that I had with him I was in tears at some point. He is filled with so much love and just makes me happy. I am so proud to have studied under him, he is amazing and a legend.

    Columbia College Class of 2011

  • Stacy McReynolds

    Thank you Bill Curtis and CBS Chicago for doing such a wonderful piece on a truly amazing man! John inspired me during my time at Columbia College in the early 90’s. Even though it has been years (way too long!) since I have seen him, my memories of my time spent with John keep me going on a daily basis! He changed the way I see life and taught me a lot about myself. He truly does give 100% of himself to everyone he meets! Thanks for helping celebrate such an icon! Oh, and thank you, John, for being yourself and inspiring so many!

  • Samedi Matin « mathychicago
  • Paul Gero

    Thank you for sharing this story…John continues to inspire his students past and present and still has “the rookie’s spirit with the pro’s eye” like he encourage his kids (his students) to have.

    I was blessed to have my life changed by John back in 1980 when studying in Chicago while on an off-campus program. I called up the Sun-Times photo dept, nervous but hoping to leave a message for him and ironically John answered the phone!

    I told him my story and he was so positive and encouraging to a student just off the turnip truck from Wisconsin. He even agreed to meet for lunch. On the day we had lunch (a quick bite at the Burger King on Chicago and State) he then invited me to attend his class at Columbia which was starting that night.

    That was it. I was inspired, excited and couldn’t wait for each Thursday night class. During the week, I would travel the El and CTA and do assignments for his class and soon assignments for the Lincolnd-Belmont Booster, processing film in a darkroom I converted from my apartment closet.

    My life changed because of John and his class. I went on to spend 19 years in daily journalism and he’s the main reason I pursued newspaper work. I’ll never forget how he built me up but also let me know when I could do better. The worst thing was to disappoint John with your photographs.

    I still have friends that I am in touch with from that class and from our post class gatherings at The Goats (some of John’s alums would come back to visit with him and us after class) . We closed that place down on so many Thursday nights it wasn’t funny.

    John I can’t thank you enough for sharing your gifts with me — you are a treasure to Chicago, to photography and may you keep in flight for many decades to come!!


  • Ranneisha Champion

    John is such a great man!!
    Always positive and always making sure “pj angels”strive to be the best they can be. His presence is always felt. He literally have love all over him. I love him for that

    I have learned so much from him and although im not in his class anymore Im still learning from him..FAITH FLIGHT FOCUS.KEEP IN FLIGHT.

    ~Black Diamond(name he gave me :))

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