Photojournalism As Activism: A conversation with Lynn Johnson

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David Walker


Freelance photographer Lynn Johnson has been published in Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, and LIFE. As we report in our feature Photojournalists Seek New Audiences To Affect Change, Johnson won an OSI grant to produce "From Intolerance to Understanding," a series of exhibits, workshops and seminars beginning in May that is meant to build social tolerance in that in that city. Her goal is to create a model for spurring public conversation about intolerance that she can implement in other cities. Johnson is also working on a book titled Hate Kills: Moving from Intolerance to Understanding.

We talked to Johnson about how she came to give up objective observation in support of a cause.

PDN: When you're a documentary photographer, aren't you supposed to be "objective"?

Lynn Johnson: Is it not time to move beyond that observer status, jump in, be an advocate, and affect change? I see the impact of hatred ever day on assignment. When I work for SI, I see it on the field of play. When I work for National Geographic, I see it in Zambia or wherever I happen to be working.

At this age (52), [some of my colleagues and I] are releasing ourselves from the journalistic imperative to be a mere observer. What they're still teaching in j-school is this dispassionate observation, and it's so clear to me that's false. You can't do this work if you are not passionate. You can't sustain what it takes to be in this life. It tears down your body, it tears down your relationships. If you don't fall in love with your subject, then you can't photograph, operate, relate, collect, immerse yourself at the level that's require to survive in the business today. I don't take an assignment I don't care about. The implication of that is, I take a point of view. You can only produce from [the perspective of your] culture, gender, race, and age. So by default, the idea of objectivity is not a working premise. It's all sort of smoke and mirrors.

Still, you have to base the pursuit of a story on accurate info, great research, and the continuity of experts you work with.

PDN:What reaction do you get to that position from other photographers?
Johnson: There's not a lot of discussion about it. But my students are also challenging this premise [of objectivity]. They're mostly in their late 20s, early 30s, and have already begun careers in newspapers, for instance. They've been faced with situations where things are not black and white.

When I [first] showed [my intolerance project] to colleagues, I felt I had to say, "I'm stepping over the line to advocacy. I am advocating for understanding."

PDN: Why did you feel you needed to do that?
Johnson: In some ways, you feel you're stepping over a standard that's been implied all these years. Objectivity was always the golden rule. If you were going to advocate a position, you were going to be stepping out of the line.

PDN: What reaction did you get from colleagues?
LJ: I felt their response was, "Once you do that, the work is even more powerful." You step into your power, your voice. You become a complete story teller, artist, human being. You're not fragmented anymore.

PDN: So it's liberating?
Johnson: Oh yea. I don't need to stay locked in those beliefs [about objectivity]. But if I were to get an assignment, my feeling is that I would need to step back over the line, and operate in a different way. The boundary is more permeable, though. I think it's age related. You're giving yourself permission to step over the line.

PDN: What's your advice to younger photographers about negotiating the line?
Johnson: That's a dance: trying to find balance between imperatives. You can't shoot without passion, but if you lose your credibility as a journalist, you can't get your passion on the page. It's a Catch-22.


 

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© RENE BURRI/MAGNUM PHOTOS
Obituary: Rene Burri, Magnum Photographer, 81

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