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Kremer Johnson Explores a Cross Section of Humanity with Craigslist Encounters

Personal projects are important to our artists' creative development in the same way that scrimmages are important to athletes. It’s an opportunity to experiment with technique, subjects and equipment without the pressure that a commercial job brings. 

Headed by Neil, Kremer/Johnson came up with the ultimate personal project as a result of wanting to work with different subjects, as well as a curiosity of the advertisement website, Craigslist. On Craigslist you can find just about anything you are looking for; love, antiques, gardening tools, parking spots, odd jobs, rooms for rent and much more. And it’s there that Neil found about 100 participants who responded to his ad “Portrait Subjects Needed”. 

Knowing he was taking a risk by meeting up with 100 strangers, Neil required a working phone number and a photo of the shoot location. But trusting the general good of humanity, he met up with these subjects in Los Angeles and San Francisco and what transpired would be later dubbed “Craigslist Encounters”. We had to know more about this project, and spoke with Neil to try and coax the craziest story out of him. Read on to hear about that and more.

What were the logistics of this project?

We put the ad on craigslist requesting “interesting people to photograph. All shapes, races, sizes, genders are welcome. I will come to you at your convenience. $20/hour.” It was as simple as that. We started getting a lot of responses and at first, I responded to and agreed to meet up with everyone. But, after being stood up a few times, I required that they had a working phone number and that they send me a photo of where they wanted to be photographed so I could come up with a little bit of a concept and begin to think of lighting. Cory went with me about 30% of the time, so mostly I was lugging all the equipment solo, so I wanted to be sure it could work out logistically. 

We told them to select a location that showed where they worked, lived, or performed their hobbies. It was so interesting to discover the things people were willing to share. Each of these images has a backstory to it and while I will be the first to admit that some of these people look like freaks, none of them are.

Most memorable encounter?

They are honestly all memorable, I can remember each encounter like it was yesterday. However, photographing the 65 year old porn star still sticks out. She was such a delightful person and very comfortable in front of the camera which made it fun and allowed us to show off her personality. 

There also was a guy in San Francisco who just sent the address at which he wanted to meet. This was before I asked them to send me a photo so I showed up to an apartment building on a steep hill with my two heavy stands, strobes, 2 large modifiers, camera and computer. He invited me in, up two flights of narrow, rickety stairs and through a literal hole in his wall that opened up to the best view in San Francisco. The final shot is great, but at the expense of my back.

Favorite subject to work with?

After the project got going, I had some people reach out directly instead of actually going through Craigslist. I got an email from someone who asked if we would be willing to shoot twins for the project. My response? “Of course”. They then followed up asking if we would shoot them in a bathtub in fancy shirts? Again my response was “of course!”. When we got to their apartment they were ready for us and had a clear creative direction that they wanted for the shoot. They were in fact twin sisters who moved to LA from Iowa to work in the film industry. They didn't have any plans, but were so eager to get involved and had been working as extras to get by. I just really loved how they had this super specific idea and it ended up being one of my favorite images.

What was one lesson to come out of this project?

That we are all just humans, trying to get through life. To me, this project demonstrates a cross section of culture that lives on craigslist. When you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, it’s a cross section of humanity. I feel like this project represents everyone. No two of us are the same, but we aren’t that different either.

Though this was a personal project, what did you learn that applies to your commercial photography?

This project helped me discover tactics that make people more comfortable in front of the camera. I would emulate the feeling I wanted them to display, so if I wanted them to have a huge smile, I would be goofy and tell jokes the whole time. If I wanted them dead pan I would have that same mug.

Connecting to talent is so important to get authentic expressions and this helped hone in that skill. I want them all to feel comfortable so having casual conversations and interjecting your own stories helps with that.

Did this get the attention of the press?

Yes, this actually picked up a lot of traction. Most notably, the International Center for Photography put this project on exhibit. Not only were our images on monitors inside the museum, they would also project them onto the windows of the ICP Museum which could be seen from the sidewalk outside of the museum. That was pretty surreal. 

Additionally, Business Insider, InsideHook, Plain Magazine, Creative Boom and more featured this project. 

Do you have plans to continue this project?

The simple answer is no. We had a lot of fun doing this project, but it feels complete to us. However, we are exploring ideas to create a similar project, so stay tuned for that.

Follow Kremer/Johnson on Instagram for more story-telling scenes.