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'I'm The Conduit': Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photojournalist John White On His Life's Work

John H. White
Courtesy Middlebury College
"Autumn of 1981." Photographer John White, who won a Pulitzer Prize for photography in 1982, will speak at Middlebury College on Tuesday, April 12.

Whether you know it or not, there's a good chance you've admired the work of John White. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo-journalist who's captured iconic images of Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali, just to name a few.

He spent decades with the Chicago Sun-Times – until the paper laid off all of its photography staff in 2013.

White is set to talk about his work at Middlebury College on Tuesday at 4:30 p.m., and he joined VPR by phone from Chicago to talk about his career.

On getting into photography

"I actually was chewing bubblegum in school, which you don't do. And it was Bazooka bubble gum and in the bubblegum wrapper said for 50 cents and ten wrappers, you can get a camera. So, my grandmother gave me 50 cents. I ordered that camera, and it was my first camera, when I was 13 years old.

"My father is a minister, and so everywhere we would go, people would take photographs of the preacher family and things like that, and I always had this sense of what people were looking at, and watching people ... This thing of observing people. It was simpler for me to click a shutter and capture a moment.

At this point, John White holds a camera up to the microphone and snaps a picture, creating that unmistakable sound of a lens shutter.

"Oh yes, I have my Nikon, and then I have the camera of my heart. The absence of a camera would be ... I mean, it's an extension and it's an extension of my ... I have to have the camera because I look at myself as a visual servant."

Credit John H. White / Courtesy Middlebury College
Courtesy Middlebury College
Muhammad Ali, 1978, Deer Lake, Pennsylvania.

On being a "visual servant to God"

"The camera is sort of a conduit between the heart beat of humanity. I know that when I capture a moment, that every individual on earth can read that, can understand the language of that. And so I can communicate with everybody.

"I remember an interview President Obama did last year, and a student asked, 'Mr. President, if you had any power in the world, what would that power be?' And he said, 'To speak all the languages of the world.' And I can't wait to have a conversation with the president and say, 'Mr. President, I do that every day.' ... And somebody young, old rich, poor, educated, uneducated, can read the language of photography."

Credit John H. White / Courtesy Middlebury College
Courtesy Middlebury College
Aim of Fame.

On choosing a favorite photograph

"I just love photographs. And they change. There are some that mean much to me because of what it meant to the people. And in my Pulitzer Prize portfolio, there's a picture of a dinosaur, at the museum, being maintained. And I attended a kindergarten graduation. And this little boy was the top speaker there and I was so proud of him and I went up to him I said, 'I'm very proud of you, and you're going to do great. So what you want to be when you grow up?' And he said, 'Mister, I want to be like the man and take pictures of dinosaurs.'

"And so that touched me, because he saw my photograph and did a study on my work and he wanted to be like John White, so to speak. So that, to me, is just as important as covering the pope, or any major event. It's the one-on-one, heart-to-heart, eye-to-eye, with ordinary people."

"I'm the conduit"

"The pictures take themselves ... I'm just sort of the mirror. I'm the the conduit. I remember, one meaningful moment for instance is [Nelson] Mandela being in this house for the first time after being released from prison in Soweto. And I saw him, you know, I'm in the kitchen and he's coming out of the bedroom, with his jacket, putting it on, and I just saw that smile, this gentle giant, this kindness, and I took the picture.

Credit John H. White / Courtesy Middlebury College
Courtesy Middlebury College
Nelson Mandela returns home to Soweto, February 15, 1990.

"I captured that moment. But, in moments like that, it's not me. You know, I'm there, I sense the spirit of connectedness. And so, I don't take the picture, the spirit takes it, so to speak."

On the role of photojournalists in a world awash with smartphones

"You know, I think it's true that there are a lot of photographers. But quality photographs, quality moments – a lot of photographs out there, but not a lot of moments. Not a lot of intimate moments.

Credit John H. White / Courtesy Middlebury College
Courtesy Middlebury College
Pure Joy.

"I mean, you when I was coming to the studio, I saw two people standing, getting ready to take a selfie. And I said, 'May I take the picture for you?' And they were going to take it against this wall that, the window that was overpowering the light, which wouldn't work. Anyway, I took two images with their phone, and they just really loved it.

"So I think that people are clickers. You know, they click. And there's no soul to it, there's no feeling to it. It's content, which is cool. You look at the magazines and newspapers that are doing great things, and there's moments there. There's moments there, and those will always be. And you can't do that with a clicker." 

Annie Russell was VPR's Deputy News Director. She came to VPR from NPR's Weekends on All Things Considered and WNYC's On The Media. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School.
Alex was a reporter and host of VPR's local All Things Considered. He was also the co-host and co-creator of the VPR program Brave Little State.
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