ENGLEWOOD — Englewood isn't a war zone filled with despair and poverty — it's a bustling neighborhood full of life.
That's what Tonika Johnson, a photographer from the neighborhood, hopes to show at her first gallery exhibition.
The “Everyday Rituals” project showcases work that Johnson did in collaboration with local painter Adrienne Powers. The free opening night event is Friday at Root Work Gallery, 645 W. 18th St. The exhibition will run through March 19.
“It’s important for people to take a step back and not look at Englewood like it’s just this poor, sad place only filled with social injustice,” she said.
“We do have a culture that we can be proud of, but it’s very difficult to be proud of a culture when the beauty of it isn’t given an opportunity to be seen. I wanted to be the person who’s able to do it.”
[Photos by Tonika Johnson]
Johnson’s previous body of work, entitled “From the INside” and featured at the Englewood Art Fair in Hamilton Park, sought to capture Englewood residents in their natural element. Her lens showed people in private moments — as they walked down the sidewalk, sat on a park bench or had their hair done at a salon, but it wasn’t intrusive because, as a resident, she was already “inside,” she said.
That project is her way of showing the world that Englewood is much more than what's represented in the media. This new project with Powers is an extension of that, she said.
“So much is focused on victimizing us and the crime that’s going on in our communities that oftentimes people outside of the community forget that it’s made up of regular people who operate a regular life,” Johnson said.
Self-portrait of Tonika Johnson
Black culture has always been reflected in everyday things like going to the barbershop or preparing food, she said, but outsiders don’t always see it that way.
“It’s not a community to them,” Johnson said.
Although photography isn’t her full-time job — she works as a program manager for Growing Home in Englewood — she dedicates hours to her craft. Johnson has been practicing photography since high school in the mid-1990s. She received her bachelor's degree in journalism and photography from Columbia College Chicago in 2003.
The industry isn’t diverse enough, which needs to be changed, Johnson said.
“It’s not diverse, and they are not getting accurate images of representation of people in the country because primarily white male photographers come into communities all around the world documenting them,” Johnson said, adding that she’s a part of an emergence of black and brown photographers who are letting the rest of the world know they exist.
“[We] are like, ‘Look, we are here. You don’t see our work in galleries or large national photography contests because they are usually in other countries, but, we’re here, in this country,’” she said.
“We can tell our own story, but we don’t have the platform to publicize them,” Johnson said. “We know how to narrate, and there is talent here.”
She said she seeks to inspire other aspiring black photographers and hopes her work is a testament that they don’t have to always travel outside their communities to capture great photos.
“Everybody doesn’t have money to travel all over the world, and we don’t need to,” she said. “Our communities are just as beautiful if you’re looking at them a certain way.”