Krisanne Johnson has been working as a documentary photographer since 2006, specializing in long-term photo projects in South Africa and Eswatini (formally known as Swaziland), as well as in the United States.
Her projects typically focus on the health issues pertaining to young women and youth subcultures around the world—be it, young women in Eswatini dealing with the effects of HIV/AIDS, South Africa’s post-apartheid youth culture, or the Vogue scene in NYC. “I feel like youth culture can tell us the heartbeat of a society,” she says. “I’m always really interested in what’s going on both politically and economically.”
Here, the Brooklyn-based photographer talked to us about her approach to long-term photo projects, how she finds funding and the importance of staying curious while shooting.
How did you get started with photojournalism?
I got started in photojournalism when I was at the University of Colorado doing undergrad. I was doing some creative writing classes and that sort of led to joining the journalism school and then I took a photography class. I wasn’t sure if I would stay in the class because I had never really taken any pictures before, but Kevin Moloney, who taught the class and worked for the New York Times, told the whole class, “it’s okay if you haven’t taken pictures.” I slowly discovered the power of storytelling and how it matched up with what I was interested in with creative writing. After that first elective class, I just decided—I remember even calling my parents and being like, this is it, this is what I want to do. I barely knew how to take a picture, but I was just super into the idea of being able to just meet and travel and talk to people, and how we tell stories through pictures.
At what point did you develop an interest in reporting from South Africa?
In undergrad, I think it was the beginning of my senior year, I decided to go study abroad in South Africa and that really sealed my passion. I was in my early twenties at the time, it was four years after apartheid had ended and I was super curious to see how the country was coping with this massive change. I had my first internship at the Cape Times in Cape Town, South Africa. That study abroad time is when I really had a very formative year in my life of working, covering news, gaining more skills as a photographer, and just learning how to approach storytelling.
I’m one of those people that always kind of keeps going back to the same place. So, since about 1998, I’ve just kept going back to South Africa. And then also looking at Swaziland, which is now Eswatini. In grad school at Ohio University, I was studying a South African language and my language teacher encouraged me to look at long-term documentary work. Because up to that point, I had really just concentrated on a career in newspapers. Grad school was great to take that time off to really just sort of reflect. At the time, we only had 12 students [in the grad program], so we just kind of relied and leaned on each other to talk and explore what long-term work could look like and how to approach it. It was also when newspapers were sort of falling apart.
During this era did you decide you wanted to transition into more long-term storytelling work rather than working for newspapers?
After grad school, I interned at US News & World Report. And that’s when US News & World Report had a lot more budget for great photojournalism. I was covering politics and realized politics was not what I was passionate about. I moved to New York City and once I got here, I just thought, you know what, what I really want to do is go work on a long-term project in South Africa or Eswatini. I didn’t really have any connections in Eswatini, and I just went I think a couple of months on my first trip and just started meeting people and talking to them. It’s just a really small country and that experience felt really intimate immediately because it’s so small. And I felt like I could really take my time over some years to really get to know the society. That first project, which I later called, I Love You Real Fast, was the most meaningful project I’ve worked on in my life.
How long did you stay during that trip?
I think I went for two months and then maybe I went to South Africa for a month. The countries are just so close to each other, so it was really easy to work in both. I just started building contacts and I knew immediately I wanted to return. I went home and started to apply for funding. I self-funded it for the first couple of years. And then I went back again for a couple of months, and then eventually I would be spending six months there, even up to eight months over the next seven years.
What advice would you give to young photojournalists that want to start a long-term project? How did you know that you had hit on a story that was worth going back to?
I mean, to be honest, until this day, I still struggle when I’m trying to think of new work that I might want to produce. It doesn’t come quickly to me. I think how I got interested in Eswatini was years of already being attached to the region, by living there, getting to know the people, and through research. I wanted to be going back to a place that I felt I could go back to for seven to 10 years. Maybe it was in the end, only seven, maybe I’m not even done yet. I never quite feel done. I think it’s really important for photographers to make sure that they really feel that passion and that drive to keep returning.
It’s hard for me to look quickly at a story because I think the story has to evolve. It has to be able to unfold. And you have to, as a photographer, learn so many things about the people in the society you’re photographing, whether it’s in your own home or in another country. We may think we know our society, but there are so many layers and complexities that we always have to peel back. So I guess I would say that young photographers really need to make sure that it’s an idea that they have thoroughly researched and that they feel a great amount of passion for. Because it’s hard to keep funding long-term work. If you don’t have the drive to keep returning, and it’s not a topic that you’re extremely interested in, I think that will eventually show in your pictures. I would say, never approach a project thinking you do know what you want to say or that you already have the answers. I think it’s always important to go in with more questions, and openness. And the discovery is kind of what’s magical about photography, and especially in long-term work. You want to feel like you’ve grown and learned with people and it’s been shared storytelling and shared experiences that allow you to gain intimate moments of other people’s lives.
Funding is obviously an issue with long-term projects, how have you been able to do it? What is the balance between funding the work, but also being able to feed yourself as a freelancer?
You wish there was a class like “101 how to feed yourself as a freelancer”. What I’ve learned over the years is there’s no magic formula for how freelance photojournalists support themselves. It’s up to each person to really recognize the skills they have and how to find that potpourri of work to sustain yourself and to also sustain your creativity and long-term work. I took the approach of really applying for lots of grants—that was the first way I funded my work in Eswatini. It’s also like almost playing the lottery. You never know who’s going to feel that they want to support your work. And it’s a really special thing when you do receive a grant. I would take that money and just use almost every cent to stay in the country until I ran out. And then I’d have to come back to New York and try to find some freelance work. The Eswatini work was definitely a labor of love and it was mainly funded through grants. And then I would also get a lot of interest in my South Africa work, so I would find assignments in South Africa. Editors were much more eager to publish stories at that time on the new next generation of South Africa, so it was kind of a balance. I think you kind of have to figure out which stories people really want to run.
What is your approach to gaining access to these communities?
You have to learn to be open. And you have to share a part of yourself as well so people feel that they can trust you. Just be really transparent about the work that you would like to do. With the Old German Baptist project it was a good lesson of approaching a community that doesn’t really have any phones or emails. I found the neighborhoods and I just drove around and cold knocked on doors. And I would introduce myself, and a lot of people said no. And then eventually a few families said yes. And once a few families said yes, then the rest of the community really started to accept it as well. So that was a good lesson in if you want to get the work, you’ve got to push yourself out the door and just knock on people’s doors.
Why do you prefer to work in black and white as opposed to color?
I had shot color for newspapers and I think the process of trying black and white started when I was in grad school [working on] the Old German Baptist project. It just felt like when I shot black and white, I finally found my voice—something clicked. It felt like black and white was my outlet. It felt like I got to the immediacy of the moment faster. As much as I love color photography, I find it a little distracting. I really am just more concentrated on the poeticness of body movement, expression, and layering. Black and white for me is just magical in that way because you can really create a mood.
What tips would you offer to photographers looking to fund their work through grants?
I would say if you don’t put your name in the hat, you don’t have any chance. Work on redefining your proposals. I take my proposals to friends that are writers and have them give me feedback. The biggest tip I could give for people applying for grants is that it’s really great to sit down with somebody before you even put pen to paper and verbally express your project idea.
Once you have to verbally talk it through with somebody, you start to hear yourself, maybe get stuck over certain concepts. I think having exercises that you give yourself to sit down and workshop your ideas with other photographers and friends that you know who are interested in the topic that you’re doing or researching is really important.
And make sure that you’re also following up with editors and letting people know the places that you’re going to be working in and traveling in. Because really in the end it’s a combination of trying to get grants and trying to get editors to possibly fund the work. There are lots of foundations these days, Magnum Foundation, the IWMF, that are also supporting projects. There’s a lot more collaborative-ness between magazines, newspapers, and grants than there was in the past too.