Eirik Johnson on the Meaning of Giving Prints to Subjects

July 31, 2017

By Conor Risch

© Eirik Johnson

While working in Peru early in his career, Eirik Johnson began giving prints to his subjects, a practice he continues today. Showing them what he made helped build trust and was a way to say, “This is what we did together,” he says.

In our story “You’re Not From Around Here,” Eirik Johnson discusses the ethics of photographing a community of homeless people on assignment for Pacific Standard Magazine. Johnson created the story by making large-format portraits of people living in a city-sanctioned tent encampment. He also recorded interviews with his subjects, which were turned into as-told-to texts that ran in the magazine story and online. Johnson says his subjects didn’t ask him for anything other than a chance to tell their story. “Every single person that I spoke with, even people I didn’t photograph, felt that they were ignored and had been pushed out of sight, and having an opportunity to talk about what led them to that situation or what was going on was really important to them.”

He did, however, offer to bring prints to the people that chose to participate, a practice he developed early on as a photographer. Johnson says he formed his understanding of the ethics of the photographer-subject relationship almost as soon as he picked up a camera. As an outgoing high school student, he would always ask permission to make pictures of strangers, rather than trying to capture them unawares. “I almost use photography as a way to get to know people in that situation, so that dynamic is something I’ve always been aware of. It’s helped me learn how to make pictures.” Johnson also lived in Peru on a Fullbright Fellowship, and during that time he became an unofficial photographer for a small farming community. “That’s where I really started to understand what photographs can mean both to me [and] to who I was making a picture of,” he says. Giving prints to his subjects when it was possible, sharing the work with them, was a way to say, “This is what we did together. When I asked you to make your picture, here’s the proof of what I was doing. And I’m not really interested in trying to take advantage of people, so it gives me a chance to say: I had your back.”

© Eirik Johnson

While on assignment covering a Seattle homeless encampment, Johnson gave prints to a couple he photographed. Clint and Deanne, pictured, “didn’t have any pictures together” and were “thrilled” to have a print, Johnson says. © Eirik Johnson

While working on assignment for Pacific Standard, Johnson went several times to the homeless encampment. Some of the subjects he photographed had already moved on by the time he returned with prints for them, he says, but he was able to give prints to others. For one couple, the print was more than proof of Johnson’s intentions. “The boyfriend was so thrilled [to get the print],” Johnson recalls. “They didn’t have any pictures together.”

People who live on the street or in public spaces are often the unwitting subjects of street photography. To get permission to photograph the community, Johnson wrote a letter to the residents, making it clear what he intended to do with the pictures. “I wanted them to understand what my intentions were and make sure it was cleared by them,” he recalls. “They took it up at their weekly meeting and gave me permission to come in as long as I only photographed those who were interested in being photographed or interviewed.”

Related articles:

Working as an Outsider: Eirik Johnson on Capturing Portraits of the Homeless

Do the Right Thing: Victor J. Blue on Ethical Choices 

You’re Not from Around Here: Photographing Others’ Cultures with Sensitivity and Respect