The Chicago Sun-Times terminated its entire photography department. It replaced 28 photojournalists – most of whom had been working at the paper for ten to forty-plus years – with writers using smartphones and freelancers if deemed necessary.
A little less than two months later, The Chicago Photography Center is presenting a tribute to those laid off journalists, and reflecting on the loss to the community and industry. Their short-term exhibit, which kicked off on July 14 and runs through this weekend, is titled “See What You Missed.”
“This has really turned the photography world upside down,” said Heidi Kohz, the center’s executive director. “We wanted to do something to help and give value to these photographers who had otherwise been dismissed and unappreciated.”
The exhibit showcases the work of 18 of the Sun-Times’ laid off photographers, who had from June 29 to July 3 to shoot any subject of their choice for the gallery. Over that week, they created 58 images, including joyful photos from the gay pride parade, somber shots at a fire, and quiet moments in a nursing home.
“Killing off an entire department is kind of extraordinary, and a little frightening,” said Charles Osgood, a former Chicago Tribune photographer, who curated the exhibit along with his colleague at the center, José Moré. “Anybody can take a picture, anybody can write a story, but not anybody is a writer, and not anybody is a photographer.”
Kohz said the center’s traffic has nearly tripled over the last two weeks because of the exhibit. About 300 guests have come through to see the photos, in addition to 300 more at the exhibit’s kickoff celebration, making it the largest opening the center has ever had.
“The support was breathtaking,” Kohz said. “A photojournalist from Boston came through, students visiting from Spain, family members, friends – it’s been very impactful to people.”
The Sun-Times layoffs became international news as a representation of drastic change in the news business.
Osgood has been an adjunct professor of photojournalism at Columbia College for more than 20 years. In the last five, he's started to preach the importance of skill diversification. Most of his students won't be able to make a living as photojournalists anymore.
At the same time, he said, photography is “more valued than ever,” at least by the public. Ironically enough, that’s largely due to new ways of consuming media through digital technology — including that pesky smartphone mentioned earlier.
“When people go online, they look at the photo first, the headline second, the caption third, and then finally they get to the story,” Osgood said. “Photography is what draws you in, and if you're in the business of storytelling, it’s incredibly important to have top quality images.”
But for many, the Sun-Times' decision confirmed the lurking suspicion that journalism's decision makers are discounting visual storytelling. Kohz said the Sun-Times may have been the first major paper to do this, but they won’t be the last.
“I was joking they should have gotten rid of all the writers and just given the photographers a pen,” Osgood said with a chuckle. “Someone said, don't give them any ideas.”
The Chicago Photography Center is also planning a lecture series for this fall on the future of photography, and Kohz said she hopes to check in with the Sun-Times group in six months or a year to "see where they’ve landed."
“They’ve all reached the point where they’re moving on, and are almost tired of the subject,” she said. “But with this [exhibit,] at least for a moment, it wasn’t taken for granted.”
Alyssa Edes is an intern on WBEZ's digial team. Follow her on Twitter @alyssaedes.