June Issue: John J. Kim Talks About His Pulitzer-Prize Winning Photos

Courtesy of John J. Kim


2011 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting spells victory for long-form journalism and Chicago Sun-Times Photographer John J. Kim

by Elizabeth Eun

IT WAS A MONDAY, and John J. Kim was taking a much-needed vacation from his job as a photographer with the Chicago Sun-Times. He spent the morning taking care of such mundane tasks as dropping his car off at the shop to get a wobbly wheel fixed. When he got around to checking his cell phone, he noticed he had 17 messages, including several from the newsroom.

“That’s why I thought maybe something bad happened,” recalled Kim, 36, who had not even checked his email yet that day and feared he might be getting laid off.

He was even a little peeved. “I was like, ‘Wait, I’m on vacation. Gosh, at least leave me alone until I get back to work or something.’ I finally ended up checking email and found out this happened.”

By “this,” Kim meant he, along with Sun-Times reporters Frank Main and Mark Konkol, had won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. The jury for Columbia University’s annual honors recognized the three journalists for a riveting series documenting violence in Chicago neighborhoods that ran in 2010. Their work was the result of a year-long, immersive project that looked specifically at murders plaguing Chicago’s Northwest Side, the resulting community devastation and the Chicago Police Department’s homicide detectives charged with solving the crimes.

For four months, Kim and Main, a beat reporter, shadowed detectives Tony Noradin and Don Falk of the department’s Area 5 Homicide unit, meeting with and following them from pre-roll call hours to crime scenes in the middle of the night.

Eerie and insightful, the resulting chronicles are an unflinching look into a world that might be taken for granted, but isn’t readily talked about.

“The reporters did a lot of work beforehand—a lot of meetings, everyone from the superintendent of the police had to sign off on the project,” Kim said. “It wasn’t your everyday thing. In general, you wouldn’t be allowed to do what we got to do.

“We had to sign papers saying the cops aren’t responsible if we get shot.”

Although Kim says he rarely felt in danger, there were times when he and the police would arrive at the scene of a shooting, and people were still running around with guns. “When those times happened, we obviously knew not to get in anyone’s way.”

From the looks of the comprehensive coverage captured by the series, the few volatile moments when the crime scene was still hot are the only times Kim’s camera wasn’t shooting.

Street images of murder victim Miguel Loreto, along with the detectives and coroner’s autopsy investigations and the ensuing grief of his family were all captured in the series. Taking place one “balmy summer night” on July 15, 2009, the shooting is examined in detail, and has had a particularly disturbing effect on Kim.

Forensic investigators take fingerprints of a homicide victim at a hospital in Chicago’s North Side. The victim was killed by an assailant who rode up to him on a bicycle and fired a bullet into the head. Courtesy of Chicago Sun-Times. Reproduction is prohibited.

To the average viewer, the photos depicting a pool of glistening, just-spilt blood; a pale, still-bloodied body; and bruised, lifeless fingers being fingerprinted might be the most distressing. For Kim, what happened afterward ended up being the most difficult to process.

“Being a news photographer, we experience our fair share of violent moments,” Kim said. “With this specific case, the kid got shot by a rival gang member. That unfortunately happens all the time—literally, all the time.

“What was sad about that specific project was meeting the dead kid’s parents. They’re migrant workers who emigrated from Mexico only a few years ago to a kind of dangerous part of the city. The father actually moved the whole family to another part of the city so their son wouldn’t get caught up in all this gang stuff.

Six-year-old Salvador Marquez, right, aims a toy pistol at his 4-year-old sister Adriana, as she looks at a candle placed at the memorial of their aunt, Perla Hilarios, who was fatally shot during a robbery attempt on the previous night in East Oakland, Calif. Photo courtesy of Oakland Tribune. Reproduction prohibited.

“He wasn’t even living there at the time. He was just visiting a friend and went back for a night to hang out with his buddies. And he got shot dead.

“Meeting the parents, and seeing how hard they struggled to get their child out of this bad way of life, only to have him be murdered … that was really sad.”

While the series received praise for its depth of coverage—somewhat of a rarity in the age of new media journalism—the community reaction to the stories was surprisingly matter-of-fact.

“A lot of the comments read, ‘Yep, this sounds just like a typical Chicago murder,'” said Kim.

Though the local underdog paper, competing with the Chicago Tribune and which narrowly escaped closure a few years ago, is still struggling, the staff is predictably proud of its Pulitzer-winning team. When Kim returned to the newsroom April 18, the day the Pulitzer winners were announced and his day off, he witnessed a rare sight: literally everyone in the newsroom was smiling.

Shoppers and pedestrians are seen through a picture frame’s reflection next to a display of holiday decorations at a Crate and Barrel store on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Photo courtesy of Chicago Sun-Times. Reproduction prohibited.

“The award is a local reporting award, which means it’s about the local journalists who wrote these stories and the newsroom, and a really hard-working group of people,” Kim said. “So everyone is recognized when something like this happens. It was good to see my co-workers very happy. It’s a boost for all of us, not just the three of us.”

Kim, who began taking pictures seriously while attending the University of Illinois, got started in photojournalism with his college newspaper. After a five-year stint at the Oakland Tribune, he moved back to Chicago in 2004 to work for the Sun-Times.

Kim, whose self-effacing humor creeps into personal references (his SportsShooter.com profile lists his job title at the Sun-Times as “kitchen help,” and he states, “When I grow up, my goal is to brew beer for a living” on his website), is more sober when reflecting on his chosen career.

“It’s not easy being a journalist for several reasons, one very obvious one being that people have stopped reading newspapers,” Kim said.

“But what makes me want to do this is that I get to do a job where I get to shake hands with somebody new just about every day of my life. Fortunately, most of the time, I get to meet someone on the best day of their lives because they did something really well, or something good happened to them.

“What is life if you don’t get to meet people? I get to peek in on somebody’s life and get to tell other people about it.”

To view photos from the Pulitzer-winning series, visit http://www.suntimes.com/pulitzer.

A man rests his hand on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of John J. Kim. Reproduction prohibited.

This article appeared in the June 2011 issue of KoreAm.

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  • Rebecca

    The picture of the 6 year old pointing the toy gun at his sister, says it all about the state of a lot of cities and towns across this country. I have a feeling if they went back to this family 5 years later he will probably have a real one.

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