Chicago Sun-Times photographer is part of Pulitzer-winning team
By Gordon Voit
Photo: Jean Lachat/Chicago Sun-Times Photo
The situation developing on the countertop of John J. Kim ’97 media looked grim – troubling at best, really. Too many times before had the photographer for the Chicago Sun-Times seen colleagues confronted by the very same pink-slip hallmarks that awaited him as he returned from vacation to his Logan Square apartment and his cell phone: a gaggle of missed calls from the office, an estimated 17 voicemail messages and 12 text messages. His time off work officially headed south thanks to the combination.
One can forgive his brusqueness, then, when he didn’t rush to return the calls. As he instead plodded over to check his email account, an unwelcome sight in his inbox added insult to injury.
“I turned on my computer and logged in to my email account, and I got a bunch of messages saying, ‘Congratulations!’ and ‘You’ve won!’ and I thought my email account got hacked,” Kim said.
“Eventually I clicked on a couple, and one said, ‘John, please call the office right away.’”
As the notifications hit a crescendo, Kim conceded, made the call and received his sentence: one Pulitzer Prize for local reporting.
With word of his unexpected honor spreading (the committee no longer announces finalists in advance), a relieved Kim received another wave of calls, this time from other members of the media, asking for interviews.
While his elucidating moment elicits a chuckle, what earned the award for the Schaumburg High School graduate and his partners at the Sun-Times – reporters Frank Main and Mark Konkol – is far less of a romp. The three were given the task of presenting a nine-part “State of the Neighborhoods” of sorts, a story that would identify and explain the many moving parts of the debilitating Chicago crime economy.
For a combined total of 11 weeks, over a period from mid-2009 into 2010, Kim was given a rare assignment: Report to 5555 W. Grand Ave., headquarters for the Area 5 Detective Division of the Chicago Police Department. There, he was to serve as the paper’s eyes as he sat in on suspect questionings, lineups and homicide investigations.
The assignment would require a rigorous process of vetting and permission – including getting clearance from top Chicago police officials.
“Every day I would go in, and we would just be [the detectives’] shadow, literally,” the matter-of-fact Kim said. “This is not light hearted stuff … this is them going to work, doing very mundane things or doing very risky things at crime scenes, stuff that the public really doesn’t see, doesn’t have the chance to see or doesn’t want to see, for that matter.”
Area 5 headquarters would provide a unique base of operations for the story, which covered an economically and racially diverse swath of Chicago, ranging from the North Center neighborhood of Mayor Rahm Emanuel to a Logan Square community that is on the upswing despite a nagging crime problem. Over the past 12 months, Logan Square ranked in the top 10 percent of the city’s 77 community areas in what is known as “index crime”: auto theft, aggravated assault, robbery and the like.
Kim harnessed this gritty streak in the final punch of the Sun-Times series. Using images and audio gathered as he sat in the back seat of the squad car assigned to detectives Don Falk ’91 (uic) and Anthony Noradin, Kim provided a poignant change-up to the largely text-based saga with an audio slideshow. Posted on the newspaper’s website, the piece gave the series a depth and emotion of visual expression that the print component could not.
‘that’s what we need to do’
Kim, a collected, humble man who chooses his words thoughtfully, says he subscribes to “somewhat of a puritanical view of journalism.” When asked about the emotional toll of documenting the bloody crime scenes, wakes and hospitalizations he witnessed on a near-daily basis, Kim says he resists the temptation to let his emotions affect his work.
“In theory we are there to objectively chronicle what is happening in front of us. And if you put your own emotions into it, it gets foggy, and it gets opinionated, and I’m not in the business of expressing my opinion.
“I’m in the business of archiving and chronicling whatever happens that is newsworthy,” he said.
But Kim concedes the taxing nature of his passion. As an 11-year vet of big-city photojournalism, the photographer has seen it all.
“Police tape and crying, screaming, hysterical victims’ families, all that stuff,” he said. “I’ve gotten to experience that time and again, and so I’ve built up enough of a wall to not let my emotions get in the way of anything that I need to capture the visuals that are happening in front of me.
“When I get back to my place at night, of course I have to register it in my head and run through the motions in my head and process what happened during the day, and I do, and then that’s that, and I go on. Unfortunately it sounds cold, but that’s what we need to do.”
The Korean connection
When the calls from the media began to pour in after the Pulitzer announcement was made, Kim says one of the first outlets that contacted him was Yonhap News Agency, Korea’s state-owned version of Reuters. Kim, born in South Korea, became the darling of the Korean news outlets. His parents happened to be in Korea at the time, as was his brother, who resides there.
“They were incredibly excited, much more than me. I was on vacation and I was dealing with other things, running errands. All that stuff didn’t register for a while. I imagine lots of journalists have that little daydream when the Pulitzer gets announced that they’ve won it. You’ve seen pictures of newsrooms celebrating and such, and in the back of my head I’m thinking, ‘Oh, that would be nice if I got to experience that someday,’ whether directly or indirectly as a co-worker or as a participant.”
Kim credits his rise to the top of his profession to the life-changing experiences he had while a student at the University of Illinois and a jack-of-all-trades for The Daily Illini. There he worked his way up from a freshman city/state reporter to a biweekly columnist, finding his current passion for photography when he was a junior. After a series of internships and jobs in Wisconsin, Iowa, the Chicago suburbs and Oakland, Calif., Kim finally landed at the Sun-Times, which has seven previous Pulitzers to its credit.
But don’t ask Kim to toot his own horn. Ask him how his life has changed since the award ceremony, and you’d be hard-pressed to get much more than a sentence or two.
“I’ve given my share of phone interviews and such, and the bosses at work are very gracious and nice,” he said.
“I shy away from it because I don’t take compliments very well. Mark and Frank, they love it. They deserve it definitely. They deserve all the praise they’re getting because they’re good journalists.”
A senior English major, Voit was a summer intern at the UIAA.
Editor’s note: For a slide show of Kim’s Area 5 photographs, visit www.suntimes.com/files/area5. An archive of the Pulitzer-winning story series is available at www.suntimes.com/Pulitzer.