Lynn Johnson

Photographer Lynn Johnson

Photograph by Randy Olson

Lynn Johnson was a shy girl who spent a lot of high school poring over books in the library. One day, she happened upon a book of photographs by Dorothea Lange and other documentary photographers who had worked for the Farm Security Administration. It changed her life.

"I immediately fell in love with the power of those pictures," Johnson recalls. "In my short and rather sheltered life, I had never seen migrant workers or sharecroppers, and certainly had not experienced loss or pain like that, but I could feel it in those photographs. I had an emotional reaction to them I'd never felt. It made me want to pick up a camera."

She began by making photographs for her high school yearbook, an experience that allowed her to discover her innate talent and something more:

"When you're shy, a camera becomes an entry into life," she says. "It was a kind of shield I could hide my shyness behind, and it allowed me to become an active observer rather than a passive one."

Since then, this shy girl has climbed the radio antenna atop Chicago's John Hancock Tower, clambered around scaffoldings with steel workers, and lived among fishermen on Long Island and guerrillas in Vietnam. She has done in-depth portraits of celebrities including Stevie Wonder, Michael Douglas, Mr. Rogers, and the entire U.S. Supreme Court. But Lynn Johnson's passion remains—just as it was kindled that day in her high school library—documenting the lives of regular people.

Her gripping photo essays of a family struggling with AIDS, of children coping with the brain death of their mother, and many others are honest and sensitive glimpses into the lives of ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances, and are classics of the genre.

Telling those stories, and getting them in print, has not been easy. After graduating from the Rochester Institute of Technology, Johnson was hired as the first woman staff photographer at the Pittsburgh Press.

"Oh good," one of the older photographers at the paper told her when she arrived. "Now we have someone who can cover tea parties."

"Those guys were great, and great teachers, but they were also rather stuck in their time. Because I'm a woman, and because I'm small (she's 5'1"), it never occurred to them that I could do more than cover social events. I needed to prove it to them. When photo assignments would come in, I didn't wait for one to be handed to me. I'd just grab the one I wanted—without telling anyone—and go off and do it."

She stayed at the newspaper for seven years, and during that time she convinced the editors of the Sunday newspaper to let her do photo essays.

"I was getting frustrated with the quick in and out of spot news." Johnson says. "I felt that a lot of the stories needed more space, just out of a sense of fairness to the subjects."

When she left the Pittsburgh Press, she was invited to participate in a project to document fishermen on Long Island called "Men's Lives."

"It was a true documentary project. Adelaide DeMeril, the woman who supported it, said, 'Go and take pictures, go honor these people's lives.' The other photographers and I never had to justify a single frame or a single dime. I worked on the project off and on for a year, and it really prepared me for the kind of work I've been doing ever since.

"The emphasis in doing any in-depth photography is on building relationships, quality relationships. It's what I call thirty-cups-of-coffee-a-frame photography. You need to enter into the community—not just photographically, but intellectually and emotionally. And I began to understand the idea of education through photography and the importance of photographs over time.

"Photographs help people look at things they may not be able or may not want to look at," says Johnson. "Until you can look at something, you can't change it. First you have to look at it, then you have a chance to understand it and can change it.

"For me, photography has been a mission. I don't mean on the grand scale, but in the sense of the daily awareness that each one of us is responsible for the wider community, that your sense of self and sense of responsibility outside yourself is as wide as you can embrace. It's a commitment to try to fulfill that responsibility by doing work about things that matter."

Johnson's commitment and her sensitivity are evident in her photographs. Few other people are able to enter into the lives of others with such emotional and photographic intimacy, and Johnson attributes her ability to do so to a simple priority.

"The people—the relationships and the experiences—are more important than the photographs," she says. "As journalists, our responsibility is not to manipulate people, but to honor them and their stories," she says.

"The only time I literally shake with fear," she says, "is not when the situation is physically dangerous, but when it is emotionally charged. I try to be careful not to impact the emotional terrain, to be aware of and sensitive to how much pain someone is in, and always aware how much of a gift being in their presence is."

She prepares for her assignments by reading a lot and listening to people talk about the subject. "I like hearing people's voices," she says. "Research is an internal process of becoming aware of and comfortable with the material, an incremental education that fills you with the subject."

—Text by Robert Caputo, from Photography Field Guide: People & Portraits