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As the US elections gather pace, Blink interview long-term documentary photographer Krisanne Johnson. Early in her career, she worked as a White House photographer for a year before stepping away and developing a unique language that she has since expressed in fields as diverse as fashion, politics and social issues. She told Blink about her dearest projects, in Swaziland and South Africa, which she has been working on for the past 8 years and is planning to turn into a book.
Laurence: What helped you find your voice?
Krisanne: So many people and experiences have taught me it’s a journey. It’s personal and different for everyone. You fight your way through the rejections and the criticism and the praise to push yourself harder. For me, it’s about the connection with the story and the people.
Working for local newspapers was instrumental in the beginning of my career. You need to be independent when you roam the streets trying to find a feature. At the same time, covering sports, local events, and politics is great when you are learning to capture a moment and work on deadline. In the end, all of it helped push me to go after long-term work.
When I moved to NYC, I was fortunate to work with Phil Bicker, who was the creative director at The Fader Magazine. He would call me and say, “I know you would normally not shoot this but can you bring your voice and your style to the subject?” His approach definitely helped me push myself to take more chances. He was very open and I felt that freedom to explore. And he would give a wonderful creative direction on what might inspire the shoot. He would work with me on the layout and the editing. My experiences working with Phil informed much of my work in South Africa and Swaziland.
Laurence: Can you actually talk about Swaziland? Why were you interested in this part of the world in the first place?
Krisanne: I had studied in South Africa in 1998 at Rhodes University and interned at the Cape Times newspaper in Cape Town. That was four years after Nelson Mandela had been elected and so much was changing. To be at university and watch the students interact with each other, break down boundaries and talk about their country was really exciting. It was a very formative year in my life and led to my longer-term work there. Later in grad school during an African language fellowship course a professor was talking to me about Swaziland. I started to do some research and realised that this tiny little country, one of the last absolute monarchies in Africa, had one of the highest rates of HIV in the world. Women were disproportionately affected by the epidemic. At the time I wanted a really intimate project and it made sense to look at the struggles of women in Swaziland and its health crisis. And I could also cross into South Africa and continue to shoot.
Laurence: What was the situation for women and, more concretely, how did you approach it?
Krisanne: Swaziland is a very traditional country, run by the king. I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions and really took my time to try and understand Swazi society. Each year, I would discover something new and women would open up more. I am grateful for all that mental growth throughout the years.
I started looking at a traditional rite of passage, which is the Umhlanga dance, when 50 to 60 thousand young maidens or virgins from across the country come together to dance and celebrate as a rite of passage into womanhood. You can feel a lot of power in the streets when they are dancing and singing. It is not just about the last day when the King picks a wife; there is something much more complex.
Many women I’ve met became infected with HIV by their first boyfriend, and likely because they did not know how to protect themselves. There are a lot of attempts to raise awareness about how to have safe sex but the country is pretty male dominant and negotiating safe sexual practices is really difficult for women.
Laurence: Did you use your project to raise awareness locally?
Krisanne: Not exactly. Many of the women in my project would prefer to stay out of local press. It’s a small country and stigma is high. But I think we had a lot of good exchange of information through conversations and from some of my subjects meeting others. I had done a project with The Fader magazine on African-American women in the U.S. who are HIV positive. I took that magazine article to Swaziland and I showed it to women who were very sick but could not be convinced to take medicine. For a long time in Swaziland, since the early onset of the epidemic, there was a stigma around drugs. One friend always said, ‘If they hear I started drugs, they’ll start to say goodbye.’ Fortunately, that stigma is starting to change as people get tested and start the medication earlier.
I would show the magazine article about the women in the US and that was a beautiful exchange. One of the women started medication the next day and kept pouring over the magazine as if she just could not believe what she was seeing… healthy HIV positive women living full lives.
Laurence: You have become intimate with many of your subjects and most of them are your friends. You said a lot of them got infected, I guess a lot of them probably died. How do you deal with this?
Krisanne: My first photography professor, Kevin Moloney, really pushed ethics and the importance of being a responsible journalist. We have a responsibility to take our time and make sure that we are learning about the different societies that we photograph. So, yes, after many years together, friendships develop. They would almost consider me part of the family. But it was also really important for me to remind them every year that I am doing this as a project. We need to have that conversation when the trust level is high.
After so many years between the two countries, I have many South African and Swazi friends. They challenge me and question my work. We have these beautiful and tough conversations. It’s been important to me to take the work back and get feedback from the country and the culture that I’m photographing. It is the same with my work in the United States. We always need to challenge our assumptions about others and ourselves.
There was a year when I lost six people. I didn’t allow myself to grieve as much in the moment - I should have, because grief catches up with you later. I’ve always tried to attend the funerals but rarely photographed them. I felt it was important for me to take that time. We have a lot of AIDS fatigue in the media, and Swaziland has never been easy. It’s up to photographers to constantly look at how stories are portrayed and to break down some misconceptions about the images we see of Africa. After about eight years there, when I am looking at my work, I don’t feel like it is just a health story anymore; it’s a broader story on Swazi youth culture.
Laurence: Speaking of youth culture, can you talk about your work in South Africa?
Krisanne: In the first years, I would always go to South Africa for two or three weeks after I shot in Swaziland to visit friends and to look at the post-apartheid generation coming of age. My first project was with Fader Magazine on Kwaito culture. Kwaito was the first musical genre that emerged post-apartheid. Then, I just kept examining different subcultures each year. I also started looking at everything that this generation faces from housing rights to the high youth unemployment rate to the massive income inequality.
Swaziland and South Africa are different projects in the sense that my Swaziland work is a bit more linear. It looks at different women that I have followed consecutively over these years. I was so used to taking this one approach that it has been a really wonderful challenge to piece South Africa together in a very different way.
Laurence: What are the challenges of this kind of approach – long term, slow, involved, poetic, black and white, not sensational?
Krisanne: For me, black and white photography quickly gets to the immediacy of the moment that I’m feeling and witnessing. I hope I keep evolving as a photographer whether it will be in color or black and white. As for the challenges, long-term work is tough and I’m stubborn and had to really stick to my guns.
I’m realizing it's difficult to bring a project to completion. You always want to keep photographing because it’s energizing and you’re connecting to others. When do you stop and make a book? I’m still trying to figure that out. But, it’s on its way.
Interview by Laurence Cornet / [email protected]