Few photographer-subject relationships are more fraught than
those involving the homeless. So Seattle-based photographer
Eirik Johnson was hesitant when editors at Pacific Standard
magazine asked him to work on a story for their January/February
2017 issue on homelessness on the West Coast.
“I didn’t know how to approach it and I really didn’t want to
feel like I’m taking advantage of homeless people,” Johnson recalls.
He asked for a chance to think about it.
Pacific Standard suggested he might create a story about Seattle’s
tent cities, temporary encampments that are sanctioned by the city.
But Johnson didn’t want to
simply show the tent cities
against the urban landscape.
“I felt that if I was going to
do this, then I was going to
do something where I would
learn and implicate myself in
it,” he explains.
He came up with an idea
while on a camping trip with
his kids. Awaking in the
morning, he noticed there
was a “beautiful diffused
light” in his tent. “It seemed
like such an interesting place
to make a picture.”
Bottom Left: Eirik Johnson hesitated before taking an assignment photographing a
Seattle tent city. ABove: To avoid making images that he thought were exploitative,
he focused on telling the stories of his subjects. opposite: He also made sure his
subjects understood how their images would be used, and tried to give them
“some ownership of the story,” Johnson says.
“I wANted tHAt
be cleAr ANd
tHeN [to] gIve [tHe
owNersHIp of tHe
stor Y tHAt tHe Y’re
trYINg to tell.“
— eirik Johnson A L L
Photojournalists have long worked from the
perspective of outsiders, telling stories about
cultures and sub-cultures other than their own.
However, subjects want and expect more say in how
the media represents them. Four photographers
explain how they’re negotiating the ethically
sensitive territory of photographing cultures
other than their own with dignity, respect and
an avoidance of stereotypes.
eirik Johnson on photogrAphing
A homeLess community