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New 'Englewood Rising' Billboards Aim To Reflect, Rebrand Community

 The photo was taken by Englewood photographer Tonika Johnson for the #EnglewoodRising Campaign.
The photo was taken by Englewood photographer Tonika Johnson for the #EnglewoodRising Campaign.
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Aysha Butler

ENGLEWOOD — Instead of seeing the usual ads found on billboards, residents in Englewood now can look up and see a reflection of themselves, said photographer Tonika Johnson.

An enlarged photo of Lindblom teens ready for prom is plastered on a billboard at 63rd and Wentworth Avenue with the message "I Am Englewood." It’s a simple image that people in the community can connect with, said the Englewood native. Another one shows a father pushing a child in a swing.

Her photos are a part of a new community-led rebranding campaign using the hashtag EnglewoodRising, said Aysha Butler. Campaign organizers, under the Englewood Quality of Life umbrella, said they hope to create a positive change, as well as “highlight the rich history, culture and value of the Greater Englewood neighborhood.”

 Englewood resident and photographer Tonika Johnson
Englewood resident and photographer Tonika Johnson
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Courtesy of Tonika Johnson

This photo was taken by Englewood photographer Tonika Johnson for the #EnglewoodRising Campaign. [Facebook]

Through this campaign, success stories will be shared, “living legends” will be embraced, and strategies that “redefine the perception” of Englewood will be implemented, campaign organizers said.

Butler said the billboards are the first part of a nine-to-12-month campaign, which will rotate five photos every month. Residents voted to have local community art featured. Funding came from the community, she said. The group is working on finalizing details for the rest of the campaign, which will include more than just the billboard images.

Residents were encouraged to submit their personal stories, images and ideas. Johnson submitted about 10 of her photos.

“I’m still taking it in,” Johnson said. “What really feels good is the fact they know that it’s people from the community, and they can recognize some of the places. It’s just nice. The sad truth is people from outside and people in the community, we don't see artistic-looking pictures of ourselves. To be able see it on a billboard and then to have it from someone in the community, it’s nice.”

Photography isn’t Johnson's full-time job. She works as a program manager for Growing Home in Englewood. Still, Johnson dedicates hours to photography, and she's been taking pictures since high school in the mid-1990s. She received her bachelor's degree in journalism and photography from Columbia College Chicago in 2003.

In February, in one of Johnson’s most recent photo projects, “Everyday Rituals” she showcased her work in a collaborative art exhibit with local painter Adrienne Powers. Capturing Englewood residents in their natural element, Johnson’s lens shows people in private moments — as they walk outside, sit on a park bench or have their hair done at a salon, but the project wasn't intrusive because as a resident, she was already “inside,” she said.

Through the February exhibit and the latest billboards campaign, Johnson said she always tries to show the world that Englewood is much more than what's represented in the media.

Tonika Johnson's work captures Englewood residents in their natural element. [Provided by Tonika Johnson]

The "Everyday Rituals" exhibit can be seen at the Harold Washington Library through June 4. She’ll also be participating in a photography workshop and leading a discussion on overcoming neighborhood stigmas and defining the meaning behind narrative shifting. The free event, hosted by City Bureau, is 6-8 p.m. Thursday at 6100 S. Blackstone Ave.

See more of her work at www.tonijphotography.com.