Schmich, a feature writer and a Pulitzer-winning columnist for the Tribune, had come on the project as an additional writer. She had been reaching out to family after family trying to find someone who would talk about children being shot in Chicago. Gang affiliations and fear of retaliation kept many of them from talking.
Washington, though, came to believe that if she and Tavon told their story, people could see what happens to a family when a child is shot and the difficulties of recovery.
Wambsgans came into the story early, working closely with Schmich. Visuals editor Daughtridge said that, although Wambsgans is tall and can seem imposing, he has a way with people.
“He cares very much about telling this family’s story,” Daughtridge said, adding that Wambsgans is a good example of how honesty and kindness pay off.
Working with the family and the hospital, Schmich was able to arrange access for the Tribune journalists as Wambsgans followed Tavon through the surgery to remove the bullet and on to his return to school.
A story such as Tavon’s can be emotionally exhausting for a journalist to cover, and for Wambsgans, it was just one in a series he’s done about the violence in Chicago.
“It’s always a struggle to temper the effects of sustained exposure to that kind of grief,” Wambsgans said.
“Part of it is, this is my city,” he continued. “Tavon lived just over a mile from me.”
One of his coping mechanisms is to switch up his assignments every so often. When the longtime studio expert retired from the Tribune photo staff, Wambsgans picked up some of those assignments to photograph food in the paper’s test kitchen. He also has spent time photographing the replanting of a prairie in Wisconsin for a gardening story.
He also shoots video regularly and was at the courthouse on a daily assignment when the Pulitzers were announced. The Pulitzer came in the middle of this busy schedule and took him by surprise. Wambsgans said he wants his focus to be on the story and not on contests so his intentions can remain pure. The attention of the Pulitzer “kind of upset my world,” he said.
His time, and the rest of the staff at the Tribune, will remain on those stories too because even in an era staff reductions, journalism is important to them.
“It feeds the reader, and it feeds the soul of the photojournalist too,” Daughtridge said.
Wambsgans continues to cover the violence in Chicago. He just finished a story titled “Little Village” focusing on two former gang members in a Mexican neighborhood who are acting as mentors to youth, trying to steer them away from trouble.
“I’m working on this woven fabric of stories that intersect with the violence on different layers,” Wambsgans said. As he was being interviewed for this story, he and crime reporter Nickeas were in the early planning meetings for their next project.
He is also still on the rotation for the overnight shift with the crime reporter, and he comes home to his family tired and stressed. There, his longtime girlfriend, also a journalist, can sense when he’s hurting and can help pull him back. Still, there are nights when he can’t sleep, worrying about Tavon and his family.
This article originally appeared as the cover story in the 2017 May/June issue of News Photographer, the magazine of the National Press Photographers Association. Also, see the companion story on Daniel Berehulak, the winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography.