Photo by Annie O'Neill

Photo by Annie O’Neill

“It’s not about what you can take. It’s really about what that person chooses to give you.” It is a sentiment woven throughout Lynn Johnson’s photography, in which the respect she has for those whose stories she is telling shines through.


Lynn has dedicated the last four decades to exploring the far reaches of the human condition. She is known and respected for shooting elusive subjects—vanishing languages, disease, rape, the invisible injuries inflicted by war —and for asking tough questions. But what is striking about Lynn is the respect and integrity she demonstrates throughout her work, always putting the people who let her into their lives above her own ambitions. Her ego never gets in the way of allowing the people in front of her lens to tell their story. In her most recent story for National Geographic Magazine she put away her medium format camera in favor of her smaller, less intrusive iPhone, as her friends mother passed away before her. For a story on crossing over she went against the instructions of her editors to honor the people that invited her to witness such a profound and moving moment.
Lynn’s images frequently grace the pages of National Geographic Magazine, and she was recently awarded a National Geographic fellowship.
It was a rare treat to sit down with Lynn at the National Geographic headquarters in Washington, DC to discuss everything from her unique approach to photography to how she came back from being told by an editor that being around her was like being dropped into a pit with a cloud over it, and to absorb some of the wisdom she exudes.

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On developing as a photographer

“In my younger mind I believed that I wanted to be in the presence of hard news – that that’s where intensity lived – to some extent that’s true. Now I understand it lives everywhere.”

“The work has to come from that deep place [like a profound experience in your life that gives you purpose]. And then you will learn the tools that you need to do that work. But if you start from the outside – ‘I have to know how to do video, and audio and stills, and I have to know this program and that program’ – you’re starting on that widest circle. Whatever level you are, starting from that interior self and working out is the best way.”

“I don’t think of images I’ve done in terms of relationship to history as much as in relationship to first and foremost hoping it changed the life of the person that allowed me to photograph them, because they have to go through a process of self awareness and reflection.”

On being an outsider

“I am an outsider, I’ve always been an outsider, and I think being an outsider is what enables me to do the work.”


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