What I Learned From My City Bureau Fellowship

I still haven’t finished my project. But what I gained from my 10 weeks with City Bureau will last much longer—and the final product will be even better because of it.

By Tonika Johnson

(left) 6900 S. Ashland Ave. (right) 6925 N. Ashland Ave. (Photos: Tonika Johnson)

When I was accepted as City Bureau’s Photojournalism Fellow this summer, I was eager to finally begin my Folded Map project on Chicago’s residential segregation under their guidance. My idea was to choose homes on opposite sides of the city (6100 S. Wolcott and 6100 N. Wolcott, for instance) and document their differences through photography.

I thought it would be as simple as selecting the addresses, taking the photos, getting City Bureau’s feedback, then have a culminating project exhibition of large scale prints with mini Chicago maps as captions — happy ending, fellowship successfully completed… that was not the case.

Each week, our fellowship mentors and City Bureau co-founders Darryl and Bettina asked me insightful questions that challenged me to research more, think more. They encouraged me to go outside my comfort zone of photography and welcomed my interest in interviewing my subjects as well as adding audio to my project. I became deeply immersed in exploring a unique illustration of Chicago’s segregation.

The project grew to include residents of North and South Side neighborhoods, meeting each other, and eventually taking photographs at each other’s home. (left) Nanette Tucker stands in front of her Englewood home. (right) Wade Wilson lives in Edgewater. (Photos: Tonika Johnson)

By the time my fellowship ended, my project wasn’t complete but City Bureau helped me develop it into a powerful visual investigation of geography, territory, its relationships to the people who inhabit these neighborhoods and the historical economic forces that have shaped them. City Bureau provided me with the freedom, equipment and critical feedback necessary to expand my photographic practice and become the social justice artist I didn’t know I wanted to be.

City Bureau enabled me to successfully start a project I’ve thought about for years. Now, in partnership with Loyola University, I will complete Folded Map and exhibit the final product at their Museum of Art in fall 2018. Prior to that, I’m excited to present my two previous Englewood-based projects “Everyday Englewood,” at Loyola University Museum of Art, opening February 9.

(left) 6720 N. Ashland Ave. (right) 6720 S. Ashland Ave. (Photos: Tonika Johnson)

Support City Bureau Photojournalism Fellows like Tonika by becoming a City Bureau Press Club member today. Your contribution to our civic journalism lab in any amount will be doubled by the national #NewsMatch campaign through 2017.