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.
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