Working as an Outsider: Eirik Johnson on Capturing Portraits of the Homeless
July 4, 2017
Eirik Johnson hesitated before taking an assignment photographing a Seattle tent city. To avoid making images that he thought were exploitative, he focused on telling the stories of his subjects. Click to see more from the assignment for Pacific Standard.
He made sure his subjects understood how their images would be used, and tried to give them “some ownership of the story,” Johnson says.
Few photographer-subject relationships are more fraught than those involving the homeless. So Seattle-based photographer Eirik Johnson was hesitant when editors at Pacific Standard magazine asked him to work on a story for their January/February 2017 issue on homelessness on the West Coast.
“I didn’t know how to approach it and I really didn’t want to feel like I’m taking advantage of homeless people,” Johnson recalls. He asked for a chance to think about it.
Pacific Standard suggested he might create a story about Seattle’s tent cities, temporary encampments that are sanctioned by the city. But Johnson didn’t want to simply show the tent cities against the urban landscape. “I felt that if I was going to do this, then I was going to do something where I would learn and implicate myself in it,” he explains.
He came up with an idea while on a camping trip with his kids. Awaking in the morning, he noticed there was a “beautiful diffused light” in his tent. “It seemed like such an interesting place to make a picture.”
Johnson ended up making portraits for Pacific Standard of residents of an encampment named Tent City 3. He gained access through a nonprofit that funds and administers the camp. While working with his large-format camera, which helped him establish an intimate relationship with his subjects, Johnson also recorded interviews with them that were upwards of an hour. They were edited into written stories that complement the photos in print and online.
“I wanted that [photographer-subject] relationship to be clear and transparent, and then [to] give [the residents] some ownership of the story that they’re trying to tell,” he explains. “It’s very easy, especially in Seattle right now, to just buzz by, and understand that those are people but not really connect with them, so this was an opportunity for me, sort of selfishly, to connect with them.”
Through the portraits and interviews, readers learn about the lives of several people, including Catie and Marc, a couple from Oklahoma who moved to Seattle for better medical services; and Pete, a man born and raised in Seattle who lost his family and home because of his drinking. “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,” Johnson says. “Having an opportunity to talk about what led them to that situation or what was going on was really important to them.”
By working through the nonprofit, and by seeking permission from the committee of residents responsible for governing the tent community, Johnson was able to make his goals and intentions clear. The committee agreed to allow him into the encampment if he promised to photograph only those who wished to participate.
He spent his first couple of days in the camp without a camera, getting to know the residents and figuring out who was willing to participate and who wasn’t. Then he brought his camera and began to work. No one asked him for money, Johnson says, but he told them up front he would bring them a print.