Women are overlooked far too often in photography. How can we continue to combat this erasure? My answer is this column, “Woman Seeing Woman.” While it’s just the start of solving this problem, I, a female writer and photographer, hope to celebrate the astoundingly powerful female voices we have in photography by offering a glimpse into their work.
“Crime-ridden,” “impoverished,” and “blighted” are words some might use to describe Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. But photographer and community activist Tonika Lewis Johnson was born and raised here, so she knows there's more to it than what outsiders say. She has been photographing the area since 2006. First, with a series called "From the Inside," then with another named "Everyday Rituals." Both bodies of work explore the culture of the area and its beauty beyond the negative narratives that are forced upon it.
Coming from a background in photojournalism and street photography, she channels her love for her neighborhood into compelling images of a smiling girl on the sidewalk with a sunbeam of yellow curls surrounding her head, a father pushing a baby in a swing, or a young man skateboarding in a bow tie. Through these powerful portraits, she shows the humanity of her community that is often ignored.
Johnson quickly realized that both Englewood residents and outsiders needed to see her work to offset the impact of its negative reputation. As part of the Englewood Rising Billboard Project, her images were selected to be featured on billboards across her neighborhood, giving her community a chance to see positive images of themselves. The project became a news story, a point of pride among residents, and a bright spot interrupting stories about violence in the area.
“Residents saw it on the news and they felt good about it. They became proud of my photography and had a reference to show what life is like in Englewood beyond the crime that people only want to focus on,” Johnson says.
The project became so popular that it led to her being selected as one of Chicago Magazine’s 2017 Chicagoans of the Year. She also had a photo essay run in the Chicago Reader. And in 2017, she exhibited her work at the Chicago Cultural Center.
Johnson’s most recent project is “Folded Map,” which is on view at the Loyola Museum of Art until October 2018. It is another project combining Johnson’s photography and community activism. For the project, she connected residents who live on the North and South sides of the same the same streets. She photographed the residents’ meeting and their homes, addressing social, racial, and economic disparities in the differing neighborhoods as well as the city’s issues with segregation.
“Now, people can have a template of how to bridge the divide,” Johnson says of the project. “I was really motivated to use my platform to talk about this issue so people can understand the history… and how policies around housing and education are not going to get us to interact. There’s actual action that has to occur.”
Besides the impact that Johnson’s projects have had on her community, doing the work has given her a new-found confidence. “I never called myself an artist. I would say I was a 'non-working photojournalist' because I was an unemployed documentary photographer. That’s how I viewed my work until my neighbors, friends, and residents in Englewood told me, 'No, this is beautiful.' Because of their appreciation of my work, I was able to become confident as an artist and start to claim my title as an artist,” she says. “I don’t think that would have happened if my community didn’t uplift my work and show me it was important.”