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David W. Johnson Explains How Trust is the Key to Authenticity

Authenticity is a word we’ve all heard on a creative call. Brands want their work to read as authentic and it’s a photographer and director’s job to translate that from talent to screen to viewer. Each artist has their own way of getting that to come through, and as a story keeper, David W. Johnson is no exception.

Through a journey of fate and an alignment of creative vision, David connected with the Director of Brand at Microsoft and conceived a project that took them across Africa and Asia. Highlighting the impact of Microsoft across the globe, David consciously took a small crew to reduce their production footprint in order to get noncontrived imagery. This project became an embodiment of this ethos—a bridge connecting a global brand like Microsoft with the everyday stories of the people they sought to engage with. By acknowledging the dynamic between relationship and control, David discovered that relinquishing excessive control allowed for the organic growth of genuine connections. It wasn't about imposing a predetermined narrative but rather embracing the shared trust, passion, and love that underpin authentic relationships.

The approach to this project revolved around cultivating relationships, trust, and mutual respect, seeking to create work that allowed communities to maintain ownership of their stories, ensuring their voices resonated authentically. Traveling to 5 different countries across two continents, we knew David would have some epic stories to tell. Read on to hear some of those stories, excluding the one where David was rushed by an adult elephant - you’ll have to ask him to tell you that one directly.

We know that this project came through a bit of serendipity, can you tell us the full story?

I had given a TED talk called “A Calling Beyond the Camera”, about how each person’s individual perspective is our very own internal camera lens, and no two are alike. The Director of Brand development at Microsoft had happened to see it and asked if he could share my talk with others, to which I gladly gave my consent. Months later, I was attending a wedding in Oregon, and though Microsoft was out of Seattle, I decided to email my Microsoft contact to keep our line of communication open. To my surprise, he responded promptly, suggesting we meet for coffee.

The meeting was not a hard sales pitch, but an opportunity to connect and establish a rapport. We spent hours engaged in conversation, and amidst casual chatter, I mentioned my work in Africa, sharing stories of the profound impact technology had on local communities. Little did I know that Microsoft had been exploring similar ideas, and my impromptu pitch aligned perfectly with their vision. Inspired by the possibilities, I promised to compile a list of stories and ideas, despite only having a vague notion of what I could offer. 

I returned home and collaborated with my internal producer, brainstorming ideas and crafting a compelling vision. Microsoft loved our proposal, and within two months, we found ourselves embarking on two separate trips to Madagascar, South Africa, Liberia, India and Singapore.

What types of communities did you visit?

We went to many different communities, in an attempt to be representative of the country as a whole. 

In India, our first stop was at a rural school, a place dedicated to first-generation students. These bright young minds represented the first in their families to attend any form of schooling, a truly powerful milestone. Immersed in their world, we had the privilege of interviewing teachers, documenting their daily lives, and witnessing the transformative impact of education.

We ventured further into the realm of learning, visiting a school for the deaf. Here, we discovered a unique blend of education and vocational training. Students not only learned to read Braille but also acquired skills in fields like printing press operations, garment making, ceramics, and textiles. The workshops pulsated with creativity, and it was awe-inspiring to witness the students' passion for honing their crafts firsthand.

We couldn’t leave India without visiting the headquarters of Microsoft in New Delhi. Here, we had the incredible opportunity to interact with their diverse team and capture the authentic essence of their presence in Asia.

Africa is an incredibly diverse continent, with each country presentnig different people, cultures and traditions and navigating that landscape proved challenging, as the production team lacked local knowledge. However, we embraced the opportunity and adopted a guerrilla approach, relying on our resourcefulness and the support of local contacts. Our experiences in each country allowed us to tell unique stories, ranging from using technology for food distribution in rural Madagascar to safeguarding wildlife in South Africa's game parks.

These travels sound incredible, and the imagery supports that sentiment. Do you have a standout memory? 

There is really no way to whittle the entire experience to one single memory, however I will say this. This collaboration with Microsoft transformed my artistic career. The imagery and stories we captured resonated with audiences, defying expectations associated with working with a tech giant. Our work found its place on Microsoft's platforms, including their website and social media channels, captivating viewers worldwide. It reiterated to me to never close of doors to relationships no matter how out of reach they may seem.

What did you learn from these trips?

Representation matters so we aimed to create imagery that reflected Microsoft's commitment to honoring cultural diversity and fostering genuine connections with the communities they serve. This philosophy extended over the course of our travels as we aimed to document and celebrate the local stories and culture. 

We all learned the importance of being invited into these spaces rather than imposing preconceived narratives. Our approach revolved around cultivating relationships, trust, and mutual respect. We sought to create work that allowed communities to maintain ownership of their stories, ensuring their voices resonated authentically.