Photos designed to lead from Intolerance to Understanding

“You put your camera around your neck along with putting on your shoes, and there it is, an appendage of the body that shares your life with you. The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”—Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)

The Appalachian Trail leads between two sections of a fallen tree through a verdant woodland. At an intersection in Mesa, Arizona, traffic waits while a pedestrian crosses near a telephone pole with an American flag draped around it. A deserted country road, dappled with shadow, stretches away, marked by odd circles drawn on its surface.

        All three scenes are tranquil, and yet…

        On the trail in Shenandoah National Park, partners Lollie Winans and Julianne Williams were bound and slain for being lesbians. On the back road in Texas, James Byrd Jr., an African-American, died after three white men dragged him for two miles from the back of a pickup truck; the circles indicate where pieces of his body were found. At the intersection in Arizona, Indian immigrant Balbir Singh Sodhi was gunned down while planting flowers outside his gas station. He was targeted because he was “dark-skinned, bearded and wore a turban”—the first retaliation for the terrorists’ attacks on 9/11.

        These “Scenes of the Crime” are photographs by Lynn Johnson that appear with text in From Intolerance to Understanding, an ambitious citywide exhibit of photography, film, multimedia installations and workshops opening May 5 and shown at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and The Children’s Museum.

        “Lynn’s work is outstanding, indescribable and people need to see it,” says Andrew Swensen, director of finance and institutional development at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. “The subject matter is so personal, psychological and internal, and at the same time it’s very public, social and external in nature—both powerful and disturbing.”

        When another photographer first mentioned Johnson’s “hate crimes” photographs to him, Swensen was interested. He had been looking for exhibits for the Filmmakers gallery, and it was easy to set up a meeting. Johnson, a nationally renowned photojournalist, lives in Pittsburgh with her partner—when she’s not traveling to Australia or China on assignment. As soon as Swensen saw the photos stored in Johnson’s laptop computer, he knew “we had to do it.”

        Yet From Intolerance to Understanding almost didn’t make the transition from “personal project” in a laptop to gallery walls.

        The project actually began years ago when Life magazine assigned Johnson and a writer to cover the death of Byrd in Jasper, Texas. As Johnson remembers, “We covered the trial and walked the road where he had been dragged, and we could feel the fear, the conflict and the misery in that town.”

        Her attempt to “hold up mirrors” to the tragedy resulted in compelling images of Byrd’s family, the town’s reaction and the site itself. But Life chose not to run the story, replacing it with the more current Columbine high school shootings instead.

        “Even though all of the editors felt [Byrd’s death] was an important story, the managing editor pulled it and cobbled together a piece on the Columbine kids,” Johnson says. “I saw that as a decision based on racial prejudice, not wanting to look at one African-American man’s life.”

        Although her work was featured regularly in national publications like National GeographicNewsweek and Sports Illustrated, where she is now on staff, Life’s decision caused Johnson to rethink her career in photojournalism. “At Life I could talk to the editor, communicate what’s on the field and have a deep ‘take’ on everything captured on film,” Johnson says. “But when I’d send in the material, I’d have to hope for best because I had very little control.”

        It wasn’t just the job. Johnson adds that “other things were going on [in her life]” as well. She decided to go back to school and earn a Master’s degree in visual communication without the pressures of monthly deadlines. For her work, she was awarded a Knight Fellowship from Ohio University, which offered full year’s tuition.

        She rented a house in Ohio and began working on her thesis. And then another hate crime exploded nationally.

        Ronald Gay, a self-proclaimed “Christian soldier working for my Lord,” declared he would “waste some gay people,” in part because of the abuse he experienced over his surname. He opened fire in a gay bar, killing Danny Overstreet and injuring six others.

        It didn’t seem like the right time for Johnson to become involved. She had “severed all my free-lance ties,” and yet she felt compelled to travel to nearby Roanoke, Virginia.

        “I went with a good friend who works at the Post-Gazette, and we started [taking photos]. It was just one of those things we had to do. Danny was killed, and he was loved in the gay community and in the wider community. I felt this was an issue that needed to be addressed.”

        However, even more than addressing an issue, Johnson’s photos cause viewers to experience an emotional connection. Unlike a “shooter”—a word Johnson abhors—who snaps an image to show how something looks, Johnson beautifully captures the mood and the emotions of the people in Roanoke. She cares about her subjects, and her work conveys what she’s learned from them to the viewer.

        “The first thing I do when go on assignment, I listen,” Johnson explains. “I listen a lot, carefully, actively to the people on the other side of the camera, the experts; so I can learn from them about the subjects. But I also listen to their perception of what it is I’m going to be doing, and I immediately try to help them understand that photography is a serious form of communication and will have an important voice. I don’t want them to minimize that, because they’re going to enable me to do my job, do it well and inspire me. I need that collaboration.”

        At the time, she knew this project had a much wider scope, although she wasn’t sure whether these images would ever be seen.

        “I made a promise to everyone in Roanoke that I wouldn’t publish [the photos] commercially; I would publish them for the purpose of education,” Johnson says. “I received a distribution grant, and I began creating a conversation about hatred and intolerance.”

        Eventually she decided to assemble her photographs involving the deaths of James Byrd and Danny Overstreet into a book on intolerance.

         Her proposed book has four major sections: “scenes of the crime” with nine places where hate crimes occurred; and sections on racism, with material from the James Byrd story assigned by Life; homophobia, documenting how the victims and members of the community in Roanoke were affected by the rampage; and xenophobia, the fear of anyone who is different, a segment she’s still working on.

        Portraits of “advocates for understanding” like Fred Rogers accompany each section. “It’s a kind of a positive response to that dark, difficult issue,” Johnson says.

        To view From Intolerance to Understanding on her laptop is to realize why a major installation was inevitable. As each photograph links to the one before it, the emotional response intensifies. Johnson’s poetic text gives the photos a perfect framework.

        Yet it would be five years, until her meeting with Swensen at Filmmakers, before her project would finally be seen by the public. Not in book form but in a larger presentation that, even now, continues to grow.

        “I saw it as an opportunity to get the material out, and Andrew became the first person to fully make a commitment and get behind the work,” Johnson says.

        Swensen’s enthusiasm and his collaboration meant that Johnson’s “personal project” would become a reality. And because Swensen felt the work “warranted larger exposure,” he brought in others to brainstorm the exhibition’s possibilities. As more became involved, From Intolerance to Understanding expanded, crossing genres and boundaries.

        Johnson’s photographs form the cornerstone of the multimedia installation. Pittsburgh Filmmakers will feature her most thought-provoking images. An outdoor installation in the shape of a cross, with enlarged photos and text by Johnson on 9 feet-by-9 feet panels, will be set up on the grounds of Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. The Children’s Museum will display images addressing intolerance that are appropriate for children.

        On May 25, local personalities will read relevant stories in “American Shorts” at the Center for the Arts. Pittsburgh Filmmakers will screen films on intolerance, such as Gentleman’s Agreement, and host forums for educators. In conjunction with the Children’s Museum, Family Communications Inc., the parent company for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,will create learning experiences for children and design training on tolerance and diversity for educators and families.

        As for her more commercial work, Johnson is now in the enviable position of having more control and being more involved in the process.

        “After many years, I’m getting calls to do more assignments about topics I really want to do,” she says. “If someone calls about a project I feel is compromised in some way—that it might take advantage of the subject or create problems in the person’s life—I’ll talk about that with the editors and based on their response, I may or may not take the assignment.”

        Johnson acknowledges that her work has been influenced by the photographs of Dorothea Lang, the photojournalist who gave a face to those who suffered through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the ’30s, the worst drought in US history.

        “Lang’s photos of the Dust Bowl were the pictures that inspired me as a young person to be a photographer,” Johnson says. “I always thought that that raw, intimate look into someone else’s life is the most powerful thing you can do.”

        In From Intolerance to Understanding, Lynn Johnson has succeeded in doing just that.

Related events

The following are several of the activities related to the exhibit; for an updated list go to www.pghfilmmakers.org and click the From Intolerance to Understanding link.

May 5: Opening reception, 5:30-8pm, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 6300 Fifth Ave., Shadyside

May 5-July 2: Gallery exhibition, Pittsburgh Filmmakers, 477 Melwood Ave., Oakland

May 5-Aug. 20: Architectural exhibition, Center

May 8-Sept 3: Age-appropriate exhibition, Children’s Museum, 10 Children’s Way, Allegheny Center

May 9: “That’s a Family” workshop, Children’s

May 11: Opening reception, 6pm, Filmmakers

May 24: Panel discussion with Lynn Johnson on the role of the arts in creating tolerance, 6:30pm, Center

May 25: “Hate Kills/Loves Heals,” program of American shorts, Center

June 8-29: Film series, every Thursday, Filmmakers

The Q Archives and articles like this are republished here by the kind contribution of Tony Molnar-Strejcek, the publisher of Pittsburgh’s Out. Maintaining the cultural history of Pittsburgh's LGBTQ Community is made possible by contributions by readers like you.