David Johnson, photographer and Founder of Silent Images, appears as a very approachable man with a kind face.
He starts out by saying; “We are the ones who were staring out the window, dreaming. We’re a kindergarden teacher’s worst dreams. Yet, here we are, shaking up the world.
In 2006, David was a tennis coach and middle school teacher. He left teaching to become a humanitarian photographer and storyteller.
“When I picked up my camera, the scarier decision would have been to stay where I was, just because it was safe. I picked up my camera and my first stop was Darfur, Sudan.” He says as he recants the heart-wrenching trip. “But there was something that caught me by suprise. There was a joy, a beauty, a resilience that remained, even after the genocide had subsided.”
On his way home from his first trip, he missed his flight. He spent his first night on the floor of JFC airport, he could not wait to bring these stories home. Britney Spears shaving her head and Anna Nicole Smith’s death covered the all of the major news outlets. “Prosperity blinds us to that which is significant. It was on the floor of JFK airport and all I had was a camera. I thought “what can I do with a camera to fix this?” and it was here that I thought, there are other photographers and filmmakers that have a passion to share this story of hope and injustice. I wanted to use these tools to make us go beyond the headlines.”
He gathered these professionals for a brainstorming session and what kept returning to them was the tool, how the images could be used to steal dignity and not tell stories. They continued to document and mobilize artists to use their gift to bring justice.
“The sad news is that 2007 was not the end of these kinds of headlines. 2011 hasn’t been much different and it’s embarrassing, isn’t it? It’s embarrassing when the ignorance is put in front of us. Sometimes the stories of the world make it to us, but it’s not usually images of hope. The problem is that the complete story is not put in front of us but there are heroes, there is joy, there is hope, there is an opportunity to tell these stories and this energizes us.”
Enter Grace, subject of one of David’s books that celebrates the beauty of African American women. The women were asked “What’s your story?” Grace’s story was of trafficing, prostitution, etc. She responded that now that she’d been rescued from that life she wants to become a journalist so she can go back to the streets so she can tell the stories and get girls that were like her out of the street as well. He calls her a hero.
“There are wonderful flowers that can blossom out of the grotesqueness of the slums.”
He shares a story of Ugandan chess champion, Phiona. “There is hope and partnerships, not just handouts but hands up, in the slums.” His team began to focus on similar stories in the US. His question is how something in the states could be mobilized to capture stories of inspiration. “What defines heroism is someone with great heroism and courage.Well, I know some people like that.” He says.
David asks everyone in the room to hold up their phone if they have a camera in it. More than 1/2 of the crowd raises up a lit smartphone screen. “Everyone here has the ability to participate in Silent Images. It’s about your community and the stories that come out of it.”
“Heroism is often inspiring. The best part is that the Levine Museum of the New South, will display all of those images for four months. Our first photographs were from homeless kids on the street. We invite the city of Charlotte but we don’t want to stop there. We want silent heroes of Austin, of Memphis, we ask the common people with the common tool we have; enough with the headlines and things that pit us against eachother.” He smiles as he speaks.