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Chicago’s groundbreaking Black photojournalists discuss their work

We all look at the world through different lenses, but photojournalists do it more literally every day.

Photography brought together four friends, teachers and pioneers at the South Side Community Art Center last Saturday afternoon to talk about their work as Black photojournalists for Chicago’s mainstream newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s.

The four men taught photography at the South Side center, and in 1973 they created an exhibition for the center titled “Through the Eyes of Blackness.” The exhibit, which returned after 50 years on Sept. 16, featured dozens of photographs from each of them: Chicago Tribune veteran and Pulitzer Prize winner Ovie Carter; Chicago Sun-Times veterans Bob Black and Howard Simmons; and John White, who started with the now-defunct Chicago Daily News and won a Pulitzer with the Sun-Times.

The exhibition displayed his work without credit to portray the Black experience as “unity,” if not “sameness.” There were black-and-white images of iconic faces of black culture and color images of former Secretary of State Jesse White and one of his Jesse White tumblers defying gravity during a parade.

Angela Ford, founder and chief executive Obsidian Collection, made the community conversation possible with help from the Field Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust. The Obsidian Collection is a nonprofit organization that strives to preserve African American culture and history found in Black newspapers.

Ford’s firm is digitizing its collection, making it free and searchable anywhere in the world through a virtual portal. Ford said the collection reasserts the Black narrative to tell accurate stories of the culture while connecting generations of the Black diaspora. “Obsidian Stories” podcast Simmons talks about the exhibition.

“I’m inspired by this generation of men who are influencing and helping so many people in the future,” Ford said of the photographers. “I have only known them for three years, but I learn more every time I stand in the presence of these gentlemen.”

In the community chat, the four’s friendship was clearly evident. Friends hugged, laughed and finished each other’s sentences. Carter referred to the group as “first responders” who also recorded the “first draft of history.” The colorful photojournalists present came out to reminisce about the old days and thank them for paving the way.

Simmons said he met Black in a supermarket checkout line when he saw a Leica camera around Black’s neck. Carter said he found his career path after seeing Bob Black’s photo on his teacher’s desk in the Sun-Times newspaper.

“The picture spoke to me,” Carter said. “I don’t even remember exactly what it was, but what caught my attention was just the tone of the black and white photo. So I thought this was something I wanted to do; taking pictures like this.”

Photographers shared stories of major news stories like the mass firing of the entire Sun-Times photo department in 2013, the infiltration of the newspaper industry by hedge funds, and the emergence of artificial intelligence.

As they described the struggle and trauma of doing their jobs in racist environments, White, Carter, Simmons and Black held court for two hours and answered questions that brought history to life at the community center.

Here are some highlights from that conversation, which included a panel and questions submitted by the Tribune. Edited for length and clarity.

Former Chicago Sun-Times photojournalist John H. White (left) stands with former Chicago Tribune photojournalist Ovie Carter after a speech at the South Side Community Arts Center in Chicago on September 16, 2023.

Question: What was the inspiration for the “Through the Eyes of Blackness” exhibition?

Black: This was Howard’s idea. We had just started working at the newspapers downtown. I was the first to appear in the Sun-Times and before me. …There was a young person who came into the Daily News, who was the first Black photographer working downtown, and his name was John Tweedle. He lifted the ban on color in photography, and I followed him to the Sun-Times a few years later. And shortly after that, John came to the Daily News, then Ovie came to the Tribune, and Howard came to the Sun-Times. Ovie, John and I were all contemporaries at the time. So Howard came up with the idea that we should get together and organize an exhibition.

Question: Once you started working for these big newspapers, what was it like when you were working there?

White: The first piece of equipment I bought on my first day of work was a riot police helmet. It was exciting because we always felt that we had the determination to be the eyes of humanity. At the end of the day, we are the archivers of history, whether it’s a parade, the president, or law enforcement. When I think of my brothers and sisters here, I think about what we do, the gift of longevity, and what we try to do is serve, be servants. … We have fun, we laugh, we joke, but actually what we do is serious.

Q: What was it like to deal with the kind of discrimination for which Chicago is famous on a daily basis?

White: Every damn day was a challenge. We know that one frame, one third of a second, one click makes a difference. We represented our people, our people’s humanity. I cried way more than I laughed. …I live with the three F words. To me, these are the three words that keep us all going: belief, focus and struggle. Staying true to your purpose in life. We are loyal to what we do. We focus delicately on what we do because we won’t be able to do this forever. You don’t know what the next day will bring, you don’t know what the next moment will bring. Then keep fighting and do it.

Black: They sent me to this house and when I got there they weren’t home. When I came back they were coming in and this family had no idea about the loss of their loved one. Usually by the time we go they already know and they’ve gotten over the initial shock of everything and it gets a little easier. But this time they didn’t know anything. And I was the bearer of bad news. My heart sank when I realized what had happened. So I can understand what it’s like for a police officer or any official to have to do this. This is the hardest thing ever imagined.

Simmons: I was reporting on a mission where a tavern was robbed and the brothers who owned the tavern were killed. The detectives were ahead; This is a crime scene. I’m there with my camera. I see a young lady approaching the scene, holding a baby. You can see that he is nervous as he tries to understand what is going on. One of the detectives shouted, “Take the baby! Catch the baby!” She just falls to the ground. This was his father’s and uncle’s tavern.

You must do your job; you can respond, but you can’t get involved… but most of the time you do. When you get back to the paper, you have time to think about it as you develop your film. …

There are other (events) where I think I’m down south. There were people outside this school; Black children were very upset about coming to their school. I’m walking down the street with my camera because they’re on the sidewalk and someone yelled the N-word. I yelled at them and it upset them because it kind of disarmed them. The police threatened to arrest me. All kinds of situations come your way, and no matter what, you should focus on taking photos.

: Say what you will about affirmative action…it was responsible for all of us being in the positions we are in. Getting the news out, the headlines, keeping the press… it’s all about speed. There were a few times when I had to travel a little faster to get back to the paper because they had booked a picture I had done. It’s pretty exciting.

People don’t know this, but they think that journalism and photojournalism are a glamorous profession. And it is, but you have to work really hard at it. We didn’t have time to prepare for much of anything; Get up and go now. And it can happen anywhere. There were times when I came to work and didn’t come home for a week. Ultimately, I can say that I try to make aesthetically pleasing photographs that tell a story. I tried to create images that were technically sound and reflected my soul and values.

Question: People assumed that because you were the first African Americans hired, you would be sent solely to spy on African Americans. Talk about it.

Black: In my case, they needed someone to go in there and cover the riots because we had access. We could go in and no one paid attention to us. I would take on assignments that would send me to places I knew would not be friendly.

One time the newspaper was doing a series of stories about live entertainment in neighborhood bars. One night they were going to send me somewhere on the Far Southwest Side. I knew this was not a place for me to go and it was at night because that’s when the entertainment took place. I knew I had to find a way to get in there without causing too much noise. So I told the guy at the news desk to call the bar and let them know I was coming. I had an older brother who worked for the Chicago Fire Department, and he bought me one of the work coats they usually wore to fires, so I wouldn’t ruin my regular clothes while covering the fire. come closer.

What I did, I took multiple cameras with me, I wore both cameras around my neck and put on that firefighter coat and when I got to the location, the second I walked in the door you could hear a pin drop. I knew all eyes were on me. “Sun-Times?” a voice said from the back, next to the bar. I heard you say. I said yes. “Come in,” he said. And people went back to what they were doing. I didn’t pay an iota of difference. I got in there, took my photos, and walked out with no problem because I knew how to do it. The whole idea was to disarm them, throw them off balance.

White: I was shot at, I was attacked. I was in executive meetings for an hour and three hours later I was wearing a bulletproof vest. You have to endure. You wear different cameras around your neck and body. And people look at an image and they have no idea about all the components that go into it. You have to go there first. … To meet the deadline, you have to go back, process the film, and print it while it’s wet. All these materials go into print. I work for history, for time.

Question: How did you maintain your mental health when you were at the forefront of history?

Simmons: Being with such amazing photographers. I tell people these guys keep me humble.

White: Brotherly love. We have a union. Our techniques are in different styles… but there is unity because we have the same spirit, heart and soul and we are almost the same and this is beyond the news; nothing can replace this.

Black: In terms of mental health, I experienced some internal changes there. … I didn’t have much trouble on the street, including in communities that were not very friendly to blacks. I was able to go in and do what I needed to do. Not once did I say to the table, “I can’t go there.” But I encountered some obstacles inside. However, I have also seen some obstacles being removed. It was my faith that held me together. If this didn’t happen I’d probably go crazy.

drockett@chicagotribune.com

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