Using the Power of Photography to Give Hope: Fstoppers Interviews Rich Johnson

Have you ever asked yourself why you picked up a camera? Learn about the inspiring and touching work of photographer Rich Johnson as he gives a voice to the incredible teachers who are fighting for their kids' futures each day.

This week, students across the country will be going back to school in some way or another. They will be returning to a place completely changed by COVID-19 and will face new challenges along the way. While the educational landscape has changed, teachers’ commitment to their students’ education has not. This article highlights the teachers’ narrative as they continue their tremendous work in light of COVID-19.

The Backstory 

I had the chance to sit down with commercial and portrait photographer Rich Johnson and discuss his new series: Dear Students. 

Rich Johnson is a photographer based just outside Orlando, FL. Before exploring the “what” or the “how” of any project, Johnson hones in on the “why.” In his own words, he describes his thought process:

My approach to creating anything has always been to focus on why I am creating before I even think about how I am going to create. This helps keep the story front and center.

The Message Behind the Work

To Johnson’s point of prioritizing the “why,” the story and message must always come first. Only then, as photographers, is it our role to use the camera to illustrate and bring life to that message. For this project, Johnson explained that he felt while there was an emphasis on the student experience during this time, there was a gap in the narrative of teachers amidst this new environment. Johnson reflected on the fact that "being a parent of two elementary school students, I hear from my children how they feel about school this year. On social media, I see how parents feel about school this year, but what I don't see a lot of is how the teachers feel about school this year." Johnson created this initiative as an effort to change that: 

 A project that, while very small, is my attempt to give teachers in our community a chance to speak directly to their students through a letter and express how they felt on their mask.

To give the audience a more inclusive look into the project, Johnson teamed up with fellow creative, Chaz Dillon, to produce a video that highlights the project and shows the participants reading their letter to their prospective students:

The Process of Bringing the Project to Life

Lighting is a critical part of any photograph and, as many creatives can attest, is something that can be easy to overthink on set. But Johnson emphasizes that if you find yourself overthinking lighting on set, remember to bring your focus back to the “why” of the shoot. Johnson explained that he had two obstacles to overcome to bring the shots to life. "First, how do you make an engaging portrait that shows the teacher's emotions when you only have the eyes. The second was this pure white mask front and center that I knew I didn't want overexposed."

Johnson explained his lighting setup and was kind enough to provide a lighting diagram to show how he brought the teachers’ stories to life. He explained that:

I used two AD600s behind the subject both with a gridded 12x56" Quick Strip softbox to create a very dramatic rim light. Next, I flagged an AD200 with a shoot-through umbrella with a V-Flat World v-flat that also doubled as a negative fill camera left. On camera right, I had an AD 200 with a 20" Deep Parabolic Quick softbox as my key, and right below, I had another v-flat folded down to add a little fill in the shadows. 

The Final Images 

Closing: A Message to Photographers During These Times

Wrapping up this interview, I asked Johnson to share what he'd like to tell artists during these uncertain times. I was thankful that he shared such meaningful and heartfelt advice:

I feel like now, more than ever, there is a need for creatives to use their talents to tell stories and document the quickly changing world around us. The ideas don't need to be complex; they can be as simple as a portrait and a written letter. There are countless nonprofits, organizations, and causes around the world struggling right now and in desperate need of talented creatives that will help make an impact. Be true to the message and allow people to share their voice and whatever you do. Try not to direct the narrative unless it's your story. 

If you were inspired by this project and want to see more of his work, please take a look at Rich Johnson's Instagram

What are some personal projects you have done during this pandemic? Share your stories in the comments below!

All images used with permission of Rich Johnson. 

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Eli Dreyfuss is a professional portrait photographer based in sunny Miami, Florida. He focuses on making ordinary people look like movie stars in his small home studio. Shortly after graduating high school he quickly established himself in the art world and became an internationally awarded & published artist.

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1 Comment

I love the Silenced picture.And I agree that we need to document the quickly changing world around us. Our university keeps all the learning distant, so we'll have to hand in a lot of projects in digital. The whole idea is very inspiring, thanks! I think can think of something else in that direction for my smartshow presentation on sociology next time :)