'Fashion for Life': Fstoppers Interviews the Photographer Behind Powerful Images of Children in Bulletproof Vests

'Fashion for Life': Fstoppers Interviews the Photographer Behind Powerful Images of Children in Bulletproof Vests

School shootings in the United States were the worst they've ever been in 2018, and the number of incidents and deaths show no signs of slowing down. Photographer Richard Johnson created this striking series that captures the new reality children must deal with. 

On February 27, 2012, I received a call as I walked to classes on campus. I had just finished a grueling day-long audition for a dream position in a graduate program the day before, and I felt it had gone well, so I was feeling quite good. I figured my friend was simply calling to ask me how it had gone, but she told me in a somber voice to turn on the news right away. When I found the news, I saw that there had been a school shooting in my small, picturesque hometown. During the first news conference around noon, I watched a screen full of people I knew well as the town police chief announced that one of the students had died. Another died overnight. A third died the next day. 

My dad had coached both the shooter and the dead students in little league. My sister had graduated that same high school only the year before and would have been there had she been a year younger. So, when I saw Richard Johnson's photo series "Fashion for Life," it hit close to home.

If you remember the department store back-to-school catalogs and ads of the 1990s, you probably recall bright, cheery kids showing off the latest children's fashion and school supplies. It's that style that creates the incredible, heartbreaking juxtaposition in Johnson's photos, which I spoke with him about.

Johnson notes that his inspiration for the project came from the fruitlessness of attempting to change opinions on social media, where "well thought-out or witty replies to people who disagree have little to no positive impact and if anything, push people further away from my perspective." He then decided to put his photography skills to use to create images that force people to consider the issue, asking:

What would a back-to-school ad look like if bulletproof vests were as common as pencils in school? ...How can we put this on our kids? The weight of survival and death on their shoulders. Is this their new normal?

Johnson notes that he made it a point not to inject his own opinion into the images, rather choosing simply to highlight the reality of "bulletproof backpacks at office supply stores" and the "obvious outcome from lack of solutions and actual change." In doing this, he sought to make the vests look like an everyday part of life for the children, as if they were as normal a part of their wardrobe as their sneakers. In fact, that was one of the most difficult parts of the project for him. He notes he carefully ran over the concept in his head and with his crew multiple times, eventually deciding to have the children act as if this was a normal part of everyday life. 

One of my first questions was whether Johnson had any difficulty explaining the concept of the project to the children. Johnson said that surprisingly, the only difficulty actually came in explaining it to the parents, as the children understood right away and were "eager to participate." 

As a parent, it's hard to comprehend that active shooter drills are a common practice at a lot of schools, including my kid's school here in Florida... The truth is any of us could be parents of kids that go to the next Sandy Hook, and that terrifies me beyond anything I can put into words.

Johnson said after he put the images of his own kids from the series on Facebook, he received message from people wondering if he really sends his kids to school in bulletproof vests, which made him realize that the images aren't that far out of the realm of reality for most people. He hopes that puts the reality of the situation into perspective for those who see the images and that it angers and inspires them to demand change. 

For Johnson, the biggest issue was the self-doubt involved in making a project that makes such a strong statement. He notes that he agonized for every little detail, particularly since he understood that with this sort of project, every detail could have a significant effect on how the project was perceived and the sort of message it sent. Eventually, he just had to go for it, telling himself: "it's easy to say what you would or wouldn't have done when you have done nothing at all."

Lighting setup

Johnson used a four-light setup that he notes is a modified version of Felix Kunze's well-known setup. He added a rim light and a beauty dish for a bit more drama on the children's faces. He shot the images with 50mm and 85mm lenses, all at f/8, as he wanted the images to be as sharp as possible to have "an almost hyper-realistic feel that would complement the over-the-top and almost 'Black Hole Sun' expressions."

When it came to post-processing, Johnson tried to emulate the established aesthetic of back-to-school ads. He used dodging and burning to draw attention to the subjects' faces to "let them discover the vests on their own." The images started in Lightroom for basic color correction, then moved into Photoshop, where he used the Beauty Retouch Panel by Retouching Academy for the dodging and burning and skin work, Lumenzia by Greg Benz for luminosity masking, and Pratik Naik's Infinite Color Panel for color-toning. 

Johnson says he hopes the image inspire others to create compelling imagery as well and of course, that these images generate discourse that leads to change.

I would like to challenge those quick to dismiss work like this to do more than just comment. Go out and create work that challenges the way people think. The fantastic thing about art is that no one side has a monopoly on it. Go out and use those skills for more than being a keyboard warrior! You are better than this. In fact, we all are.

There's certainly no denying that Johnson's series captures your attention and makes you think about the current state of society.

You can view more of Johnson's work on his websiteInstagram, and right here on Fstoppers.

All images used with permission of Richard Johnson.

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62 Comments

Joel Manes's picture

Sad and terrible. You have a much greater chance of getting killed by your parent driving you to school that getting shot. It's a sad commentary and spreads terror showing kids with a vest. Oh, if it is kevlar, then it won't even slow down a bullet from an AR or AK style, or nearly any, rifle. If it is steel plate, then the poor kids won't be able to wear it due to being so heavy. I just think that there are better ways to get the point across and not let these vest makers make money from people's fears.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Its about politics. The media is more worried about ~15k gun homicides per year than ~500k deaths per year from diet and lifestyle linked causes such as diabetes and heart disease.

(Not to say we shouldn't be trying to reduce gun deaths as well, 15k is 15k too many but resource and attention should be directed towards the greatest opportunity for improvement and that lies in making sure every American has access to a healthy diet and lifestyle)

Demetri Julian's picture

Heart disease and diabetes can be genetic and people who suffer from those have the ability to live a healthier lifestyle, take medication, ect. to stay alive. Gun violence is instant death to innocent kids and people with one pull of a trigger from another individual for no reason. There's no comparison, which is why it is talked about so much.

Andrew Tri's picture

15k homicides a year, but of school shootings there have been something like 500 fatalities in the last 10 years.

If it's about the children, how about some laws regarding parental education? Over 400 kids a year are killed in the US by their parents.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

"Its about politics. The media is more worried about ~15k gun homicides per year than ~500k deaths per year from diet and lifestyle linked causes such as diabetes and heart disease."

Wow, talk about "whataboutism"

Ryan Cooper's picture

Not really. Whataboutism is a fallacy argument used to discredit or distract away from an argument by suggesting hypocrisy by the opposing debater.

I was directly responding to the initial comment that was lamenting that we invest so much in this sort of media which spread fear when statistically deaths caused by school shootings are relatively very low in the great big scheme of risks of death. My point was that it is a political move by the media and offered the ratio of health/lifestyle-related deaths to shooting deaths as further evidence. It was a statement to explain what is happening and why.

Whataboutism would be if you were to argue: "We need to take action to stop gun violence" and I was to respond with something like: "But heart disease is killing far more people which you aren't trying to stop so clearly don't care about human life and thus you have no credibility."

It is not a fallacy to suggest prioritizing a larger issue when the ability to address issues is limited by finite resources. It is a fallacy to suggest that a smaller issue is not an issue by using the larger issue to discredit the smaller issue or those who concern themselves with it.

That said, I made no argument above against addressing gun violence. The entirety of the response was only to set the context of why the media choose to constantly prioritize reporting on and reminding the general population of gun violence which I suggest is politically motivated. Feel free to debate that position if you disagree.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

"Whataboutism" is a diversionary tactic of don't look at that, look at this. Not always a fallacy.

Correct me if I am wrong, but the article is about bullet proof vests as a back to school item.

Your feelings about heart disease being the #1 killer are valid but have nothing to do with the OP.
For most people lifestyle choices are what cause death from heart disease. In most deaths from gun violence the victim has no choice in the matter. That is why it is shocking and still makes the news.
To bring up the widespread danger of HD to diminish the danger of gun violence is just as political as what you accuse the media of doing.

Internationally 1.25 million people die in car accidents every year, which is sad but not the point of the article. Why not discuss that too?

JetCity Ninja's picture

it's about intent.

the average driver, student, club-goer, eater... has no intention of doing harm to others. once the norm is broken, and someone intentionally tries to harm others, the devastation, shock and horror is amplified.

driving, going to school, out for drinks, or eating a cheesecake have a level of risk that the participant is willing to accept. getting murdered along with tens of others is not one of the risks normally involved and should never be accepted as "normal."

if you can't see that for what it is, you're in denial. it's about intent; risk should have nothing to do with it in a civilized society when it comes to the chance of being killed in a mass shooting.

Dan Seefeldt's picture

Chance of being a victim in a mass shooting is less than 0.000001%

El Dooderino's picture

I'm sure the parents of those children murdered in Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland, etc. will be comforted to know that.

user-248633's picture

The truth, which you won't find here or any US media site. You have a greater chance of dying in a mass shooting in New Zealand then you do in the USA. That's a fact.

El Dooderino's picture

Because only you know "the truth"? And what does that have to do with the fact that there is now a market for "bullet-proof" school backpacks for children in the U.S.?

Andrew Tri's picture

The vast majority of gun owners don't plan on harming others either. If that wern't the case, then we'd all likely be dead as there are more guns in the US than people.

El Dooderino's picture

Sorry. That's the "No True Scotsman" fallacy.

Alex Cooke's picture

You have a greater chance of being killed by heart disease than cancer. Should we stop researching cancer cures? Also, the difference between a car crash and gun violence is intention. There’s no such thing as selective compassion. Lastly, I think talking about the actual effectiveness of these vests is kind of besides the point with these photos.

Ryan Cooper's picture

I didn't suggest we stop trying to stop gun violence. Its just a proportion factor. We should invest the greatest amount of effort into venues that translate to the highest number of saved lives.

Patrick Karbownik's picture

While I think that your argument is better than "it's my right and noone will ever take it away!!!!", it still doesn't add up.
Yes, people are more likely to die in a car accident than in a mass shooting but things are being improved constantly. Safer cars are being built, safety belt laws have been passed as well as other safety standards/requirements. People have to be a certain age, get a license, follow the the traffic laws that are being updated regularly.

What exactly is being done about gun violence? Even the most common sense improvements are being swatted away by the NRA cult and their followers because "yes, a civilian really needs assault rifle style weapons" and "no, we can't have red flag laws".. ridiculous.

El Dooderino's picture

Comparing car accidents to gun violence is a ridiculous false equivalency. Cars were invented for transportation. Guns were made to kill. (Spare me the "target shooting" crap. That's not why guns were invented). It's sad that our country has devolved to this point.

Ryan Cooper's picture

I'm going to preface this by saying that this isn't meant as an argument in favor of or against guns.

Your statement is based on the fallacy that the purpose for the creation something is evidence in why it should be allowed exist or not exist.

aka something designed for harm that has harmful use is worse than something that is designed to be harmless but has harmful use.

Why guns were created is completely irrelevant to the argument of "should they be allowed" or "are they evil" or even "how they are used".

I'm not pointing this out to discredit you or disagree. Just to point out that when making your argument that you will do a better job of convincing your opposition if you do not base that argument on a fallacy.

Side note, I'm not sure what you mean by "devolved"? When were we more evolved? Violence today is much lower than it was in the past. We still need to do better but it is harmful to your position to suggest that things used to be better because it gives your opponents ammunition to argue that if things used to be better when there was less gun regulation, then clearly gun regulation is part of the problem. That is simply not true though. Violent crime in the current era is by far the lowest it has ever been in the history of human history. (for example, in 1992 (USA) there were ~800 cases of violent crime per 100,000 people. In 2017 there were ~400 cases of violent crime per 100,000 people, src: FBI data)

We have evolved to be the most peaceful our species has ever been, however, we still have a lot of evolving to do because we aren't anywhere near peaceful enough. Regardless, it harmful to the argument in favour of expanding modern policy to suggest that we used to be better when we weren't.

A better argument would be: "What we are doing is working, we are evolving to be more peaceful, we should continue to do it and to strategically double down on it."

Sorry, small rant, I just see arguments like this all the time and they are so foundationally flawed that it is effectively arguing against itself which I know isn't your intent.

El Dooderino's picture

"Your statement is based on the fallacy that the purpose for the creation something is evidence in why it should be allowed exist or not exist."
I made no such statement as to whether something should be allowed to "exist" or not. I own several guns. What I said is that comparing gun deaths to automobile accidents (or heart disease or cancer, etc.) is like comparing apples to oranges. Period.
""What we are doing is working, we are evolving to be more peaceful, we should continue to do it and to strategically double down on it."" And yet, we are now marketing "bullet-proof" backpacks for children??? Sorry. That doesn't seem like "progress" to me.
And, while you choose to focus on the fact that the TOTAL number of violent crimes may be slightly less, "The CDC’s Wonder database shows that in 2017, 39,773 people in the US lost their lives at the point of a gun, marking the onward march of firearm fatalities in a country renowned for its lax approach to gun controls. When adjusted for age fluctuations, that represents a total of 12 deaths per 100,000 people – up from 10.1 in 2010 and the highest rate since 1996.". In other words, gun violence is higher, despite overall violent crimes being lower.

El Dooderino's picture

I'm not sure you understand what "the point" actually is. (Here's a hint...it's NOT "You have a much greater chance of getting killed by your parent driving you to school that getting shot.")

jacob kerns's picture

"How many kids have to die before you give your guns to protect them?

Me: "How many kids have to die before you pick up a gun to protect them?

I'm not giving up my rights because of crazy people.
Another Fstopper dumb post.

El Dooderino's picture

If "MOR GUNZ!" was the answer, we would be the safest nation on the planet.

El Dooderino's picture

You sound like you have anger issues. You're the kind of person who probably should not be allowed to own guns.

Um, no. You call the police who are at least theoretically highly trained not just in the operation of a firearm but also tactically to handle the circumstances in the most beneficial way possible. One doesn't call trying-to-compensate-for-being-a-pussy-gun-nuts who pose in the mirror and think they're tuff. The fact that you can't make the distinction between the police, military and an overcompensating gun enthusiast says alot about you and the gun culture in America, which is really the problem. Dumbass, indeed.

Andrew Tri's picture

It's actually shown that the more legal gun owners, the less crime.

Violent crime is clearly related to specific demographic issues like low-income, poor eduction, etc. It's also highly related to alcohol use (40% of all violent crime has alcohol as a component). Of course you can't ban alcohol, that was tried and failed horribly. There's no reason to suggest that banning firearms will be any more effective.

Also, like it or not, the police do not generally stop crime. They contain the scene, investigate and/or arrest suspects, but they don't prevent that much crime. In fact, there are about 400 violent crimes per 100,000 people in the US. There are less than 300 police per 100,000 people. There are about 101,000 guns per 100,000 people...

El Dooderino's picture

"It's actually shown that the more legal gun owners, the less crime."
Actually, that's not true. John Lott has been thoroughly discredited as an "authority" on gun violence issues. As I posted here, if more guns is the answer, we would be the safest nation on the planet. And, the issue isn't "violent crime" That's a global term encompassing ALL violent crime, not just guns. And further still, this has nothing to do with the article.

You can't argue with people like Jacob Kerns. People like him are so blinded by their love of the NRA and the confederate flag that reason and logic become alien concepts. #kag

Robert Nurse's picture

Honestly, my first thought: "WTH"! Next, we can arm kids at school. We have officially hit bottom.

Dave Dundas's picture

I'd like to think you're correct, but if I was a betting man, the pro-gun nuts are gonna find a way to go lower still before anything gets done about it.

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