When you work at a local news site, remarkable people walk through your door. Yes, we get some visitors who think they have a story and don’t, but we keep our doors open because, more often, the unexpected guest hands us a story that is much richer than we could have done on our own.

An ongoing challenge for us – one I’ve thought a lot about – is how to cover the homeless crisis in a way that keeps our homeless residents on the site and offers readers a textured look at who they are.

When Joseph Johnston visited to show us his portraits, it was clear that he had taken the time and patience to befriend homeless residents. He had visited many multiple times; he had given them small sums of money, hugs and photographs. He understands something of their lives and also how little he can know.

He wrote about each person and we have been posting these on Wednesdays as part of our People We Meet series. Johnston wanted them integrated into the series rather than a special project, arguing that the men and women he photographs are part of the community. He’s right and that is what we have done.

Mimi Chakarova, our multimedia editor, has been putting these pieces together, recording Johnston as he reads his narratives about each person. As she got to know him better, she decided to produce a story on Johnston, who recently turned 75.

He came to photography late in life, and with his work on the homeless, he said, he has finally found his calling – right outside his front door. That surprised even him because when he discovered photography he too thought of having a young man’s adventure.

“I kept thinking,” he told Chakarova. “If I was younger, that’s what I’d wanna be. I’d like to be a photojournalist. I’d like to travel to different parts of the world and photograph these different stories. And I thought, ugh, I’m too old. I can’t travel to India anymore, or to South America or Africa … It would be too taxing for me … But then I started thinking, if I leave my house, within a block I’ve come across a homeless person. Here is a project I can do where I live. I won’t have any trouble doing it, I can walk two or three blocks. So the only problem then was learning how to approach people.”

What did he learn about approaching them?

“Usually the first thing I say is, I ask them how they’re doing, because it’s important to find out how people are doing, you know, that you care enough about them.”

It’s a reminder of how easily relationships can start.

Regular readers who have not yet donated, it is time. Original reporting is not free and disappears without support.

Francisco Rosas. Photo by Joseph Johnston.
Alberto Soldado, left and Jaime Castillo. Photo by Joseph Johnston.

Photo essays by Joseph Johnston (Check back for new ones.)

Marlon Muniz Cruz , Feb. 2, 2020

Michael, Feb. 18 2020

Penny, Feb 11, 2020

Joseph Stewart, Feb 26, 2020

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MULTIMEDIA ADVSIOR. I’m a documentary filmmaker who taught with Lydia at Mission Local when it was a Berkeley Project. Now, I’m called in to advise on projects and delight in doing so. Otherwise, I’m making films. My last was The Price of Sex. Others include Men: A Love Story and In the Red. My current project is Still I Rise.

Founder/Executive Editor. I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

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  1. I’ve just seen the photo images by Joseph Johnston, & they are breathtaking in their raw & graceful humanity. Being a documentary photographer myself, I hope some day to meet & hear Joseph talk about the people behind his images as well as his creative thoughts as we all move forward into the word. Thank you Mission Local for making Joseph’s project public.