The Beauty of Human Connection and How David W. Johnson Captures it Through Photography
Every person, community, and experience contribute to the unique tapestry of culture in which we exist. Recent trends in commercial photography lean towards capturing the real, raw, and authentic moments of human connection that happen within communities.
David W. Johnson is someone who prioritizes and supports his community in his work, as well as personal life. Rather than seeking a perfectly curated image, David looks for spaces where change is happening and lives are enriched. In our conversation, we explore the power of community engagement, the importance of listening and humility, and the power of storytelling to capture genuine human emotion. Additionally, David has compiled a collection of images that highlight his community work.
"When I get invited into a community to shoot, I always go in with humility and remove any unnecessary posturing and I would encourage any client to do the same."
David W. Johnson
You are very active in your community. So much so that you founded True Chicago, a non-profit that supports and encourages young artists by giving them a space to gather and learn. Why is community engagement a priority for you?
Everything around us contributes to culture. And for me, a huge piece of that is community engagement. When I decided to be a photographer, I wasn’t thinking “oh I think I’ll be a commercial photographer”, rather I was thinking that I want to be where impact is happening. When it comes to working directly in my community, the people and places you encounter and truly organic and they’re making an impact in the space in which they live.
I think that what you find is authentic, and a very human experience. It can be unpredictable and you find true emotion and that’s one of the reasons I think being involved in the community around you is so important.
How does your passion for community engagement influence your commercial work?
At a commercial shoot, everything is curated as perfectly as possible. There’s been mood boards, castings, and edits to make it an idealized capture. But where is the reality in that? The people who are digesting the advertisement often want to see themselves and their experiences within the commercial. I was recently pulling images for a treatment and halfway through I realized that the images I was pulling were not the typical ones I’d show to a client. I was pulling from a time I went to a church in Mississippi and images at a bike shop in my neighborhood with 15-year-olds learning how to put a chain on a bike. They aren’t necessarily manicured but show my inspiration from these folks that I want to bring to the shoot.
What did that client ask for that made you choose those less “manicured” images?
The client wanted to try and highlight diversity and attract more diverse people to engage with the brand. To me, that’s a huge opportunity. I mean, I could tell you why and how you can do that, but it’s exciting to me that I could help guide a brand into having a healthy relationship with these communities.
How would you help a brand or client work for a more diverse audience?
You have to start by listening to that community. For example, there’s not one type of black person so you can’t say you want to target the black community because that could mean 1 million different types of people. When I go into a community to shoot, I always go in with humility and remove any unnecessary posturing and I would encourage any client to do the same.
You mentioned the inspiration you draw from the folks you work within your community, how does that appear in your commercial work?
It starts at casting. I always try to find the perfect mixture of the talent looking the part but making sure they have the experience they can pull from. On set, I want to be able to reference a moment in their life that is similar to the moment we’re crafting. I want them to draw from something real and I may alter it to make sure the lighting and things like that are right, but at the core, I want something that is rooted in reality.
Is there a project based in community engagement that stands out in your memory?
I worked with an organization called Black Girls Dive that teaches deep sea diving to young black girls. We were in the Bahamas and it’s there that they teach the girls to dive and learn how to do underwater excavation and environmental clean up. Definitely breaks any stereotypical mindset of what a black woman may or may not do, so that was very powerful.
Specifically, where we were in the Bahamas, was powerful because it was the same location where Christopher Columbus originally arrived. So if you think about all of the baggage-filled history with that and juxtaposed with the teenage black girls diving in the same waters, it’s moving.
What do you want people to take away about you and your work after seeing these images?
That I bring who I am into my work, and my work is a function of who I am. That person has had to become culturally fluent whether that’s an urban or rural environment, national or international space. I feel like it’s easy to slip into constantly being everything to everyone all the time. I have an oversimplification of people in the world as either being anchored or unanchored. An unanchored person will change depending on circumstances, and an anchored person is who they are no matter what. When people look at this work, they’re looking at the anchor of who I am. There is no act.