Why My First Front Page For A Major Daily Newspaper Was A Huge Letdown
Or, how incredibly awkward the situation created by the Chicago Sun Times photo staff layoff was.
First I want to go on record, I’m completely grateful that I was able to get a front page photo in a major daily newspaper. So I’m not complaining here. I know plenty of people who would kill to have one of their photos appear just once on the front page of a publication that had a circulation of over 200,000 at the time, myself included, but this isn’t about getting there, it’s about what this particular instance felt like once I was there and why it took me almost 4 years to even mentioned it happened.
So it has to be noted that if you are a freelancer for a paper of just about any size, chances are your photos will never see the front page. Maybe front of the sport’s, or local sections, but not the front page. Any story big enough to make the front page will have a staff photographer there. So unless your assignment turns into a major news story by circumstance (say Gabby Gifford’s press conference where she was shot), or you’re freelancing from an international news story out of their normal coverage area (say Ferguson for Washington Post, or Syria for the New York Times) chances are you’re not going be on the front page. Well all that changed in May of 2013 when the Sun Times laid it’s entire photojournalism staff off.
Myself, like many of the freelancers for the Sun Times were in a real awkward spot after that happened. Would we continue to go on taking assignments for a publication that had just systematically laid off many of our colleagues whom we considered friends? Some of us had been stringing since we graduated college; applying for openings at the paper’s smaller weekly publications, but just never making the cut in a market that had been shrinking since the early 2000s. Most of us were very supportive and happy for those we knew who did make the jump from freelance to staff. Myself I was passed over at least 3 times while freelancing since 2001.
Now I’m not going to get rehash the details of the layoffs, but I will say that from the moment of the layoff announcement, stating that reporters & freelancers would now provide the visual content for the Sun Times, myself and at least two dozen others felt like we where put squarely in the cross fire between supporting ourselves and staying loyal to our colleagues.
On social media the photojournalists pretty much travel in the same groups, there’s really no division between staff & freelancers, so it didn’t take long before I started seeing posts calling for freelancers who took assignments to be black listed in the profession. As a reference, the assignments I took the previous year added up to just about 100 and accounted for most of my photojournalism income and at least 25% of my yearly income and I knew several photographers who worked much more frequently than me. Thankfully there were only a few voices calling for us being black listed and to the credit of those who were laid off, they understood just what it would mean to some of us to have to choose turning down work for good and the unfairness of just signaling out the freelancers when writers would also be schlepping photos and the corporate higher-ups where the ones who made the call. In the end most everyone knew that regardless of what the freelancers did it was a corporate decision that likely wouldn’t change and overall a sign of the times in journalism. Basically most saw it coming, just not so sudden.
What A Shit Sandwich Tastes Like
After the layoff not much changed with freelance assignments. As a matter of fact I felt like I was shooting less than before. Also, what I was shooting was different. Gone were the feature stories about statue dedications at fire stations, or “local woman opens a store after her brownies are big hit.” Now it was all sports, or large events, stuff your iPhone couldn’t compete with. I also started to shoot more minor league and college teams, where before it was mostly high school sports. The big change came when myself and another freelancer were tapped to shoot the fall sport’s profile photos (a half day gathering of local gridiron and other fall sports top players).
But while all that was going on it was mostly for the smaller publications and not the Sun Times itself. However, all that changed on September 1st when I got a call to photograph the location of a new Whole Foods which was going to be a front page story. Now for those of you not in the photojournalism world, there are few type of photos that you do on a regular basis, but you kind of grit your teeth and get it over with; waiting around a court house all day to get a photo of a high profile defendant as they leave, or enter the building; shooting a press conference; and shooting a building mug shot.
It’s been 5 months since a bunch of my friends & mentors, some of whom I’m really close with, were laid off from their jobs. It’s been about 17 years that I have been freelancing on and off without ever having a front page photo in even a small publication and now I’ve been given an assignment to shoot a story for a big publication and not only is it a building mug shot assignment, but to top it off there is no building. I’ve been sent to one of the roughest parts of the city to shoot what is basically a vacant parking lot.
So here it was. The moment so many of us dream about. No matter what it was you never forget your first published photos and you never forget you first front page, but there I was sitting around with like ten copies of the paper, texting my mom and a few other people, but essentially quite on Facebook & social media. Unable to bask in what should have been a happy moment, because not only was my assignment the equivalent of the school janitor spreading sawdust on puke, I was also very aware that it’s an assignment that I would never have been in the running to get before and that so many former staffers were still struggling & bitter about the layoffs.
I still did the best I could
Knowing that this would be my first front page I did spend about an hour walking around photographing this vacant lot from several different vantage points. Below is a look at some of what I took. The 5th photo was what ran on the front page. In a bizarre twist I actually got my second front page photo the following summer, along with my first front page story, as I was asked to write an article about a tragic murder I had witnessed. With a little more irony, one of the few assignments I had last year for the Sun Times was again to be a cover photo of the 1985 Chicago Bears reunion, however after covering the part of the event open to the press, my photos were moved to the inside pages replaced by an iPhone photo Walter Payton’s son Jared had put out on social media.
it’s been almost 4 years since the layoff and that empty lot is now a shiny new Whole Foods. I still have yet to even think about framing a copy of the front page. I had a total of about four assignments for the Sun Times in the last year. Many of the former Sun Times photographers are still photographing, but it was a call to early retirement, or another profession for some. I would also be remiss to not speak of the several staff photographers & photo editors who were laid-off, or took buyouts in the year, or two before the purge.