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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.