‘Journalists, we’re storytellers’: John J. Kim looks back on journey to award-winning photographer


Photo courtesy of John J. Kim

John J. Kim worked for The Daily Illini during his whole university experience as an opinions columnist, but primarily as a photographer. Since his time at Illini Media he has worked in many publications in the Chicago area.

By James Kim, Assistant Sports Editor

John J. Kim is an award-winning photojournalist currently working for the Chicago Tribune. Kim has captured a wide range of stunning photography throughout his career, ranging from iconic sports scenes to daily moments from around Chicago. However, before his rise in the professional world of photojournalism, Kim attended the University from 1993-1997. 

Kim worked at The Daily Illini during all four years of college. He covered the Champaign-Urbana area and was an opinions columnist before eventually becoming a photographer. Kim’s most memorable experience with The Daily Illini came during the summer between his junior and senior year, when he worked as the summer photo editor.

Kim vividly remembers spending a lot of time in the DI office during that summer watching television and “learning about national news as it happens.” Kim’s time with The Daily Illini was instrumental in teaching him not only about taking pictures, but also about journalism and newsrooms as a whole.

“I learned a fair amount about journalism and how daily journalism works,” said Kim. “Even though it was all college students, we ran it like any other daily community newspaper in America.”

Kim continued to pursue a career in journalism after his experience with Illini Media and spent many years working for publications such as the Chicago Sun-Times and the Oakland Tribune before landing a job at the Chicago Tribune.

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During his time with the Chicago Sun-Times, Kim, along with reporters Frank Main and Mark Konkol, all worked on a long-term project centered around Chicago gun violence and how difficult it was to solve murders happening in town. This project was one of the only long-term projects Kim was able to work on at the Chicago Sun-Times, but it ended up being a monumental experience.

“The bosses let me spend several weeks hanging out with homicide detectives,” Kim said. “My contribution was mostly pictures and sound multimedia. We hung out with these homicide cops because they go through the course of how to investigate and hopefully solve a murder in this town. That led to the longer term project, editors put stuff together, things got published, and they put in a submission for a (Pulitzer Prize) in local reporting. Crazy enough, we won it that year.”

Kim, along with his two coworkers, was awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. While honored that his name is now forever attached to such a prestigious award, Kim finds the most rewarding aspect of his job to be on the day-to-day level.

He explains that one of the neat parts of being a photojournalist is “getting to meet someone new, everyday, five days a week, sometimes two, three, four times a day.”

When going out into the world to tell stories through photos, Kim gets the opportunity to come into contact with people of all backgrounds, each with their own unique story.

“We get to meet them, sometimes on the best day of their lives, that’s why we’re there, and sometimes we’re meeting them because it’s the worst day of their lives,” Kim said. “I’ve met many, many moms and dads and sisters and brothers who’ve lost their family members that day from some tragic event. At the same time I’ve met people who got recognized for being the best at this or the best at that: someone who won a MacArthur Fellowship, someone who performed their greatest performance on stage, someone who was an athlete who won a championship in their sport. I get to meet people during incredible times in their lives.”

Today, Kim works as a photographer for the Chicago Tribune, where he has been since 2012. After over two decades working in the field of journalism, Kim is no stranger to understanding what it takes to succeed as a photojournalist. To anyone looking to get into his line of work, Kim stresses the importance of having thick skin, being able to do daily journalism, being computer savvy and overall having a lot of little skills, “because they all add up.”

Kim has captured incredible moments, including scenes from the Chicago Cubs’ World Series run in 2016. He continues to cover a variety of moments, whether it be a shot of DeMar DeRozan taking the ball up the floor for the Chicago Bulls, or a still of a group of firefighters working furiously to put out a devastating house fire. Kim’s photography continues to chronicle narratives of all kinds, big and small, near and far. 

“Journalists, we’re storytellers,” said Kim. “And I think along the way I got pretty decent at telling stories through pictures.”


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