Chicago Photographer Worsom: Expressing What They Can’t Say
The Early Years on Chicago’s Rough Streets
Everyone on Chicago’s Westside knows Worsom, who is the sole photographer for The Chicago Defender. The Defender is one of the oldest African-American newspapers in the country, and Worsom’s camera is usually present at any community, political or sporting event of any importance. Worsom is without a doubt a modern day “Picture Man.”
Worsom was raised on the rough Westside streets of Chicago and began selling drugs at the age of 15, continuing to be a dealer into his twenties. “My parents weren’t poor but I wanted my own money. You just couldn’t ask your parents for $100 back then. But my friends were walking around with that much money in their pockets and they told me I could too. That’s how it started,” he’s said. “I knew I was doing wrong. This was back in the early 80’s when crack was first coming and I saw what it was doing to the people in our neighborhood. But we justified it to ourselves by saying that these cigarette and gun companies are killing people and they weren’t under any obligation not to do business, so why shouldn’t we do business? That is what we were telling ourselves.”
“But finally you get tired. You get tired of everything. You get tired of looking over your shoulder, you get tired of not trusting anybody, not your girlfriends, not your friends, nobody. In the back of your head, you know that no matter how good you are, the drug trade can only end one of two ways: you get caught or you get killed. And everyone was getting killed, all your friends, everyone you grew up with. People were getting killed all around me. I had reached a point in my life where I knew I wanted something else. I was desperate to find a way out of that lifestyle. For the first time, I wanted to try to find something that I loved to do. And what I liked to do and I what I seemed to be good at was taking pictures.”
Worsom Gets His Start in Pictures
He started with his uncle’s camera at family gatherings when he was 12, taking pictures of my family and the pets. Everyone kept telling him how much they liked his photos, but all they really were was just in focus. Even during the time that he was selling drugs, he was still taking photographs with his uncle’s camera. His cousin kept telling him that he had a real talent, and that he could get paid to take photos. But for a while, Worsom didn’t believe him, thinking, “Who would to pay money for these photos?”
A little later, Worsom went to a pawn shop and bought his own camera. For the next year he went just everywhere, teaching himself how to be a better photographer. He went to the beach, to basketball games, on the street, and just took lots of photographs. His first paid jobs were at the parties of friends, where he would charge them $100 for two rolls of film. People liked the photos, so more and more people started hiring him, buying his next camera just off the money he made from photographing at the parties.
Around this time, a photographer for one of the city’s newspapers advised to invest in a nicer camera, so that he could have more control over the way he wanted his images to appear. So he did, and soon he was getting so much word-of-mouth portrait work that he managed to save enough money to build a photo studio in his apartment and start doing family and children portraits. After a few years, his sports photography had reached the level where he was able to begin freelancing for some newspapers (Worsom has had photos published in Sports Illustrated, and Ebony Magazine), and finally The Chicago Defender offered him a full-time job.
Some Wise Words for Following Generations
Worsom says that, “This job is not just about the money. The Defender work is important to me because I feel I am shooting for the black community. When I go places, they know who I am and why I am there. They know that my photography is speaking for them. I am trying to capture what they can’t say. I feel like I am recording our current history, people will look to my photographs to see what life was like in Chicago for blacks during this period, everything from everyday to Jena 6 to Obama.”
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