Q&A: Seth Johnson — Keep Those Bad Guys Out

07.07.20

Have you recently been living by any life philosophy? Hold (most) things loosely. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t lie. What will baffle future generations about our day and age? The list of what won’t baffle them is probably shorter. Are you aware of any conspiracies? Absolutely. I find them endlessly entertaining. What is it that interests you about photography? It is a medium that is capable of surprising even the maker of the image. I suppose that is something that is interesting to me about art-making in general. What is the worst thing about city life? At the moment, the line to get in the grocery store, the amount of people, the lack of trees, and cost of living. Also, parking tickets. What part of the planet would you like to explore? The alps. I will never tire of the alps. Pick a field of science to be an expert within. Psychology. Does social science count? What moment have you most wished you’d had a camera when you hadn’t? I can’t think of a moment I wish I had a camera but I can think of a moment when I had a camera and wasn’t able to get to someone to try and make a portrait. It was in my hometown and he was walking around town with a red jacket and a portable CD player clipped to his belt. He was across a busy street when I spotted him and by the time I was able to get across, he was gone.

Choose a job you would be willing to do for free on the side. A wooden shipbuilder. Describe the most important photo you’ve seen. I’m not sure if this is the most important but an important photograph I can think of would be a photograph of a girl in Nebraska named Erica by Richard Renaldi. She is standing in a diner wearing a green shirt and an apron while holding a mop. It was a photograph that just landed in my gut in a way I hadn’t really experienced previously. I was fresh out of high school and just starting to take image-making seriously and that gut feeling, in many ways, propelled me on to studying photography formally. How often do you take other people’s advice? I can be pretty stubborn in some circumstances. I’d say 60/40 in favor of advice. Describe a personal hell. Surround sound chewing noises. Which living person do you most admire? I know it’s not singular but, the older I get, the more I admire my parents. On what occasion do you lie? See question 1. What was the last crime you witnessed? Not a very exciting answer but while on a walk the other night, I saw someone roll through a stop sign. What is the best way to educate yourself? As an educator, I definitely have an appreciation for formal education. For myself, even within my own formal education, I just try to do the thing. I am by and large a hands on learner. What is the next book you want to read? I’m currently reading Stand By My by Wendell Berry. I recommended it to a friend and he in turn recommended Jayber Crow, also by Wendell Berry, so that’s next in the queue. Ultimate camera? A 4×5 kit that is as light and compact as a K1000. Most used camera? Lately, probably the Fujifilm Instax SQ6. I use it just about every day right now as a kind of meditative/sketch tool. Overall, my most used camera is probably my Fuji gw670. I picked it up a couple of years ago and have loved just about everything about it.

What object do you want? I try not to want anything. That said, fifty wooded acres with a river running through it and a small cabin would be nice. What object do you need? Toothbrush. How would you explain the internet to someone from the 1950’s? Honestly, I’m not sure I could sufficiently explain it to someone today. If I had to, I would probably describe it as a kind of invisible force that has the potential to answer any question and give you incredible influence. It is both the best and worst thing. Are you satisfied with your level of physical strength? Nope. Describe a cheap thrill. Driving a truck through the mud and almost getting stuck. Pick a historic moment from the last hundred years to bring a camera to. Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. Are impulses more important than consequences? Asking for forgiveness instead of permission is usually more Interesting. Which talent would you most like to have? Though I have never taken the time to lean, every time I come across a piano, I wish I knew how to play. What is your plan for the next 24 hours? Being in COVID-19 lockdown has my days looking pretty limited and uniform. Walk the dog, read, cook, watch a show or two, repeat.

If the two most unarguable facts of life are suffering and beauty, a house should be designed to mitigate one and reinforce the other. It should be protective. It should be beautiful and provide places for the contemplation of beautiful objects and provide contact with whatever beauty is available in the surrounding landscape. — Robert Adams

Not long after my wife and I moved in to our home, our sense of security was shattered. The sense of violation that accompanies, or immediately follows, an invasion of private space is not easily shaken. Such violation elicits an immediate, and often excessive, shift in state of mind and alters the perception of our physical surroundings. It changed the way I think about my home and how I occupy it. My habits and routines shifted. Every noise was suspect. As a result, I forced myself to think like a burglar in order to stay one step ahead.

I found myself sliding down a slippery slope towards paranoia and couldn’t help but think this isn’t the way it should be. I became suspicious of my own motives and conscious of their absurdity. After attempting to describe these feelings, of all the methods I employed, humor proved to be the most effective vehicle in defining the absurd. It is natural to strive for securing your home, defending your loved ones, and protecting your personal property, but such vigilance comes at a unique cost.

It’s remarkable how dramatically emotion can influence how you see and interact with the world. My experience of this violation colored the way I view my surroundings. In the title, “Those Bad Guys” points to a fear of an unknown, perhaps nonexistent, other who is perceived as an immanent threat. Whether it be burglars, strangers, immigrants, health problems, or anything else, the ambiguity of the title leaves room for the reader to regard “Those Bad Guys” as anything they might be rationally, or irrationally, afraid of.

These phobic feelings do not leave me when I leave my home. As I walk through my neighborhood, I identify the weaknesses in my neighbors defense systems. While some are well protected with alarms attached to doors and windows and cameras to monitor their perimeters, many have vulnerabilities they may not even know exist. As I walk, I’m also keenly aware of how I may be perceived. While I am known by some of my neighbors, I am a stranger to most—moreover, a stranger with a camera. It does not take long for me to realize the duality of my presence; my hyper-watchfulness perceived by others as an uncomfortable presence. I watch them as they watch me, and I have become the very threat that I am trying to protect against.

Seth Johnson (b. 1987) currently lives and works in Los Angeles, CA. Much of his work considers the humor and sadness of a life that is not well lived. He is drawn to these characters/subjects out of a sense of relief that he is not (yet) in their shoes. He received his MFA in photography from the Hartford Art School.

To se more of Seth Johnson’s work — sethjohnsonphoto.com