Making broad statements about anyone’s work is risky, but Lynn Johnson’s photographs are a reflection of her: both are quietly impactful, deeply thoughtful, and incredibly present. Lynn likes to say that she often tells stories “about issues that can’t easily be defined.”
As a testament to her ability to tackle intimate, challenging subjects — such as a face transplant story for the Pulitzer Prize–nominated Story of a Face — National Geographic honored her with the 2019 Eliza Scidmore Award for Outstanding Science Media at this year’s Explorers Festival. The Eliza Scidmore Award recognizes a special individual whose work combines scientific rigor and immersive storytelling to advance our understanding of the environmental and conservation issues we face, with the ultimate goal of empowering societies to make the best decisions for a healthier planet.
Friend and fellow National Geographic photographer Erika Larsen spent time with Lynn in her hometown of Pittsburgh to give us a glimpse into Lynn’s world: her studio, her basement, and with the family she often photographs. To supplement these photographs, National Geographic Society Video Producer/Editor Megan King had the privilege of interviewing Lynn.
When you’re out in the field, what do you see you goal as a photographer being? Why is your presence important?
Lynn Johnson: I think it changes with maturity and with your own process of discovery, internal and external, and all the relationships in your life. I think I felt, initially, like it was my responsibility to tell the story. The story is disembodied from the people in the story. And then I realized that that was so one dimensional, and have come to believe that, in fact, it is my relationship with the people that I’m photographing that is the most important aspect of what I do. And in fact, that the story as it may appear on the page may bear no resemblance to that relationship while photographing people. I always want to be able to go back and know that the people I’ve worked with feel respected and heard and seen.
At its very best, what can photography accomplish?
If you’re doing it with integrity, and you’re taking the time to do it well, I think you basically are passing on that possibility of understanding with the other, with the reader, with the viewer. You know, not only does the accumulated experience change you, the storyteller, but hopefully it also changes the person whose story you’re telling, and as it goes out into the world it has energy and can impact those who see the story. So, the thing is that we don’t control it. We can only just put it out there. It is basically on faith that you share the work, and you share the message, you share the story, and then see what people do with it.
What do you do to overcome obstacles as they’re presented to you? How do you push through?
Mostly I go around them, or I just refuse to give up, and then people are like, “Are you still here?” They sort of look up and they realize I refuse to go away. And then something wonderful happens. You know, you can do it respectfully, thoughtfully. I don’t mind obstacles. I mean, I think they’re, for everyone, they’re a daily presence. And we have to be smart. You know, we have to be educated about the story, about the people in the story, about what they face. It’s really not about me, it’s about them and understanding people’s lives. If you put your energy into that, the obstacles actually disappear.
What do different perspectives help to achieve?
It just seems very simple that the more perspectives we have, the more nuance in our lives and the more nuance in the storytelling. So, I mean, we want to be engaged and surprised, and you can’t be surprised if everything is coming from your specific point of view.