Chicago’s Violence Fighters
Thursday July 11th, 2013
by Maria Luci
David W. Johnson has lived in Chicago his whole life. He knows this city—its streets, its people, and sadly, its violence. Although David doesn’t live in the areas experiencing most of the gun and gang related violence, he truly cares about telling the story of those affected, and making a difference in his city.
David attributes Chicago’s increasing violence to a variety of sources, stating that while most cities in the U.S. have seen decreases in violence, Chicago’s rates have risen due to “demolished public housing projects, failing schools, and a nationwide crackdown on drug/gang lords, resulting in dissolved leadership structure in gangs, and power grabs.” He also believes there is a “deeper problem at hand, which starts with a breakdown in family structure, and results in children with poor self-images. This low self-image leaves children fearful and looking for love and respect wherever they can find it,” which is often in a gang.
Wanting to help in some way, David began a documentary series centered on the people affected by Chicago’s violence with Ceasefire/Cure Violence. He planned on using the photos in a personal series to bring attention to Chicago’s problems. Serendipitously, soon after beginning this work, he was contacted by an Essence Magazine photo editor, who asked if he was familiar with Chicago’s violence situation, and if he’d heard about the death of Hadiya Pendelton. When he answered yes, they sent him out on assignment to photograph environmental portraits of Hadiya’s family, as well as anti-violence meetings with Ceasefire. David jumped at the chance to introduce a wider audience to an issue he felt strongly about; he was very attracted to this assignment as a whole, saying,
Anytime you get to tell a story about your city to a national audience, you definitely feel responsibility. Since I had already been trying to independently tell the story of what was happening in Chicago, this was a logical next step. In fact, it felt like a gift from God to help communicate what has been happening in Chicago. I had actually been praying about how I could help, and then my phone rang. There are times I hear of shootings down the street from family members’ houses, so this is deeply personal to me, and I am willing to use whatever resources I have to see the city rid of violence. I want to do whatever I can, even if right now that is only taking photos.
David photographed Hadiya’s mother, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, and her family in February. Initially, things were a bit tense on set, as the television crew from 48 Hours was also present at the time, conducting interviews. “To be honest, it felt like they were over-saturated by interviews and the media,” David said, adding, “by the time I reached them, they were just tired.” However, after taking a few photographs, David was able to convince Cleopatra to allow him to return the next day for some additional photographs, when they’d be more rested. The second day went much more smoothly. David reflects,
When I returned, the camera crews were gone and it was just Cleopatra and the family. We were able to connect without the stress of other appointments, and Hadiya’s mother opened up about her daughter’s death. As she pulled out a paper bag of Hadiya’s school pictures, she explained that even though the media had turned her daughter’s death into a chance to fight gun violence in America, Hadiya was her 16-year-old daughter, and the grief of losing her child and close friend was unbearable. Once I started to photograph her at the dining room table looking at the stack of Hadiya’s school pictures, she cried deeply. After some tissues and comfort from her son, she talked to me for almost two hours about what a wonderful person her daughter was, and the plans they had for her future. She also said that even though her daughter’s life was cut short, she would spend the rest of hers making sure that it wasn’t in vain.
David went on to photograph key players from the Ceasefire organization, where he got a “deep sense of how committed the organization is to ending violence.” Through these assignments with Essence, David says he’s learned how valuable patience can be—”whenever you’re photographing people affected by violence, or those who have faced significant loss, it’s better to listen before you take any pictures. I also learned that sometimes the story that is the closest to you, that you want to tell the most, is often time the hardest story to tell.”
View more of David’s work at dwjohnson.net.