Tonika Johnson had an epiphany about her work this spring. It came as the 38-year-old photographer found herself staring at a billboard in Englewood—one that featured an image of hers. “I remembered the day I took that photo,” she says. “I remembered the boys being shocked that I wanted to take their picture. For it to be on a billboard was like validation—they are as beautiful as I told them they were.”
The billboard is among seven with her photos put up in the neighborhood this year, to considerable buzz. Like Johnson’s work in general, the Englewood Rising campaign, dreamed up by Johnson and fellow community activists and paid for with funds raised by residents, is designed to showcase what she calls Englewood’s “abundant beauty,” countering familiar stories of poverty and crime in the South Side community.
This year her photography has also been exhibited at Rootwork Gallery in Pilsen, the Chicago Cultural Center, and the Harold Washington Library Center. In August, the Reader ran a photo essay by Johnson as its cover story. “People from the suburbs and different communities of Chicago told me, quite frankly and literally, ‘I had only heard horrible things about Englewood, but your pictures have shown me something I’ve never seen,’ ” she says.
Johnson, who studied journalism and photography at Columbia College, has been taking pictures of Englewood’s everyday moments of joy and tenderness since 2006. (One of her images is bisected in the photo above; more are in the gallery below.) Despite urging from her friends, until this year Johnson had not formally shown her street photography outside Englewood, her home since childhood. But her role as a mother (she has two kids) and an activist (she is cofounder of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood) began motivating her to find a larger audience for her work so that she could offer a different side of the neighborhood. Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric deploring Chicago’s violence was the final push: “This is going to be my form of protest,” Johnson says. “To assume that I had to hunt for these images is the exact thing I’m trying to work against.”