David W. Johnson
STILLS + MOTION
"I've cherished stories my whole life, learning their value from my Grandfather. He emphasized preserving family, community, and scripture tales, and I absorbed the emotion and grace in his words. With a diverse background, I'm equipped to authentically convey experiences and guide brands with cultural fluency."
I've been a keeper of stories for what feels like my entire life. My Grandfather taught me at a young age the importance of memorializing narratives, and regularly sharing family lore, community traditions, and scripture. I noted the emotion and grace between his words, preserving the experience in my mind. As the family narrator, communicator, creator, and someone with a diverse background, I have all the necessary instruments to translate experiences — guiding brands with authenticity and cultural fluency.
I always ask what a person or brand believes themselves to be. Storykeeping comes from that narrative. Because I understand that a person's most important work is contextualizing their story — here's mine. I'm rooted in a mosaic of ethnicities and cultures, growing up with a Black Jewish mother and a Black Christian father. Both sides of my family made their way from the Deep South to Chicago during the Great Migration. My parents met in Chicago’s western suburbs and my dad got a job there, so I spent weekdays in this suburban affluent space as one of the few black kids, learning my new friends were disappointed that I was a black kid who couldn’t rap. I spent weekends with my extended family on the south side of Chicago, in Harvey’s primarily Black neighborhood. There, I learned about Mississippi's history, traditions, barber shops, and religion. I also fielded questions from my cousins about why I spoke ‘funny,’ and how come my pants were so tight.
While I was a member of both communities, the two different cultures made me feel an otherness that I couldn't resolve, having never felt Black or White enough, never enough city or suburbs. This divergence grew when my parents divorced, and I rotated between two households. We all derive our sense of identity from our parents, so when mine went their separate ways, at times it made me feel like my story and identity were broken.
Still, my family greatly influenced who I am. My mom and stepfather taught me what authenticity means early on, ensuring my connectedness to my community and what it means to be black. My dad helped me to realize my potential through athletics, specifically running track, a legacy I embraced and excelled at. I've since learned that fitting in was someone else's job. I have everything I need within me — my home is the people and accumulated experiences that helped shape me.
There is an unwritten social hierarchy in culture. My mom wanted to ensure I didn't subscribe to it, telling me to never buy into the narrative that I am second best. At the same time, because I was constantly comparing myself to others, my stepfather would start a conversation with, "I am not better than you." Genuineness was paramount to them, and it rubbed off on me. I'm used to people judging me for my appearance without me ever speaking a word. For this reason, I leave preconceived notions and labels behind — people tend to be more complicated than you think.
I wanted to follow in my preacher grandfather's footsteps, believing we had a shared essence. If I had a core gift, it was that I always deeply appreciated the moment – both in living in the present and recounting a moment. I always wanted to put my best foot forward. Because my environment constantly changed, I saw people through different lenses and prioritized taking the perspective of others. I learned how to assess a situation, read the room, and perform for an audience. I took to storykeeping naturally, first participating in sharing stories together with family, then eventually being asked to share my own story outside the family, and in other venues.
In school I was most interested in creative pursuits like music and photography, finding I struggled in other areas. At 15, I started taking Ritalin, after being diagnosed with ADD and dyslexia. I was usually focused on the wrong thing, or focused on too many things. In college, stories continued to intrigue me, so I chose to major in world religions, believing that studying religion was akin to studying culture. As someone who felt like I didn't fit in, I recognized that that challenge existed in similar spaces in culture too.
A moment of clarity came during my sophomore year in college when I went to El Salvador on a youth service trip with the assignment of documenting the trip. There, I deepened my relationship with studying cultures and the beauty and connection with others. I would go into a space and interact with and photograph people. I also recognized I could speak different cultural languages, acting as the bridge between different communities. After spending two weeks looking through the lens, I saw life and people, like I had never seen before. The constraint of the camera lens was actually freedom to me. This was the moment when my weaknesses became strengths. The discipline of focus became the framework for my calling in my life. I felt this on the inside but didn’t know how to express it on the outside.
After I graduated, I started my first job as a photographer for a newspaper in Ethiopia. When I got off the plane, for the first time I wasn’t “other.” I disappeared into the people, blending into the city of light-skinned people. As I photographed the life around me, it suddenly clicked. I realized I could continue my legacy of storykeeping through visual artistry.
My pathway to becoming a professional photographer was unconventional starting with a gallery show followed by working with Motorola. When I began working in Chicago, I realized there is a legacy of creative impact and a poverty of opportunities. I started True Chicago as a result of continually asking, “How come everyone bidding on a job on a commercial level doesn't look like me?” I realized it’s because people like me haven't had access.
I have diverse experience as a storykeeper and visual artist, from understanding the nuances of different cultures, and developing my command of bridging those communities, to understanding the importance of having perspective. This sense of authenticity carries over on-set with talent, where I look for their self-awareness and certainty and create stories exhibiting that truth.
I hope to continue growing in my ability to connect, with the connection being more about impact than influence. While my work will always be purpose-driven and express authenticity that is both relationally and emotionally connected, I also intend to tell stories that are disruptive and a catalyst for change.
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