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Krisanne Johnson has worked as a freelance visual journalist for two decades. After photographing youth in Post-Apartheid South Africa and young women and HIV/AIDS in Eswatini, formerly Swaziland, Johnson has been brought back to Athens, Ohio through Canon’s new initiative to mentor students as an Explorer of Light. Photos provided by Krisanne Johnson.

Q&A: Krisanne Johnson, worldly photojournalist, to speak in Schoonover

Krisanne Johnson, freelance photojournalist and former Ohio University graduate student, will be speaking at OU in Schoonover 145 on Thursday, March 23, 2023 at 7 p.m.

Johnson has worked as a freelance visual journalist for two decades. After photographing youth in post-Apartheid South Africa, and young women and HIV/AIDS in Eswatini – formerly Swaziland – Johnson has been brought back to Athens through Canon’s new initiative to mentor students as an Explorer of Light. 

The Explorers of Light program began in 1995, according to Canon’s website, in an attempt to highlight professional imaging creators. Since its creation, the group has been working with all levels of photographers in educational collaborations. 

The Post: What are your ties to Ohio University?

Johnson: I attended graduate school for visual communications. I’m from Xenia, Ohio, so I had gone to undergrad at University of Colorado and then returned home after I graduated and was freelancing for the Dayton Daily News. I knew I wanted to dig in deeper into documentary photography. I think I applied twice, and I finally got into the graduate program at OU.

I joined the (Canon) Explorer of Light program a couple of years ago now and it was just such a big opportunity, and then they said, ‘We’re now doing kindred university education programs,” and I immediately said, “Is there any way we could go back to my Alma Mater, Ohio University because that would be just absolutely amazing.’ Some of the memories I have of the grad school program were visiting photographers and just being able to ask sort of all those real life questions as you're all ready to enter your careers.

TP: What are you hoping to bring back to the students or program here and talk about?

Johnson: There's going to be one big nightly lecture where I'll share three long term projects, and then classroom takeovers and discussions where we can share tips, share motivation, … how to approach long term work, getting access, getting intimacy in photographs. I hope we can have a great dialogue and go back and forth and just see if there's any way I can help anybody.

TP: How do you think your experiences regarding youth culture in post-Apartheid South Africa affect young adults in Athens, Ohio?

Johnson: I don't know if I can ever say my work affects anyone. I am happy to share it and I think there's always sort of this personal to the universal and everyone can recognize income inequality, affordable housing. People can recognize the changing subcultures and the complexity of democracy and youth unemployment. So all these social issues that I cover in my long-term work still have universal undertones. I try to not look for the literal, it's like you want somebody to connect to the moment that they're looking at in still photography or to be able to let their mind wander and think about their own life. I've spent, you know, seven-to-10 years on and off in southern Africa but I've been going to South Africa specifically since 1998. I watched as, an 18-year-old, apartheid end on my TV and it was just something we were completely captivated with in the news and how this country was going to shift and the US also deals with shifting discussions on country and race.

TP: Noticing that your photos are in black and white, can you talk a bit about why you choose black and white as a medium?

Johnson: Yes. One thing is if you start a long term project and black and white, you sort of have to stick with black and white. I really struggled to sort of find my voice as a photographer, and at a certain point in grad school I decided to pick up some old black and white film and just try that out and see if I can get myself out of the rut that I was in. I didn't feel like I was really communicating or finding the poetic-ness I wanted with documentary work. I did one project on a small family with a bunch of sisters and they were just beautiful people and I saw it in black and white and for some reason that just kind of clicked. 

I think the power of black and white photography, when looking at social documentaries can sometimes really get to the essence and the emotion and the body language. I absolutely love color photography and it doesn't mean I won't branch more into a long-term color work, but at the moment, I guess my biggest projects have been shot in black and white. I like how black and white just got straight to the core emotion and body language that really attracts me to photography.

TP: Where do you find inspiration?

Johnson: With the pandemic, I wasn't traveling as much and (realized I) might be immersing (myself) almost too much in documentary projects, and it's also time to have a little bit of a life. I think right now and recently I find a lot more inspiration through long walks, getting out, interacting with people more. Then, of course, all of my peers. Carolyn Drake was in my class, so I still look at her work for inspiration. I still look at a lot of the grad school students, work and journeys along the way. Jason Eskenazi is one of my favorite photographers. Also it’s important to read books, I love to read poetry, I love to read fiction. I live in New York City in Brooklyn, so I can also constantly go to museums and gallery openings, and it's always a refreshing thing to see what all the young kids are making.

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