Interview of Lynn Johnson: photographer

On March 7th, Liliana de los Rios, International Representative and Sara Broi, President and Founder of Rosadigitale had the pleasure of interviewing Lynn Johnson an American photographer who works for National Geographic.

Transcription of the interview of Lynn Johnson.

Who is Lynn Johnson?

So, um my name is Lynn Johnson and I have been a photographer for wow um almost 40 years and um much of that time I have worked for magazines. I started working for a newspaper out of school um and I think that was a very powerful beginning because working for a newspaper makes you understand the importance of being informed and curious and creative on demand. And so those were my early years I worked in my hometown downtown Pittsburgh. But then I became interested in longer form um photojournalism and documentary photography and um I wanted to work for magazines and at the time the magazine business was more robust that it is right now and I worked many years for Life magazine and Sports Illustrated and Smithsonian and um then began to work for National Geographic. Working for National Geographic I would say my most um significant association with publications.

What was the most important point in your life that made you decided you wanted to go into journalism or even into photography?

Ah, I was actually very young maybe in ninth grade so maybe your like 13/14 years old and I saw the work of um a woman photographer named Dorothea Lange and she was hired by the Farm Security Administration one of our government entities at the time during the depression um to document the hardships of people in the US who were affected by the depression. And I was deeply touched by those photographs and I don’t think at the time I understood the power of the fact that a woman took those images. I think, as I’ve gotten older I have gotten much more militant in my sort of female perspective or feminist perspective but at the time I think I was just deeply impacted by the photographs themselves and how they made me how they made me feel. You know the emotion that was stirred in me for a person who you know I will never meet and um who experienced something I will probably never experience. So those images reached across time and culture and um and social um you know social safety net…lack of social safety net and just really left a brand on me, on my heart.

So this woman photographer was the impact of you choosing to go into photography and journalism.

Oh yeah that was it…it was like instant so this was your awakening moment yes and I was so young and when we look back at what influences us it is sometimes um you know gradual or dreamlike or Morpheus but this situation, it was like a switch got thrown and I was clear in my little you know like teenage self this is what I am going to do this who I am going to be this was a very powerful moment.

I was looking at your website and I noticed that you say “I’m short. That’s one of the things I pack in my camera bag”. Also invisibility, compassion, sunscreen and outrage. Can you explain what you mean by this?

Um well I am short… I am 5’ 1” or something and I think that being a petite woman in a profession that’s full of large guys or large men um you know our profession is still primarily male um that I think it impacts the way you work. Um I know for a fact that I am as a female um and because I am kind of diminutive um I am not visible to a lot of people. You know they will literally look over me and I realised fairly early on that instead of being angry about that I needed to take advantage of it. So I am often able even today to get into places um that other people would not be able to get into. Um or once I am there, I can stay and not be noticed and continue to photograph and um because I love the subtle nuisance image that’s what I am looking for. And so to be small in a space and to be unnoticed um is important. I mean photography is a very physical profession and the way you move in the world and the way you use your energy is a critical part of how or at least how I do my work.

Tell me was there a moment in your life where you felt like giving up because of the discriminations you had encountered and or did those discriminations give you the fuel to continue and fight harder?

Oh definitely the fuel. Yeah…no never, I don’t think I ever wanted to give up. There are times when I felt like I didn’t have the knowledge that I needed and that’s why when I was maybe in my 40s I went back to school to get my Masters degree. Um in visual communications at Ohio University I got a fellowship and that felt important because I think I had taken my skills to a level that was fine but um I felt like I needed to step back and reassess how the profession worked and what was my role. You know it was just one of those times in life you need to reassess your identity and what you contribute. So um but I don’t think I ever um wanted to give up no in fact, quite the opposite.

It was the fuel it kept on feeding you and the courage to go on and to fight for what you wanted.

Oh yeah…it just pissed me off like it would make me angry and so you know if I saw its like the stories I am doing they are about inequality, prejudice, violence and I think that I felt that I am in a privileged position. I’m you know educated um I’ve had fabulous parents who support me. They are 93 both of them and they are still like “you go girl” you know they still are fabulous supporters of what I do and um so I think that when we have the gift of freedom and some resources and education that we have an obligation to use our gifts and skills to fight for people who cannot and to inform the world of those who are living a great disadvantage. So um as of course as a woman I focus on the woman because that’s the population that is still at risk in the world. Everywhere you go even in your fabulous country in my fabulous country and um you know look at our political situation. How it can turn in a day and you know now people know the implication of your latest. So if we have the privilege of resources of education and I have these great parents who are 93 and are still like cheerleaders and support me um with their love and um that we are obligated to do good work in the world. And to speak for and you know do projects to eliminate the fact that there are so many people in the world who are victims of injustice. And of course as a woman I am now the older I get more and more um sort of fanatic about wanting to um do work about woman because I think that’s the population at risk everywhere.

What do you try to represent with the woman that you photograph? What’s the representation?

Well for me it is based with indignity. I think that um often women um because either they don’t have a voice or because their voices has been diminished because of their cultural or political structure um or they’re a victim of domestic violence or institutional violence. I mean look at this “Me too” movement and how you know we all live in a culture of sexual harassment and violence. We may not call it that but that is what it is and we are just you know how fortunate to see that tide starting to turn just a bit and um at least in this country. I mean finally now woman are standing up and saying NO that’s wrong, that’s wrong and I am calling you out on it. So it takes a lot of courage to do that.

Yeah if you think about it, it’s just recent that woman are starting to talk about sexual harassment. On this, have you ever had to suffer any sexual discrimination, sexual abuse or anything while working?

You know I never thought that I had but um I think I’ve experienced biased you know where men are clearly given the greater opportunities, more money um and then someone else had asked me that and it was actually a guy at Syracuse University where I do some teaching and he was doing his project about sexual violence. And I think back to the times in the field when you know some guy in Nigeria tried to stuff me in the trunk of a car or someone in Iran a guy in Iran tried to strangle me and you know I’ve had things happen in the field that you know were clearly, I’m a woman and it’s a man attacking, but it was eye opening and always thought of it as part of the professional life. That is what just happens when you have a camera in a culture where a camera can be considered a weapon. Or something dangerous you are going to be attacked. So I didn’t think of that as gender violence, I thought of it as a professional risk.

A lot of risks.

Yeah absolutely. But I think the violence is in allowing you to have access to your professional ? And the bias in you know the unequal compensation is also a kind of violence and because it keeps us as women from working to our greatest potential and um which means that our voices as women are diminished. And the voices that we are diminished and so this is all a web um of you know um just the way women are kept in their place and kept down. So that’s why what we do everyday, both of you and me and the women that we know it is so important and it’s so important that we support each other.

Very true very true because we need to create a network because for a lot of woman they don’t, being on your own it is very difficult to fight if you’re on your own but if you have people that support you it helps a lot.

One thing I wanted to ask you is what would be the advice you’d give to a woman who is experiencing gender discrimination?

Well I think that we all have to get informed about what are your laws in your area um we have to be educated about just the general human behavior of bullying because you know gender discrimination is part of that power structure and structure move. So then I think it’s a building a network of other woman who will support you and you have to call it out. You have to make it public. We can see the power of the public pronouncement of these women who have joined the Me Too movement. You cannot look once that it is out of the dark and in the light it is very difficult to put it away and so um I think yelling, screaming, protesting, legal action um and one of the things I think women even are socialized to turn against each other. We just think of the women and you know and how many like whisper behind your back or cut down your strength. That is not right, that’s buying into that you know institutional power/violence also. So I think that we have to call other women out on their lack of support of women.

It is very true, I never thought of it that way. I never thought that it is also the woman, its not just the men who are discriminating and are causing these problems. There’s also women who are also doing it. Which is strange because as a community for all women we should be supporting each other but in the end I think it is of more jealousy. There is a bit of jealousy into this. Women are more vicious with words sometimes.

Yes but of course being a women they know how to cut you. They know our soft spots. So I think we need to challenge our women friends to stand together and our women enemies to stand together you know and really um create that united front. Because the women, women who have, you know women who are driven to have power and position and wealth will align themselves with the men who have power and um but that is not a position of dignity or respect. You know they are selling themselves in order to gain access to that power and that is not necessary. You know they can stand with your support with the support of all the women and those who have integrity they can stand you know free of any compromise to their moral character. We just have to build that culture; we have to build culture and that expectation.

We have to change the mentality, which is everywhere and all over the world we need to change the mentality and how people think it is a big mission.

Yes, yes, it is a big freaking mission. We need at least five more lifetimes to do this. In hopes that we get to a good point. Unfortunately it’s going to take awhile.

What do you think of our website Rosadigitale? The motto that we have “The Conquest is Information” the concept fits perfectly in your kind of work don’t you think?

Oh definitely, I think that um that every outlet that puts information out into the world. You know, information that you think has integrity and that brings people together um is very very important and it has to happen on every level on the local level, on the community level, on the country level on the you know universal conscience level. Every level is critical. So I love what you ladies are doing and yeah and I think that you know it’s so cool that you are reaching across space here to um you know allow me into your web and that’s a great thing and so I think there is no um you know I can pass on your website to other photographers and other people and you know we can just grow together.

That would be great because the bigger we grow the better it is, the more information we can get through we would love to become international. I mean it is international. It started as an Italian movement but we want to go international um just helping women realise that you don’t need to be discriminated for what you want to do. In reality as we go on with the years you know a lot of these careers for example photography, sciences, math, engineering, you don’t see very many woman going into those fields. Maybe because sometimes how parents have kind of grown their children because they say no no you have to do this or do that. So it all starts at the base so we kind of want to work on the parents as well. Make them open up, like your parents supported you all the way through, I am pretty sure they might have had some maybe a little bit of doubt when you said you wanted to go into photography and National Geographic because you are putting yourself in danger but you are doing it and you are showing a lot of beautiful images. Your images are spectacular because they are emotional, you can see your heart in those pictures.

Thank you!

They are absolutely stunning.

Thank you so much.

Well yes I think parents that is where it starts. Parents are the key the way in fact I did this story about um infant brain development and with each story you learn so much and I learned about how our early childhood um even when we are just like from like birth to nines months or a to a year and a half is a critical time and if we aren’t loved and held and made to feel secure your brain develops in a certain way. So our parents are critical they are the first message holders. You know they are the ones that tell us if we are valuable or not and um from those early months and years we grow and so then we have to see, are we going to have a life where we fight our way into humanity or are we going to have a life where we are supported and loved and encouraged. So um yeah I think that messaging to parents, young parents about equality and you love and you know physical presence those are all very important things. So um yup. My parents are still very cool. They have my pictures on my living room walls and the picture of the woman water warriors as I call them, that’s above their fireplace. Every time I visit them, I think who knows what would have happened because I’m adopted actually. I was born to someone else and they adopted me at three months old and so they, that part of my story is I think an important one because they chose to love me and give me that strength to go out into the world and make this choice to risk and to explore and to you know try to help others. So I am just passing on their first gift of life as I work.

Oh that’s beautiful. That’s a great gift that they gave you and a great gift that you are giving to many people.

Let me ask you, if you wanted to leave a message to our community what would that message be? Like a personal message.

I think it would be like come together, come together physically if possible and um you know in your consciousness and intention and to always um always ask yourself am I working with integrity? Am I forming my relationships with integrity? And come look at your intent as a group um and it doesn’t matter what art form you use you know language, visuals, sculpture, architecture um just physical presence, um you know spirituality it doesn’t matter but I think we all have to work at a level of integrity that we can be proud of. And um so I think it’s that, it’s helping each other and quality of who you are and your moral character.

Great…that was a great message. I wanted to thank you for that and I wanted to thank you for taking the time to talk to us because like I said before, you have a busy schedule, you’re travelling constantly. I read that you are hardly ever home. Two months of the year you are home.