'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

Previous comments
Geoff Miller's picture

That has to be the dumbest reaction I've ever seen. Seriously.

Guy J. Sagi's picture

I spent 30 years at the helm of national outdoor and gun publications and religiously rejected this kind of editorial posing as news, even when the writer's opinion reflected my support of the Second Amendment. You did not do the photographer, his work or his opinion any service in the story—in fact, the opposite is true because "you became the story." Readers come back for news, reviews and information, not spoon-fed divisive political commentary.

Will Murray's picture

Gotta love the tired attempts at utilitarian arguments, framed by relative privation and false dichotomies.

Then there's the one where people equivocate on small technicalities; totally ignoring and distracting from the overarching philosophical and moral questions.

America deserves its fate. Flip side, it serves as an object lesson to the rest of the world - how not to do things.

Ivan Lantsov's picture

not good for rifle kids all be dead

jonas y's picture

Good job, for standing on childrens' graves to get famous and push political agendas.

El Dooderino's picture

Keep whistling past the graveyard.

Dennis Williams's picture

"powerful images" that's hilarious. They're no more powerful than the average Target ad for where's kitty t-shirts. The series does not cause me to think anything other than advertising at certain price points really is so awful.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

At first I thought it was a Target ad, so it looks like the photog hit his "target"

Dana Goldstein's picture

So to actually discuss the PHOTOGRAPHY shown here — I think it completely (you’ll forgive the analogy) misses the mark. Everyone looks so freaking HAPPY to be going to school in a bulletproof vest. I don’t see any of the alleged “drama” in the kids’ faces. I get that he tried to make a statement about the idea that this could be normalized in our children’s lives, but I believe there are better ways to tell it visually.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

I am pretty sure it's satire.

Dana Goldstein's picture

Fully aware of that. Just don’t think it quite makes it.

How would you visually tell this?

Dana Goldstein's picture

Since it’s his personal project, I don’t think it’s something I would tell at all - it’s not my concept.

Will Murray's picture

I'm pretty fond of showing the bullet strewn corpses of children, but each to their own.

Dana Goldstein's picture

Maybe I’ve gotten more sensitive to these things since my brother in law’s finger was shot off and one of his congregants was killed in his synagogue in Poway, CA in April. Could be that’s why I don’t take this so lightly.

Joel Manes's picture

I live a mile from Poway, and while is was a terrible event, I don't think that the guns should be the primary target. Guns safety is crucial, but mental health, social platforms, and hatred are the cancers. removing all the guns, though impossible, is palliative. The underlying disease will still be there.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Well both, but the guns are not going away, and the current administration is talking about mental health (to divert form the guns are bad talk) but will never, ever fund a program that has a whiff of a gun>mental health>mass shooting link.

Dana Goldstein's picture

Quite agree, Joel.

William Howell's picture

Excellent commercial lighting, it does have the look of a flyer from Target or Kohl's.

While in the Netherlands, we have had some mass shootings, they are extremely rare. In the bigger cities, criminals mainly shoot each other which is also a problem because bullets from an AK47 don't discriminate between criminals and people. It is rather hard and troublesome to have a gun permit in the Netherlands so most people don't have a gun.
The biggest threats most children in the Netherlands face is mobile phone addiction and bullies.

Duncan Brennan's picture

The images are striking, no doubt. I applaud the photographer for creating these images to give voice to their concern. I absolutely applaud Johnson for using his talents to bring his point of view to life.

After glancing at the arguments, I am dismayed that people will parrot talking points, instead of talking about what's at the root, and how best to address it.

I am neither in the camp of guns everywhere, nor no guns for anyone. That being said, I will adamantly argue against anyone who posits that the device is the root of the problem. We focus on the tool being used to our, and our children's peril.

The majority of firearms-related fatalities are suicides, at a rate of about 60% in 2017. This is the last year that data is available on the CDC's WISQARS database. What do you think will happen if we treat suicide the same as criminal violence? A person should be able to put themselves on a no-buy list without any repercussions, and there should be a definitive pathway to getting yourself off that list, once the danger has passed.

For criminal violence, if we look at mass shootings as the end-all-be-all of how to solve violence, we're deluding ourselves. Outside of a few areas, we hardly ever hear about the daily toll, unless there is a mass shooting. The actual committing of a mass shooting, often takes on tones of a suicide bomber, but the leadup often mirrors that of a serial killer. There are avenues of intervention to look at in disrupting the planning phase, which SHOULD be our focus.

Firearms are but one deadly tool in an arsenal of tools that are available in a free society. In my meager life history, I've been witness to attacks with bats, cars, trucks, bombs, pressure cookers, knives and fire.

While I am generally against gun control, I do think that certain regulations are within reason. An "assault-weapons" ban is not a good idea. The tools to make an AR-15, or an AK are out there, and it is easier to manufacture a fully-automatic weapon than it is a semi-automatic weapon.

Please think before you legislate. There are second, and third-order consequences that should be taken into consideration.

Dave Dundas's picture

"Firearms are but one deadly tool in an arsenal of tools that are available in a free society. In my meager life history, I've been witness to attacks with bats, cars, trucks, bombs, pressure cookers, knives and fire.
An "assault-weapons" ban is not a good idea. The tools to make an AR-15, or an AK are out there, and it is easier to manufacture a fully-automatic weapon than it is a semi-automatic weapon."

Sorry, but I don't buy that. The complete instructions on how to make a nuclear bomb are online too, but you don't see any mass killings with nuclear weapons do you? That's because the tools/materials needed to make them are restricted. What's good for the goose...

Is that going to stop every violent crime in the US? Of course not. Does that mean it shouldn't at least be attempted? Also, of course not.

Duncan Brennan's picture

Ah yes, the nuclear argument.

Strictly speaking, both uses of nuclear devices WERE mass killings. In Nagasaki, 39,000 people were killed. In Hiroshima 80,000 were killed. The fact that we were at war is incidental. Yes; the complete instructions for a nuclear weapon ARE on the internet, and you don't see them as viable self-defense items because the the blast radius on them are quite extreme. The Davy Crocket nuclear recoilless rifle, with a nominal yield of 20 tons (Mk54 warhead) has fireball radius of 20m, or 66 ft (according to Nukemap) , the area of effect is 1256 square meters 13,677sqft. The air blast radius from that detonation is 60m/198ft . Within that zone, the 20psi shockwave will have near 100% fatality rate. That area now becomes 11,304sqm, or 123,000sqft. According to Nukemap, there would be roughly 1150 fatalities, and 2,060 injuries from that detonation, if it happened in the geographic center of Atlanta, GA. Given that most engagements happen within 30ft, the user is guaranteed to die. There are other issues with using nuclear devices. On the Davy Crockett, the warhead alone weighs 76lbs. My experience with the AR15/M16 family of weapons has shown that even at intermediate ranges 300m, they are still relatively effective in point-to-point engagements. This is all just a fancy way of saying that you're comparing apples to kumquats.

Dave Dundas, at no point in my argument did I say to not push for regulation. I did say to think the legislation through, and be aware of at least second-order, and third-order consequences.

What are the due-process ramifications of red-flag laws?

What are the consequences of forced buybacks on the 5th amendment, not to mention budgetary consequences for ensuring that due-process is respected for 80-100 million people.

What are the consequences on less-afluent populations, when mandatory insurance requirements, and expensive licenses are implemented.

Also, what are we doing with the laws already on the books?

National Firearms Act of 1934, Gun Control Act of 1968, Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986

Lastly, I want to say that humans have been killing each other since time immemorial. The tools have only made it more efficient to engage numbers of people. If your goal is to focus strictly on mass shooters, you're going to doom yourself to overall failure. If your goal is to mitigate violence, you'll need to take a broad-spectrum approach. As a gun owner, I much prefer the broad-approach, because it means that I am less likely to need to use my sidearm.

BTW, what argument are you referring to when you say "Also, of course not"?

Dave Dundas's picture

You start off by comparing mass shootings to the decision of a country at war dropping a nuclear bomb, and saying they're essentially the same thing. I'll be completely honest, I found that level of "whatever" (I want to say ignorance, but that seems negative, and I am not trying to insult you, but the comparison of the two things as equals (or even vaguely similar) is beyond ludicrous, so I'm at a loss for a better word), so, after that, while I skimmed the rest of your post, I just couldn't bring myself to attempt an honest discussion with someone that is so far away from the basic facts. I'm sure that's my loss. I'm equally sure if I showed you conclusive proof from every expert in the world, you would not change your mind (I'm not saying that exists, I just think your mind is made up, and that's not going to change, your basic "Facts" are so far askew that I don't think you can move from your position on this, I could be wrong though).

In reference to your "BTW" comment, I asked 2 questions at the end, and I answered 2 questions at the end, not sure where the ambiguity is there.

Andrew Tri's picture

Illogical argument. You can't get nuclear material to build a bomb. However you can get whatever you need to build a firearm with relative ease. There isn't a material you can feasibly restrict. Metal is in abundance, and gunpowder is fairly easily manufactured and refined. Machining tools are widespread.

As far as suicides go, yes currently in the US most suicides are with firearms. However removing firearms will not likely stop suicides. There is plenty of data that shows that countries without firearms have the same or higher suicide rate as the US.

Just a note: FBI statistics show that hands/baseball bats/etc still kill more people than 'assault rifles'

And finally - the question regarding why the media doesn't do more to show the ongoing toll of violence and instead focuses on mass shootings has (unfortunately) a simple answer: the coverage would be inherently racist based on today's definitions and social activism. (FBI statistics are quite clear on this)

But that just goes to show that programs are needed to alleviate the social issues of low-income, poor education, minimal opportunities that plague these communities and give rise to violence. The amount of money and press given to banning guns would be so much more effective if applied towards the real issues rather than an ideological band-aid.

Dave Dundas's picture

Sorry, but you've apparently completely misunderstood my point, you're actually repeating it. You're right, the main difference between a nuclear weapon and a firearm, is that that you cannot get the parts you need to build something nuclear. That was my exact point. Ergo, if it was more difficult to get firearms (or parts for firearms even), we might get closer to a similar result. I'm not suggesting that will make all guns disappear, or anything like that (or that we should even be trying to do that). I'm merely pointing that guns are far too accessible, and if the govt took some kind of steps to reduce access, like they have for nuclear materials, we might get a similar result. I have no idea how you arrive that the conclusion that's illogical, since you literally explained the difference between the two as a reason why they're different.

I'm not talking about suicides, that's a whole different discussion, incidental to what we're talking about. I never mentioned them, this feels a lot like a red herring, "quick, let's talk about something different that's easier to defend."...

Deaths from other causes are also a red herring. Are guns the only problem in society? No. Does that mean we can only deal with one obvious issue at a time? Again, no.

And finally, you've gone from the red herring logical fallacy, to the straw man. No one is talking about banning guns. There's a chasm of space between common sense gun reform, and banning guns.

Duncan Brennan's picture

Dave Dundas, what ARE the parts for creating a firearm?
And what parts need to be metal, what parts don't, what parts can be 3D printed, and what's your plan to regulate ALL of those materials, and technologies without violating the 4th, and 5th Amendment?

Duncan Brennan's picture

Dave Dundas how do you define "common sense" within a legal framework? These are important questions, especially when you consider that these laws will inevitably get challenged in court.

I have been watching the news long enough (since 1986), to know that there are sufficient politicians out there that have floated bans to know that banning guns is ANYTHING but a red herring. Sens Feinstein, Klobuchar, Blumenthal, Schumer, and a number of others have co-sponsored S.66, that has a short title of The Assault Weapons Ban of 2019. It has no hope of passing this year, but this is a direct refutation of your argument that it is a logical fallacy to say that politicians are trying to ban a classification of weapons.

Before we go passing new laws, how about we take a hard look at the laws we currently have on the books, and not just the big gun laws (NFA of 1934, GCA of 1968, and the FOPA of 1986), and see if stepped-up enforcement will do anything. Because if you're just going to propose new laws to make you feel better, people are still going to continue to die, and I'm not up for that.

Edited to include link to S.66 "Assault Weapons Ban of 2019"
https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/66/text

Dave Dundas's picture

Those are all reasonable questions to start the discussion with. However, the current rules of the govt (specifically the Dickey Amendment) severely restrict any research into firearms by anyone capable of collecting that data, so, I would suggest we start by creating a real study that will actually attempt to get some of these answers so that we have real data instead of opinions.

Progress is painfully slow getting past that deliberately created roadblock to science.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dickey_Amendment

Duncan Brennan's picture

Dave Dundas, on 23 March 2018, the rules applying to the Dickey Amendment changed it so that the research cannot be used to advocate for gun control. Which is actually quite reasonable. If you're doing research, starting with a conclusion, and then looking for data to support it is intellectually dishonest, and should not be government funded.

I am with you that we need more data. But we don't need data that has an agenda, that will only set back real solutions.

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