The work of Boston photographer Stella Johnson is grounded in her photography training at The San Francisco Art Institute and her advanced degree from Boston University. Stella was a Fulbright Scholar to Mexico in 2003-2004 and a Fulbright Senior Specialist to Mexico, in 2006, for photographing and teaching, respectively and a Visiting Scholar to the School of Art, Northeastern University, in 2007.
She teaches at the Lesley University College of Art and Design, at Boston University and at the Maine Media Workshops in Crete, Greece and Rockport, Maine. Her work is showcased in her monograph AL SOL: Photographs from Mexico, Cameroon and Nicaragua, published in 2008 by the University of Maine Press.
Great pleasure having you Stella. Can you tell us a little more about yourself? Perhaps how you first discovered photography– and you love most about it?
I got my first camera when I was 12, following in the footsteps of my grandmother who took family portraits with her “Brownie” camera. I devoured the photo-essays in our Life magazines; I wanted to become a photographer because I wanted to connect with people who were outside of my radar. I went to Greece with an Instamatic camera when I was 17 and got hooked on taking photographs of the familiar faces of my people- I am Greek. And I have been photographing people ever since. In my twenties, I drove to Mexico from Boston.
I saw villages down dusty roads. Some were difficult to reach physically and, once in the villages, it was difficult to enter into people’s lives and fully understand them. For villagers living off the land, daily tasks take over: from hauling the water from the well to getting firewood. There is no flick of the switch. In my work, I live alongside the people and photograph what they do. My Greek grandmothers were raised in villages like the ones I have photographed in. These are my roots. They drive my work.
The thing I love the most about photography is the interactions I have had with the various people I have photographed over the years- from CEO’s in my commercial work to the Miskito Indians on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua who I photographed for my personal work. I have always felt that the friendships I have made while working on my long-term projects in Mexico, Cameroon, Nicaragua and now Greece are more important to me than my photographs.
However, I do feel at peace when I have made a photograph that is visually well composed and provides context about any given situation. I look for light, moment, composition; I try to take an ordinary moment of daily life and elevate it.
When you were starting off– who were some photographers who had a deep impact in terms of your photographic vision?
The first photography book I bought was the Greek Portfolio by Constantine Manos. I had just returned from that first trip to Greece and this work was and continues to be very influential especially since years later I met Costa who became my teacher and mentor and now a close personal friend.
I also admire the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Josef Koudelka and Antonin Kratochvil. I was shooting in black and white for my personal work for over 20 years and these photographers are inspirational.
You have photographed all around the world. Do you find your shooting style differs depending on where you go? And how much planning do you do before deciding to shoot in a certain country?
My shooting style has only recently changed but that is not due to where I am photographing. This is due to the influence of contemporary photography and my desire to push myself visually. As for planning, this is a huge part of my work. I do a lot of research on-line and with colleagues and friends of friends before I ever leave the US.
I like to know the people I photograph so I initially started photographing in small villages in Mexico. I researched villages that I thought might be interesting to visit, and once there, I met people and asked if I could photograph their daily lives. And this happens slowly, one day at a time. They are checking me out, learning about me as I am learning about them. And eventually we become very close, and I always end up staying in their homes. These relationships have turned into life-long friendships.
On a personal level, I returned to Mexico year after year out of affection for the family. As a photographer, I returned because as I grew as an artist, my images changed from simple portraits to images of layered-moments filled with light and composition. Even though the place remained the same, I remained challenged visually to produce unique, intimate photographs in the same environments, familiar yet foreign to me especially since back in Boston I live in the city where pigs, goats and chickens are not part of my life.
I went to Nicaragua in 2003 to see what life was like after the revolution, 25 years earlier. Initially I contacted anthropologists who worked in the area and had some contacts lined up. I was in Bluefields, a tough town where men check their guns at the door before entering the bank, and I saw a woman and asked who she was and what she was doing there. She was an anthropologist, studying the music of the Garifuna culture and so I asked to buy her lunch and she introduced me to her contacts and off I went, first to the Miskitu Indian village of Kakabila and later to the village of Orinoco, inhabited by the Garifuna.
Is there any country in particular that you keep finding yourself coming back to and why?
I would return everywhere if I had the time and money. I have wonderful friends in all the villages I have photographed in and maintain as much contact as possible. That has changed over the years.
In Djohong, Cameroon, my friends can now walk one kilometer outside of town and get cell reception to call me! This was not a possibility when I was there in 1999.
You have monochrome work in Africa, Mexico, and Nicaragua and you also have color work in Greece and Mexico. Can you share when you decide to work in each medium? Do you find yourself seeing the world differently with each as well?
I was photographing strictly in black and white for my personal work, which was eventually published as AL SOL in 2008. After that, though I always photographed in color for my commercial work, I decided to see if I could ‘see’ in color and picked up a digital camera.
After the publication of my book, I wanted a visual challenge; I wasn’t challenged in black and white anymore so I leapt into color. And although I enjoy photographing in color, after I finish my current project in Greece, I think I will return to black and white.
You have taught workshops in Greece, Maine, Mexico, and many other places. Can you share your teaching philosophy and what students gain from your classes?
I teach my students how to make a compelling visual image that tells a story or evokes a feeling. I ask students to photograph in the same location for one week so that they are pushed to come up with new ideas to express the same situation each day. Either I place them in the situation or they research and come up with an idea themselves. Some situations in Crete, Greece include: farms, restaurants/tavernas, farmers’ markets, ship builders, fishermen, cafes where village life revolves, hair salons, beach life- a wide variety of different venues to explore visually.
In addition, I teach my students how to approach strangers and develop relationships in a short period of time; the photography becomes mutually beneficial because students get to learn about another culture and the people they are photographing get to learn about the students and their culture.
We critique daily and learn from each other. The critique is crucial; we go out the next day and improve on or extend our vision.
This sharing creates different layers of experience; new friendships are made along with new ways of seeing.
The class is intense. I encourage students to photograph when the light is good, from sunrise-10:00 am and from 3:00 pm until sunset or later. We usually combine lunch and critique from 12:00pm- 3:00pm.
I have been lucky because I have been welcomed in villages and city neighborhoods in the places I teach because of my personal, local connections; friends who are photographers who work as TA’s. I create a posse in each location and we become our own group and support system and in the case of Crete, Greece, this lives on without me; the photographers have become friends and have created critique groups and photography weekends.
Can you share about your book “Al Sol” and the creative process behind it?
What distinguishes the photographs in AL SOL from other work in the genre of humanistic photography is that I know everyone in my photographs. I have relationships with my subjects. They are intimate photographs because I have these friendships. I move into people’s homes and lives and they move into mine. I think of the words of Eugene Richards, who is best known for his commitment to documenting the human condition: “I can photograph someone if I can touch them.”
I went to Mexico to photograph specifically the lives of women. I found it wasn’t that simple. Village life has its own stubborn rhythm. I was not fluent in Spanish at that time and soon realized that this could be a life-long project. I came across Juanita selling her black pottery at her home on the outskirts of Oaxaca. I asked if I could stay and photograph.
The next day I returned and photographed her making pottery. There were hours and days when I was not photographing, or when I would miss something crucial, like her taking the hot pots out of the backyard oven because I didn’t understand the process nor the language. I kept returning until my presence was woven into their daily existence. I have known Juanita and her family for 25 years and have become a part of the family. I return to visit almost every year and teach photography workshops in the village.
I am interested in everyday village life like the women gathering together to make Day of the Dead tamales, the cousins cleaning a well, a young man throwing a shrimp net, fishing for breakfast, and I am interested in watching and listening for the mood and emotion of village life.
For me, light, moment, gesture and composition come into play in making a successful photo. The moment could be a look, the way the light strikes a face or defines a space, or a perfect composition with a chicken in the corner, a child running or a pout. The anticipation of these things can be difficult. There is waiting, and one vacillates between being bored and being tense.
I love the hunt in making a picture of something that is already there. There is a visual challenge and thrill in making order of out of chaos; there is a thrill in not controlling the elements and waiting for them to fall into order and then knowing, above all, when to hit the shutter!
When I see your photography, your work has a strong documentary style behind it. Yet you also shoot editorial and corporate work. How do you combine the both?
When I worked as an editorial and corporate photographer, I was hired by the Ford Foundation and Continental Airlines inflight magazine to photograph in a documentary style, which mimicked what I was doing in my personal work.
However, I also made portraits and photographed a lot of events for banks, hospitals and the like. I no longer work as an editorial or corporate photographer. I am an educator, teaching at the university level, in private workshops and conducting one on one private mentoring.
When you work on a documentary project– how do you discover an idea or a theme? Do you actively seek it out– or does it come to you?
I started photographing in Mexico in 1987 because I was curious about what life was like in small villages that were reminiscent of the villages that my grandmothers grew up in in Greece. And I found that I loved living in villages away from the phone, Fedex, fax etc. This was before email. In 2003 I was a Fulbright Scholar to Mexico for eight months and lived with the family of Don Guadelupe Ocampo in Amilcingo, Morelos working on the project “Intangible Heritage in Mexico.”
Earthwatch Institute sent me on assignment to Cameroon, West Africa, to photograph retired American nurse Phyllis Jansyn, a former Peace Corps volunteer who stayed in Cameroon to eradicate intestinal parasites among the villagers of Djohong. I returned twice, on my own dime, and invited by the king of the arrondissement, to continue to photograph in the villages and my photographs are part of a permanent exhibition in a mud hut museum.
In 2002, I went to Nicaragua to see what life had become after the Revolution decades earlier. Now I am returning to my roots in Greece, coming full circle after all of these years.
Who are some contemporary photographers you recommend street photographers in the community to check out? Any people you would like to give a shout-out to?
I recommend my friends:
What are some other projects, books, or exhibitions you are currently working on?
I am currently working on a book about Greece so that I can unravel my heritage. In Greece the lines between generations are fluid, animating my ancestry and my photographs. I am a stranger and I am family.
I was awarded a 2013 Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellowship in Photography and will be exhibiting that work in a group exhibition at the New Art Center, Newton, MA in February 2014.