The photo is one of nearly 100 in Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment, a stunning, nationally touring exhibit whose eighth and final stop is the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Johnson, one of 11 photographers in the exhibit, grew up partly in Pittsburgh and started shooting for the old Pittsburgh Press in 1975. In 1982, she left to pursue freelance work and longer-form stories, leading her to Life, Sports Illustrated and, in 1992, to Nat Geo. Her first assignment found her on Chicago’s 1,500-foot John Hancock Center: “I can still remember being on top of the antenna,” she says by phone from the road.
Photography has long been a male-dominated field, and Johnson struggled to break in. “For me it was a catalyst: ‘What do you mean I can’t do that. Of course I can do that!’” But she says opportunities continue opening up. And Women of Vision, curated by Nat Geo’s then-senior photo editor Elizabeth Krist, is a great way to celebrate exceptional talents.
Other exhibit highlights include images from: Jodi Cobb’s story on 21st-century slavery; Stephanie Sinclair’s decade-long project on child marriage; Erika Larsen’s immersive exploration of Scandinavia’s Sami reindeer herders; and Beverly Joubert’s studies of African wildlife. Other photographers featured include Lynsey Addario, Kitra Cahana, Diane Cook, Carolyn Drake, Maggie Steber and Amy Toensing.
Johnson’s contributions also include work from India, Mexico and Vietnam. She says she’s enjoyed visiting the exhibit and seeing people overcome their hesitation to look at unflinching images like hers from the DRC. “Are they going to say, ‘I can’t read this,’ and walk away?” she wonders. “Can you get people to cross that divide of their own fear?”