Before he was a photojournalist for the Chicago Sun-Times Media, teaching students at Northwestern University, and named the 2013 Chicago Journalist of the Year, Rob Hart was just a guy in love with photography. All he wanted to do was be in a corner, holding his camera. He didn’t come out of his shell without the help of an instructor who had faith in him, a faith he now puts into those trying to follow in his footsteps.
There’s no “safe” spot on the boat as fish fly into the air, flipping their tails, splashing water everywhere. Legs dangle off the side of boats as men and women outstretch their arms, hands grasp the pole-end of fishing nets in hopes of catching the flying fishes. It’s all happening in Bath, Ill., at the 2011 Original Redneck Fishing Tournament. Participants dodge the painful smacks of Asian Carp as they exit the water from all directions like trapped animals trying to escape a bottomless pit. Award-winning photojournalist and Adjunct Faculty Member of Photojournalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Rob Hart sits on a fishing boat (camera in hand), high up in a swivel fishing seat away from the whirlwind of flying carp.
Hart, who was named the 2013 Chicago Journalist of the Year, now channels his efforts in education. He recently inspired a group of past students to start “When We Blink,” a blog documenting “The Lives of Women and Girls.” Students in his photojournalism classes learn firsthand the ways of the “force” (although not relating to Star Wars but the photojournalism spectacle). Simultaneously Hart continues expanding as a photojournalist: working as a freelancer for colleges and universities, Northwestern included, with the addition of national publications like the New York Times, Financial Times and Chicago Tribune.
Snapping photos like popping popcorn, Hart, along with Olympics photographer and best friend, Sol Neelman, starts shooting the Redneck Fishing scene. Neelman—who also focuses his photography on weird sports—bubble soccer, unicycle football, and ostrich racing—convinced Hart to join him at the event. As Hart reaches into his fanny pack, he begins scrimmaging through his stash of cheap beers to swap out camera lenses. Neelman laughs at the sight. “When you’re photographing an event like Redneck Fishing, having a beer in your hand gives you a certain street cred: people know that you’re cool, even if you dress like you’re from the city,” Neelman says. Yet street cred isn’t what Hart is focused on, as his casual beer is always in good company. This proved even truer in 2013. Hart was let go from the Chicago Sun-Times after working 12 years as a photojournalist. Immediately he took a trip to a bar and spent some quality time with his liquid luxury.
Putting in work
Now Hart stands in front of a photojournalism class at Northwestern University. His jokes cause ripples of laughter among students. It’s obvious no one is on guard as individual students rise to present a photo series formulated during the previous week on a subject they chose to document. Enquiring eyes examine each presentation, and comments are exchanged like playing cards among the class of college photojournalists. Hart walks the room in classic white Adidas that have the three black stripes down the side. He is a slim man wearing light washed blue jeans with a dark tan blazer and a baby blue collared shirt underneath. He runs pasty white fingers through a mop of thick brown and gray hair as he comments on his favorite parts of each piece he sees students present. “I love the way you framed this shot here,” says Hart to a boy who eloquently captured the typical day of a man working at a Chicago tailor shop in his neighborhood. A girl with copper-brown eyes and a long upper-lip, grinning alertly, accompanies the next presentation. She is small and fine-boned. She first shows the class a photo of a man at his book signing. Although dull and less interesting, it was highlighted by Hart saying, “Although I think it would have been great to capture more in the background, I think you were smart to take advantage of this moment. Look at his goatee; I think that is one of the best goatees I’ve ever seen. It’s just perfectly groomed and shaped.” She grins toothily as her fellow students join in—previously unaware of the retro goatee.
John H. White
When class lets out, Hart rushes next door for a sit-down at Native Foods Café. Not having far to go, he leaves his coat in the classroom, allowing the tan blazer to be his only warmth against Chicago’s chilly November wind. Approaching the counter, he orders a sandwich with a side of sweet potato fries—a quick bite before teaching his next photojournalism class. “Your order will be right out to you,” says a young woman behind the counter. “Okay, thanks so much,” Hart says with a polite grin and small nod of the head. Not too long ago Hart was a photojournalism student, although not at Northwestern, but close by, at Columbia College Chicago. During 1987, a 19-year-old Hart stepped away from the mundane Detroit scene and ventured to the big city for bigger excitement. His first-class was with 1982 Pulitzer Prize winner John H. White.
“There would be no substitute for having him in your life,” says Hart. “There are probably thousands of us in the world that are different people, just from sitting in his class for one night.” (Hart’s blue eyes beam as he reminisces).
As a freshman at Columbia College Chicago, the South Loop Club didn’t card teens, making it the hot spot for meet-ups with roommates, White, and sometimes Jesse Jackson’s grandkids (White’s godchildren). Conversations surrounded pictures, news, and journalism. According to Hart, many students thought White was so much cooler than other teachers. It wasn’t so much about the drinking as it was about the experience. “John told us, ‘I’m going to invest in you and work with you to discover what you need to succeed,’” he says. “It was nice to know someone was there who showed they cared about what happened to you,” says Hart, who as a freshman simply wished to hang out in the corner with his camera.
Of course, Hart had no idea he would one day be joining White as a professional photojournalist at Chicago Sun-Time Media, but after his 12 years of employment, things took a drastic change. On May 30, 2013, while Hart was up feeding his kids—three-month-old twins, Harper and Finn, and 2-year-old Parker— at 5 a.m., White was watching the sunrise. “He said, ‘It was beautiful, today is going to be the greatest day ever,’” says Hart, who gave White a playful response assuring the opposite idea as they walked into work later that morning. At 9:30 a.m., Hart, White, and 26 other photojournalists lost their jobs.
Shine, shine, shine on
Although Hart isn’t planning to work a 9-to-5 for news again—he has more freedom freelancing for clients: shooting photos for college Alumni magazines and view books Northwestern sends out as ads—his motives are still the same: to make photography come to life. He wants to help viewers feel what his photo subject(s) feel and to be the conduit for what his subject(s) are going through. “I want to be known not for what happened to me losing my job at the Chicago Sun-Times, but for the work I do as a photojournalist,” says Hart.