Skip to main content

Meeting the Privilege

ISSUE:  Winter 2023


This issue continues a run of powerful photodocumentary work for VQR, beginning with Michael O. Snyder’s narrative portrait of drag-queen culture in a northern Appalachian town in the 2023 Spring/Summer double issue, followed in the Fall by Robin Alysha Clemens’s chronicle of a homeless community in western Ukraine transformed by the war. Here we feature Lynn Johnson’s visual saga of families who use medicinal cannabis to treat medically fragile children. Each of these projects powerfully articulates the ways in which people respond to the intense pressures that bear down on them. What’s more, each reflects a years-long commitment to building the singular experience we find in longitudinal storytelling.

Photographing a subject for several years isn’t necessarily a sound economic plan. A magazine might pick up some images along the way, or a grant might offset some of the hard costs. But those are long odds. More likely, photographers who commit to telling the longitudinal story are chasing something that can’t be bookended by a tidy sum. So what would drive this kind of commitment?

“Part of it for me is the addiction of the work,” Johnson says. “You always need more. You need to be more intense, you need to be closer. But it’s also this idea that no magazine can do justice to the depth of the story, because it’s impossible for an arc of several years to manifest on the page. It always gets boiled down. And so for every story I’ve ever done, there’s always this feeling that I didn’t do these folks justice.”

The longitudinal arc is a tricky thing to capture in magazines, where compression is a must. Attempting to chronicle all the pivotal changes across years will inevitably feel arbitrary and artificial. But the years-long photographic story is distinct in that it can show the transformation of both subject and photographer. “As you’re working, you’re also maturing,” Johnson says. “The material changes you, and that impacts how the story evolves and matures and the insights that are available.”

Does she see a different photographer in older images compared to newer ones? 

“Yes. First of all, when you look through it as a body of work, you’re exquisitely aware of how much time you’re spending. You can see the trajectory of their life, of your life, of the work. You become conscious of your growth. So the question becomes, How do you grow so that you deserve the right to be in the lives of these people who are living a very complicated and sometimes traumatized life? We have to meet that privilege of being in their space and telling their story.”

For Johnson, that growth has led to a new long-term commitment, a deeper dive into the lives of families whose children suffer from severe autism, a theme she discovered while documenting families for this issue’s story. 

“It took me a long time to understand that it was okay to articulate this need I have to be in the presence of powerful, intimate moments,” she says. “To admit that I’m driven not just by wanting to tell the stories of these families, but because I also need that intensity. They go hand in hand, because you can’t sustain it if it also doesn’t serve you.”

What then, do these subjects give back? 

“This need to feel fully alive,” she said. “And at the same time, acknowledge the mission that telling the story of this family will hopefully make a difference at some level. That’s where the advocacy comes in. You know, we’re not supposed to be the advocates, but of course we’re advocates. You wouldn’t do the story if you weren’t.” 

That advocacy is for some storytellers as great a motivation as the need to make a living or hone a craft, or even chase a rush. The desire to improve the lives of others by telling their stories over time. Because none of the projects I’ve mentioned here are delicate ones. Good documentary photography requires deep empathy, and often comes with psychic and emotional costs that aren’t made whole by paydays. Bearing true witness operates on a different currency.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading