In Conversation with Stella Johnson

Stella Johnson is a documentary photographer and educator at Boston University and Lesley University’s College of Art and Design with a love for human stories.

During her childhood, Stella Johnson remembers her grandma always taking family pictures with a Brownie box camera and says it inspired her to buy her first camera when she was 12. Though she initially pursued art photography, receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts from San Francisco Art Institute, she was drawn to journalism because she’s a self-described “news junkie”.

“I really wanted to start photographing people in a serious way,” said Stella. This desire landed her at Boston University, where she completed her Master’s in Journalism. It was from there that she started driving to Mexico, a country she returned to dozens of times in the past 31 years.

Stella’s grandmother immigrated to the United States from the Greek island of Lesbos. Stella says she was drawn to photographing Mexico because it helped her understand what her grandmother had left: poverty, conflict, lack of resources and hunger. More than that, though, it shaped her love for human stories.

Photographs in Mexico by Stella Johnson from her book, “Al Sol,” which includes images from Mexico, Cameroon and Nicaragua.

In 2003 Stella had the opportunity to travel alongside anthropoligsts on a Fulbright Scholar Grant.

“I don’t go to a place and stay there for a week, I stay for months. I go into the markets, I go into the villages, I talk to people. I am curious about their lives. In many ways…[it’s] like visual anthropology,” said Stella.

Stella says her work doesn’t pinpoint misery but rather “talks about culture, human beings and daily life” within the context of difficult situations.

When curating Everyday Everywhere, she selected photographs that did the same: a man shaving his face in front of the US-Mexican border, a Somalian refugee making bread, teenage immigrants from Central America looking at their cell phones, Ixil Mayans listening to forensic anthropologists upon the return of 36 war victims.

Photographs selected by Stella Johnson during her curation. Clockwise from upper left: 1. “Ixil Mayan people listen to instructions from forensic anthropologists from the @fafguatemala as the return of 36 war victims begins. Most perished in the mountains fleeing State led repression in 1982. Nebaj, Quiche, Guatemala.” Photo by James Rodríguez, @mimundo_org 2. A series of photographers depicting the US-Mexican border called “La Línea”. Photo by Francisco Mata, @fcomata 3. Mirna and Kenia, teenage immigrants from El Salvador and Honduras. Part of the series “First Generation”. Photo by Yaritza Menjivar, @iaritzamenjivar 4. “Batulo Abdala, a refugee from Somalia, makes bread in a small kitchen in Kakuma refugee camp. President Donald Trump’s travel ban and its legal challenges have caused much anxiety and confusion in the Kenyan refugee camps of Kakuma and Dadaab, where those slated for resettlement in the United States are unsure of their futures.” Photo by Nichole Sobecki, @nicholesobecki

Discussing these images, she mentions a quote from Teju Cole:

“A picture of something terrible will always be caught between two worlds: the world of ‘something terrible,’ which might shock us or move us to a moral response, and the world of “a picture,” which generates an aesthetic response. The dazzle of art and the bitterness of life are yoked to each other. There is no escape.”

“What I was trying to do was marry visually very strong imagery with political, social and economic contexts. I didn’t want it to be about nothing. I wanted it to be about the issues that we’re facing every single day,” said Stella of her curation.

For her, many of these issues are personal. On the island of Lesvos, where her grandmother emigrated from and where many in her family still live, residents opened their doors to thousands upon thousands of people fleeing war and poverty in what has been the largest displacement of people since World War II.

“[Greece is] in the 8th year of the worst economic depression, worse than the Great Depression, and they opened their doors. They said the streets stank of urine, and there were tents everywhere. There was no place for people. The Greek government didn’t have any money and the EU didn’t come forward, but they had the empathy.”

“A refugee washes himself in an abandoned warehouse where he and others have taken refuge in Belgrade, Serbia.” Photo by Muhammed Muheisen, @mmuheisen. Selected by Stella Johnson during her curation.

An image of a refugee bathing under a shaft of golden light in an abandoned warehouse by Muhammed Muheisen really struck Stella, who said it was hard to pick just one of his images.

“[My family] fled poverty and hunger and wars, war after war after war, much like the Syrians. There’s not much difference, just 80 years difference, but it’s the same human story.”


@EverydayEverywhere invites guest curators to select their favorite images on Instagram hashtagged #EverydayEverywhere. If you’re interested in curating, please get in touch: contact@everydayprojects.org.

Written by Danielle Villasana

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