School shootings in the United States were the worst they've ever been in 2018, and the number of incidents and deaths show no signs of slowing down. Photographer Richard Johnson created this striking series that captures the new reality children must deal with.
On February 27, 2012, I received a call as I walked to classes on campus. I had just finished a grueling day-long audition for a dream position in a graduate program the day before, and I felt it had gone well, so I was feeling quite good. I figured my friend was simply calling to ask me how it had gone, but she told me in a somber voice to turn on the news right away. When I found the news, I saw that there had been a school shooting in my small, picturesque hometown. During the first news conference around noon, I watched a screen full of people I knew well as the town police chief announced that one of the students had died. Another died overnight. A third died the next day.
My dad had coached both the shooter and the dead students in little league. My sister had graduated that same high school only the year before and would have been there had she been a year younger. So, when I saw Richard Johnson's photo series "Fashion for Life," it hit close to home.
If you remember the department store back-to-school catalogs and ads of the 1990s, you probably recall bright, cheery kids showing off the latest children's fashion and school supplies. It's that style that creates the incredible, heartbreaking juxtaposition in Johnson's photos, which I spoke with him about.
Johnson notes that his inspiration for the project came from the fruitlessness of attempting to change opinions on social media, where "well thought-out or witty replies to people who disagree have little to no positive impact and if anything, push people further away from my perspective." He then decided to put his photography skills to use to create images that force people to consider the issue, asking:
What would a back-to-school ad look like if bulletproof vests were as common as pencils in school? ...How can we put this on our kids? The weight of survival and death on their shoulders. Is this their new normal?
Johnson notes that he made it a point not to inject his own opinion into the images, rather choosing simply to highlight the reality of "bulletproof backpacks at office supply stores" and the "obvious outcome from lack of solutions and actual change." In doing this, he sought to make the vests look like an everyday part of life for the children, as if they were as normal a part of their wardrobe as their sneakers. In fact, that was one of the most difficult parts of the project for him. He notes he carefully ran over the concept in his head and with his crew multiple times, eventually deciding to have the children act as if this was a normal part of everyday life.
One of my first questions was whether Johnson had any difficulty explaining the concept of the project to the children. Johnson said that surprisingly, the only difficulty actually came in explaining it to the parents, as the children understood right away and were "eager to participate."
As a parent, it's hard to comprehend that active shooter drills are a common practice at a lot of schools, including my kid's school here in Florida... The truth is any of us could be parents of kids that go to the next Sandy Hook, and that terrifies me beyond anything I can put into words.
Johnson said after he put the images of his own kids from the series on Facebook, he received message from people wondering if he really sends his kids to school in bulletproof vests, which made him realize that the images aren't that far out of the realm of reality for most people. He hopes that puts the reality of the situation into perspective for those who see the images and that it angers and inspires them to demand change.
For Johnson, the biggest issue was the self-doubt involved in making a project that makes such a strong statement. He notes that he agonized for every little detail, particularly since he understood that with this sort of project, every detail could have a significant effect on how the project was perceived and the sort of message it sent. Eventually, he just had to go for it, telling himself: "it's easy to say what you would or wouldn't have done when you have done nothing at all."Johnson used a four-light setup that he notes is a modified version of Felix Kunze's well-known setup. He added a rim light and a beauty dish for a bit more drama on the children's faces. He shot the images with 50mm and 85mm lenses, all at f/8, as he wanted the images to be as sharp as possible to have "an almost hyper-realistic feel that would complement the over-the-top and almost 'Black Hole Sun' expressions."
When it came to post-processing, Johnson tried to emulate the established aesthetic of back-to-school ads. He used dodging and burning to draw attention to the subjects' faces to "let them discover the vests on their own." The images started in Lightroom for basic color correction, then moved into Photoshop, where he used the Beauty Retouch Panel by Retouching Academy for the dodging and burning and skin work, Lumenzia by Greg Benz for luminosity masking, and Pratik Naik's Infinite Color Panel for color-toning.
Johnson says he hopes the image inspire others to create compelling imagery as well and of course, that these images generate discourse that leads to change.
I would like to challenge those quick to dismiss work like this to do more than just comment. Go out and create work that challenges the way people think. The fantastic thing about art is that no one side has a monopoly on it. Go out and use those skills for more than being a keyboard warrior! You are better than this. In fact, we all are.
There's certainly no denying that Johnson's series captures your attention and makes you think about the current state of society.
All images used with permission of Richard Johnson.