Amanda Lahr

Behind the Stories, Part III: A Conversation with David Johnson

In this series, we interview some of Bittersweet’s long-standing and talented contributors about the art of storytelling. Bittersweet stories are only as good as the people who tell them, so in this series, we go behind the scenes to capture a glimpse of the faces behind the faces of our stories. From what sparked their interest in the craft to what makes a good story to why they contribute, these interviews delve into the personal, the professional and the transformative. 

"Good storytelling is always authentic, always delivering truth on some level." – David Johnson

Part III of this series features contributor David Johnson – an internationally published editorial photographer based in Chicago, Illinois. David is passionate about empowering creatives to make a positive impact on their local community and contributes to Bittersweet Monthly stories to do just that.

Read his full interview below.

What first sparked your interest in photography?

DJ / I remember in my high school dark room class, seeing a moment appear on paper. There was definitely a romance and almost a magic to it. Then, I was put in charge of taking photos on a missions trip to El Salvador, and it was like the world came alive and into focus.

What is your greatest challenge in storytelling through photography?

DJ / Figuring out how to best translate beauty naturally onto a single image. To be honest, the biggest obstacle is usually the good images I’ve made in the past. It’s easy to try and recreate the same moments, rather than allowing yourself to see a moment fresh and new for the first time.

"Good storytelling is always authentic, always delivering truth on some level."

What makes a good photograph and compelling story?

DJ / A good photograph speaks to your convictions and communicates a sense of beauty and/or authenticity without needing translation. A child can usually recognize a good photo because it speaks visually in a way that needs no prior education.

Good storytelling is always authentic, always delivering truth on some level. Ultimately, storytelling is the delivery of ideas and truths that should, in the end, connect us closer to each other.

What motivates you?

DJ / The hope that a photo could peel back layers or provide insight, visually, that would have been difficult to communicate through words.

Why do you contribute to Bittersweet Monthly projects?

DJ / I believe in any story-telling platform that is hopeful and life-giving. Part of how we change the world is by letting people know about the impactful change that is already taking place. I think it promotes the responsibility to get up and do something in your own community. Bittersweet is ahead of the curve in changing the narrative about people and places that others have written off or assume the worst about.

"It’s always different, but familiar at the same time."

How do you approach a story?

DJ / First, I try to listen and pay attention to the people involved. More specifically, I listen to the voices, then watch the faces. I am usually looking for beauty…not necessarily the magazine beauty you’d think, but the beauty that points to some sort of spark or trace of something divine. Could be someone's eyes, could be wrinkles on their face, or could be a light coming into a room. Just depends. It’s something that usually comes and finds me. It’s always different, but familiar at the same time.

How has collaboration challenged you to see things differently? 

DJ / I think collaboration speeds the creative process because your vision is extended past your own individual ability to see.

I was really pushed by working alongside the young kids in the Blackstone story. I realized I knew very little about cycling and bike culture in Chicago. The kids kept introducing me to new angles about their passion that I didn’t even know existed.

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Blackstone Bicycle Works / The Mechanics of Life, Work and Bicycles

Is there a person or character from one of the stories you photographed who has had a lasting impact on you?

DJ / Terrence from Crusher’s club. We weren’t far apart in age. He’d been through more in his teenage years than most people go through in a lifetime. Yet, here he was, ready to try and pour his lessons into these young men trying to find their way on the southside of Chicago.

If you had to choose one shot you’ve contributed to Bittersweet, which would you choose and why?

DJ / This was an image I felt expressed a little bit of the heart I see in the mission of Bittersweet. Here’s young a boy from Englewood in Chicago, one of the most challenging neighborhoods in the US, but there is so much life, so much story, and so much hope. 

See more of David's work:

Website |
Instagram | @dwjohnsonphoto

Up Next

Tune in next week for Part IV in this series – an interview with Bittersweet Monthly contributing writer Robert Winship.