CNN Photos

We are the Chicago Sun-Times photography department

On a warmer-than-normal May morning, a group of men and women apprehensively gathered in a room at the Holiday Inn in Chicago. They looked like regular folks assembled together, perhaps for a trade conference.

There were, however, signals that made clear that this gathering of Chicagoans weren’t teachers or shopkeepers or plumbers – they were carrying the tools of their trade: cameras.

The evening before, an ominous e-mail directed the entire Sun-Times Media Group photography department to a meeting that morning. Previous staff meetings were always held in the photo studio, but this one was on the 14th floor of the tower, not on Sun-Times property.

Some photographers had already been assigned shoots for that Thursday, but it was clear from the e-mail that this meeting was mandatory.

“We got the note, and immediately began sending speculative texts and e-mails to each other. We joked that they were either buying us all new gear, or we were all getting laid off. Both seemed ridiculous,” said Stephanie Dowell, a 13-year veteran photojournalist.

The photo department had never been gathered in the same place at the same time, and many had never met before. The Sun-Times Media Group’s reach spreads across the greater Chicago area, and many of the photographers only knew each other from their photo credit bylines.

As photographer Jeff Nicholls approached the room, he thought to himself, “If we go in here and there’s coffee and doughnuts, we’re going to be OK.”

But instead he saw jugs of ice water on the tables.

Jim Kirk, the editor-in-chief of the Sun-Times, walked in the room and quickly informed them that the paper was eliminating the photo department. Some weren't sure they heard it right.

"The entire department?" someone asked.

Kirk told the stunned room that the HR coordinator would handle the paperwork and left. Within minutes, 28 people no longer had their careers, and the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper, founded in 1844, no longer had a photography staff.

Among those laid off was John H. White, the oldest man present, a man who always made his photographs while carrying a Bible in his jacket pocket. White, 68, was a mentor and hero to most in the room, and an iconic figure of Chicago photography who won a Pulitzer for the paper in 1982. He had given 44 years of his life to the company. He was now unemployed.

“They didn’t even say ‘Thank you,’” White said.

Several of the photographers expressed a feeling similar to losing a family member. Once the shock wore off, an emotional roller coaster ride ensued of anger, sadness and pain. Then it was time to look to the future.

CNN commissioned former staffer Brian Powers to shoot a series of portraits of his colleagues holding something meaningful from their careers. At 26, he was one of the two youngest photographers on staff. He said he plans to go back to school.

Matt Marton, 49, has survived 16 rounds of layoffs in 13 years, he said. To him, whatever the future for photography is, it's not going to be molded by a newspaper.

At 51, Michael Schmidt admitted to feeling a little empty. When asked what he'd do next, he said, "Maybe a photo job, but I don't have any photo equipment, so it makes it a little difficult."

A couple are considering retiring. Many said they hoped to find freelance photography jobs, even though freelance rates are a fraction of what a staffer can earn.

That’s just not possible for everyone.

"I’m looking for full-time work because it's a necessity for my family. There's a strong possibility I'll get out of photojournalism,” said Steven Buyansky, 51. He was with the company for 30 years. “It's been a wild ride. Getting laid off was definitely a shock.”

For many staffers, dedicating decades to one place added an additional layer of devotion. It wasn’t just a job.

“They took my extended family away – people I've known for two decades,” said John Sall, 47. His tenure was 24 years.

The viability of press photography as a profession has been under assault for more than a decade. Between technology making colorful and sharp photos much easier and cheaper to take, and print advertising rates in newspapers and magazines in free-fall, the prospect of earning a living wage as a photographer has become increasingly hard to fathom.

The Chicago Sun-Times’ strategy for its photographic future relies on reporters shooting stills and videos on iPhones and hiring freelance photographers.

Worse still, and perhaps not yet realized, is that Chicago suddenly has more than two dozen extra photographers vying for the same work.

- Simon Barnett, Director of Photography for CNN Digital

Related: The photographers have left the building