CHICAGO - "It was Wednesday night at 5 p.m. when I saw the email about the mandatory meeting the next morning at 9:30. No word of what it was all about. By 9:35 all 28 of us were gone."
Thus Rob Dicker, a photographer for 21 years with the Chicago Sun Times, described how the photographers were ordered to a meeting where they were summarily dismissed. "They told us it was because they were going into multimedia and video," he said. "They told us it was because people are going online to get their news."
Dicker and his 28 fired colleagues were outside the Thompson Center in the Loop June 13 where they told their stories to the public at a rally in their support.
"No one cared like these people," Dicker said. "Sometimes we got to the place where the news was breaking before the reporter. We were responsible for capturing on film those initial events and we helped and worked with the reporters. And it's more than just legend that there are photographers who have gone back and gone back maybe 20 times to take that picture that really captures what happened."
David Pollard, president of the Chicago Newspaper Guild, told the crowd that all 28 of the photographers who were fired had taken 15 percent pay cuts and two week unpaid furloughs when the company said it was in trouble. "This is how they were thanked," he said. He explained that the photo department was deleted just as the paper's management was in talks with the union on a new contract.
"These people held their cameras because they loved their jobs and their craft. They weren't in it for the money, they were there to serve the public, the readership, by doing what they loved to the best of their ability. "The crowd picked up Pollard's shout of "Shame, shame on the Sun Times" and continued chanting until each of the 28 fired photographers filed onto the platform behind him. At that point they broke out into sustained applause, cheering and whistling as the fired workers stood shoulder to shoulder across the platform.
Richard Cahan, the fired photo editor said he sees professional photography as having played a key role during every important era in our history. "The city, the people are losing something," he said. "Think about the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, the My Lai massacre and, if you are a Chicagoan, the funeral of Mayor Harold Washington. These things entered your consciousness and made a lifelong impression, by way of a photograph taken by a man or a woman who saw what he or she did as a sacred task almost - the task of showing the public what happened."
"And this talk about online journalism being the reason, its nonsense," said Dicker. "When you go online and you scan through things quickly as you often do it will be the really good professional photograph that might catch your eye and slow you down to stop and look."
Curtis Lawrence, associate professor at the Columbia College School of Media Arts and Journalism said that his school has just started a degree program in photographic journalism that includes video and multi media training. "These are callous people out to make money," he said of the Sun-Times management, "and they are not interested in training their top notch photographers to acquire even more skills. They'd rather do things on the cheap to line their own pockets with more money."
Tony Fitzpatrick, a Chicagoan who has worked as writer, an artist and a print maker, who says he takes "lousy pictures," and who is a member of three unions - the Screen Actors Guild, Actors Equity and the Chicago Newspaper Guild, argued passionately for newspapers to keep photographers on board.
"The professional photographer's lens is a great equalizer, an important thing in a democracy because it brings out the humanity in all of us," he said. "What is the most frightening thing here is that the corporations are showing that as far as they are concerned working people, photographers, and artists can all be dispensed with. Craft and skills have no place, just hand out poor quality writing and photography and people will be satisfied with that."
"Can you imagine," Fitzpatrick asked, "that they could be so clueless as to think that they can cover what these people did by telling reporters to take pictures with their cell phones?"
Scott Stewart, who took pictures for the Sun Times for 28 years, shared what he said had been his "proudest day."
"The proudest day of my life was in 2010 when they asked me to go to Pittsburgh to take pictures of the Blackhawks game and when I came home to Chicago with them after they had won the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I was so proud because it was my pictures that helped bring so much of that home to the fans, to the working people of Chicago. Wow."
Stewart continued: "We were the type of people you could send out anywhere, to any emergency to anything and we would come back with those pictures. And we worked many hours with no pay, all we cared about was the job. Do you think we would stop in the middle of a crisis, a storm a murder or a fire and say its time to go home now? No, we were proud to stay and bring the pictures to the people who need to know, the people of Chicago."
Bob Reiter, secretary treasurer of the Chicago Federation of Labor, was cheered wildly when he said he was bringing to the photographers the solidarity and support of the 500,000 working people represented by his federation. "The people who work in these buildings and who build these roads and run these buses and trains are with you," he declared. "I was a product of the 70's and the 80's," said Reiter, "and who I am and what I am was largely formed through the lenses of your cameras. You taught me what was happening in my world and in that world today I see the management of the Sun Times having no respect for the crafts and the skills of working people. This has been the newspaper of the working class so we will fight this all the way with you. We have your back."
John White, the Pulitzer prize-winning Sun Times photographer who was among those laid off, was overwhelmed by the turnout and the support.
"I never knew until today," he said, as he looked out over the crowd, "that you can fly with a broken wing. Our spirits may be wounded, but our hearts continue to smile," he told the cheering crowd.
Photo: Rally for Sun-Times photojournalists in Chicago. Earchiel Johnson/PW