Stella Johnson is a Greek-American documentary photographer and educator who is well-known for her intimate portrayals of village life around the world. She has photographed and established long-relationships with families in the villages of Oaxaca, Mexico, the Northeastern savannah of Cameroon, West Africa, and the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua. Currently in Oaxaca teaching and holding critiques for the Lesley University College of Art and Design we spoke to Stella about her work.
Where did your love of documentary photography come from? Is there a particular image that unleashed your passion for photography?
I was always curious about culture and how people live, so it was an easy fit for me to become a documentary photographer. I have a tendency to talk to everyone. In my early years, when I was working in the corporate world, I interacted equally with CEO’s and elevator operators. When I was 17 I went to Greece and saw the book, The Greek Portfolio, by Constantine Manos. Manos’ work influenced me tremendously since the women he photographed in the Greek villages looked like my grandmothers and I am also Greek. My grandmother had a Brownie camera and always took family photographs. In Greece, I immediately connected with the people and culture.
How would you define yourself and/or your work?
I consider myself a documentary photographer and an educator. I have developed my style in both areas over my 35-year-career.
As a commercial photographer in Boston, I have worked for the Ford Foundation, Fortune Magazine, Continental Airlines, and various hospitals, banks, and universities.
In my personal work, I have photographed and established long-relationships with families in the villages of Oaxaca in Mexico, the Northeastern savannah of Cameroon, West Africa, and the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua. In many ways, living in these communities and getting to know people like my friends Bouba, Faviola and Carmelita has been more important to me than the image making or the making of my monograph, AL SOL.
My documentary photography is a form of storytelling. I am telling my story through images of real life. And my hope is that others can also see a piece of their own story in these images as well: the story of culture, community and family. Light, life, and identity are very important elements in my work. Raised as a second-generation Greek-American, not American-Greek, I have straddled these two cultures.
While investigating culture in Mexico, I became interested in the comadres and how they support each other. They came from villages similar to those of my grandmothers. I became very involved with a few families, became a comadre and godmother to the children, participated in many quinceaneras, Christmas and New Year’s celebrations and birthdays and hence became a part of the community.
As an educator, I teach introductory analog, digital and video classes along with documentary photography classes in Boston, Havana, Oaxaca and Crete, Greece for Lesley University College of Art and Design, Boston University and Maine Media Workshops. My perspectives about documentary photography are changing with the times. I encourage my students to work in a collaborative way with their subjects, to ask permission and to work together. Recently, I have included portraits, landscapes and still life images into my portfolio, things I would not have considered 20 years ago.
In terms of documentary photography, who are your influences? Whose work do you admire?
I read that in your 20’s you drove to Mexico, can you tell me about that experience?
I wanted to go on a road trip in a car so I could travel to remote villages similar to the villages where my Greek grandmothers were born. I traveled to Mexico for many years in search of my grandmothers and ultimately published AL SOL: Photographs from Mexico, Cameroon and Nicaragua in 2008 by University of Maine Press. The road trips gave me the freedom to go anywhere and helped to define my work. It was a privilege to ‘get lost,’ as Chet Baker would sing. I still have that vagabond approach to living. I move around quite a bit and am quite comfortable with change. Though lately I return to familiar places, I will be visiting Columbia for the first time in February 2018 for a Fulbright Grant in Medellin.
How did you first end up in Oaxaca and what has kept you coming back?
In the late 80’s, I read about the black pottery and wanted to see it made. I traveled to San Bartolo Coyotepec where I met Juana Mateo, in the back yard of her house, and asked if I could photograph her and her family. I don’t think anyone would allow it today. I had SX 70 film and made images for the family to keep. I visited every day for three weeks and we all cried when I had to leave. I sent letters and photographs and returned the next year and the next year and the next year. The relationships are what draw me in and keep me returning to the same places. It is always about the people.
Oaxaca is very visually stimulating, what are its most striking images?
The light at the end of the day, the architecture, the colors of the buildings and the art work made by all of the villagers.
What is it about village life that fascinates you?
At 17, I was dumbstruck when I went to the Greek villages my grandmothers were born in. All of my grandparents immigrated to the US fleeing hunger and war. I understood there had been no running water or electricity. I wanted to know more about what their lives had been like – thus my interest in village life. How does one live without running water and electricity? I grew up in a middle-class suburb of Boston and could not make the leap from there to village life. I had to see and live it for myself. I prefer living in small towns and I like living close to the land, with chickens, cows and lambs, as is the case in the mountains of Greece. There are fresh eggs and home-made cheese and most villagers are also subsistence farmers, so there are tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and of course, in Greece, wine and in Oaxaca, Mezcal. It is an organic and sustainable existence.
You’ve said previously that you live alongside people while documenting their lives, how do you make those connections initially? What has helped you in that process?
I do lots of research. Oftentimes I meet someone who knows someone or I go in blind and talk to people and very slowly we get to know each other. My process is like slow cooking – it does not happen overnight. People I photograph have to get to know me first and I have to get to know them. And in the end, this is a collaboration since they know I am there – there is an awareness and participation, however unconscious or conscious it may be. I live alongside the people and photograph what they do. I photograph the slaughtering of animals in Greece and the grapes stomped into wine. These are my roots. They drive my work.
The only way I am comfortable making imagery away from home, in another community, is to develop relationships. My work is predicated on this. The risk of using or appropriating another culture through making images comes when you skim the surface of a community and you don’t enter into relationships. My work evolves out of relationships, community and intimacy. These relationships form who I am today. The photographs are simply a bi-product of the relationships. Any authenticity found within the images stems from the intimacy I have with those families and individuals.
The people I photograph are family, as I am to them. These are very long-term projects, stretching over life times, both theirs and mine. Thirty years ago when I first went to the village in Mexico, there was one working telephone for the whole community. Today, I am ‘friends’ on Facebook with all of the kids I photographed – they are now adults with children.
I returned last Christmas to the villages in Mexico where I have photographed since 1990. I knew that Carmelita, the great grandmother was getting older and I wanted to see her before she died. And she did have a mini episode, like a stroke, when I was there. The next morning I photographed her with her grandson, Hector, lying in bed with her, keeping her company while everyone else was trying to figure out what to do about her condition.
When the people in the villages see the photos you’ve taken of them, how do they react?
Reactions vary from surprise to joy to embarrassment, however, I never publish anything without permission. In Greece, I have the kids take me home to introduce me to their parents to get permission to post a photograph. Families have decades worth of photographs from birthday parties to daily life and those in-between moments they will live and forget about. These things are all documented and gifted as small prints.
How do you find inspiration in places that you’ve visited or photographed many times? How do you keep seeing the ‘new’?
Returning to the same places always works to my advantage because I know the people and the situation but the light will change depending on the season, walls are painted different colors, homes are remodeled and children grow a year older. Everything is new but somehow the same and comfortable.
How has your work changed since you first started shooting in Mexico?
My images have changed drastically from the 1980’s when I was using Leica M-6 cameras and Tri-X film. Now I am working in color with Leica and Sony cameras and my iPhone, the camera that is always with me. When I was shooting 100’s of rolls of film I often overlooked subjects because I didn’t want to process the film- now I shoot landscapes and reflections and colors, weather, and selfies, somethings that never see the light of day but give me great joy.
You’ve been giving workshops in CFMAB for many years, how did you start? Can you tell me more about them?
I am delighted to hold our critiques and exhibit the work of my Lesley University students at Centro Fotográfico Manual Alvarez Bravo. This is a three-credit university class, not a workshop, and we are always happy to invite students from CFMAB to take our class in exchange for assisting our students and the villagers, who have been hosting my students for over 20 years.
Do you have any current projects?