Shock and Support in Chicago Following Photographer Layoffs


By Tanya Silverman

Photo by Stuart Spivack.

Photographers and reporters of the Chicago community and beyond all disagree with the recent decision by The Chicago Sun-Times and its suburban affiliates to lay off all of their full-time still photographers. There is also rampant disapproval of the fact that this newspaper is replacing them by equipping their journalists with iPhones and relying on freelancers.

Initial Disbelief

“I sort of knew it was over when there were extra security guards posted outside of the editorial floor,” says Rob Hart, a photographer who had worked for the Sun-Times Media Group in the Chicago suburbs for the last twelve years, reflecting on the day of the mass lay-off. Hart and 27 other colleagues were called up to the 13th floor of the Holiday Inn, to the Steamboat Room, and were informed in a very brief meeting that they were to be dismissed from the paper.

After this short but shocking meeting, several of the photographers called the Chicago Newspaper Guild, their labor union, to inform its members of this departmental layoff.

“We did not see this happening,” recalls David Pollard, the president of the guild and a journalist of over fifteen years experience. Pollard is not a photographer himself, but has the utmost regard for its place in his field: “In the newspaper business, if you’re a reporter, you definitely want a nice piece of art to go with your story.”

Dismissed… for iPhones?

Alex Garcia, a Chicago-Tribune photojournalist who has been active in addressing the integrity of his profession, tells BTR he was not only “shocked” and “dumbfounded” by the news of the layoffs, but also “insulted” that The Chicago Sun-Times would seriously take “a major metropolitan photography staff department” and inform them that they would be replaced with iPhones. He also views the dismissal to be a poor decision on the part of the newspaper itself, as it’s opened the Sun-Times up to producing a poorer product, along with receiving consequent ridicule.

“The day I got laid off, I had a two-thousand-dollar piece of photo equipment arrive at my house, because they would not give us the gear we needed to do our jobs,” says Rob Hart, noting the irony of the situation. “My gear was broken, so I invested $2,000 into their business; right on the day they said we have no use for you anymore.”

Apart from this layoff occurrence, technological evolution and its effects on photographic practice are obvious and omnipresent in countless ways. The burgeoning digital advancements have transformed the art of capturing and editing a picture to be more accessible and inclusive to anyone of any level. Such evolved facilitation leads only to discount the skills, technique, passion and experience of the professional photographer — especially when compared to a smartphone.

Whatever photographic gear one utilizes (whether it is an effective darkroom chemical, an automatic photo-editing app on an iPhone, or a high-end digital Cannon lens) is not the most important element of photography, as Hart examines:

“It’s not the tool. It’s the person behind the camera. It’s the heart and the soul and the eye and the twenty years of experience in telling a story.”

Reporting and Photographing: Related (But Not Interchangeable) Skills

The Chicago Newspaper Guild organized a picketing event on Thursday, June 6 in front of the Sun-Times’ headquarters. Robert Hart and David Pollard were among the attendants, along with Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer, John H. White, who was among the recently laid off.

One protester held a particularly pithy sign that read: “I’m a reporter, my photos suck!”

This openly direct message summarizes the way that times have changed, causing both reporters and photographers to be vocal about the other’s importance to news stories.

“If they gave me a notebook and a pen and said, ‘Go report stories,’ without the skills to do it, I probably would not succeed. It might take me a couple years to figure out how to be a great reporter,” says Rob Hart.

“I’ve learned to take halfway decent shots, but I’d never say I was on par with a professional photographer like Mr. White, or any other of the photographers,” says David Pollard.

Although Alex Garcia has taught photography to prospective reporters, and does not doubt that there are individuals who are talented at both disciplines, he realizes that, in most cases, requiring the same person to gather meaningful information and simultaneously capture the appropriate visual aspect would be incredibly difficult without compromising both spheres.

It’s Not Over for Photographers — Or for Expressing Disapproval

The layoff situation has been surprising, unfair and tragic, but Hart has managed to see some positivity to its results. Along with appreciating the support from the local community, he’s also received sympathetic personal e-mails from people all over the world, was interviewed on live radio about the matter, and has been busy picking up photography gigs for outlets like the Chicago Tribune and using his free time to bond with his baby daughter. He also got a laugh out of the parody in Stephen Colbert’s comedic portrayal of the lay-offs on a recent episode of The Colbert Report.

The Chicago Sun-Times is still going forth as a newspaper, and regardless of whether any of the laid-off staff will actually return to their former jobs, this company’s unilateral dismissal has not convinced journalistic professionals, or the public, that iPhones are an acceptable replacement for photography or photographers.

For people in the Chicago area who wish to communicate their concern with the Sun-Times’ decision, the Chicago Newspaper Guild will be holding a rally this Thursday, June 13th, at 100 West Randolph Street.