United States Project

The Chicago Tribune’s Jason Wambsgans won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for his pictures of Tavon Tanner, one of two-dozen children under the age of 12 who were shot last year in Chicago. Wambsgans recently spoke with CJR’s Jackie Spinner about his efforts to portray his city’s violence:
“I have to fight myself from talking out of the benefit of doing this,” Wambsgans says. “And then after the story runs and you get [a] response from the people, you think maybe this really can.”
“Can what?” I ask.
“Change people’s minds about these issues or just let them walk in somebody’s shoes.”
Last year, Chicago averaged more than two murders per day. Many photojournalists in the city portrayed the consequences of those murders with intimacy. Several located empathy at the heart of their work: “How can people relate to those living alongside the shootings and gang activity?” a photo editor asked CJR.
One photographer left the city for Minneapolis, a city whose 2016 homicide total was a fraction of Chicago’s. Recalling his work documenting Chicago’s violence, he said, “I just remember the last time I did it, as we were winding down for the year, I just remember I didn’t want to be doing it at all.”
“The people continually getting murdered look like me,” said another photographer. “It took an emotional toll continually seeing people’s lives get torn apart.”
Photography provides us with what Susan Sontag termed an “inventory of mortality.”
“Photographs show people being so irrefutably there and at a specific age in their lives,” she wrote. “[They] group together people and things which a moment later have already disbanded, changed, continued along the course of their independent destinies.”
Journalism is just one of the variables that shape the independent lives that make up a neighborhood, a city, a nation. There’s an air of mortality in “news”: An event transpires, and then is succeeded. A photograph can only show us what has already passed.
To portray the recent past, however, can be a way of shaping the future. Each of the photographers who spoke with Spinner expressed the hope that his or her work could impact their city, the policies that direct it, the people who inhabit it. Spinner’s portrait of Chicago’s photojournalists is a study of those cares and concerns that inform community journalism throughout the country. Read it here.

Be sure to read these new stories from CJR and correspondents to the United States Project:

  • “If I had to give up my voting franchise in order to be a journalist, I might reconsider what I do for a living”: Corey Hutchins on a new Colorado law that will enable unaffiliated voters to participate in party primaries—and could increase partisan scrutiny of journalists.
  • “Let’s return to journalism’s roots, where every story is tied to a community.” Michael Oreskes, who oversees NPR News, ties trust in journalism to the sort of “nuanced and complex” relationships specific to local reporting. His story is the most recent from our new print issue, which is dedicated to local news. Click here for more coverage; more will appear throughout the month at
  • Trump and trickle-down press persecution: “I do have some faith that state and local outlets’ ties to the communities they serve will insulate them,” writes CJR press freedom correspondent Jonathan Peters, “even if they don’t see subscription and readership growth.”
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