Curator Spotlight: Meet Melissa Dawn Johnson, Photographer, Storyteller and “Observer of Life”

Mia Quagliarello / October 12, 2022

Melissa Dawn Johnson

In this series, we are thrilled to help you get to know, in a much deeper way, a curator on Flipboard. Each person we spotlight is an inspiring member of a community here. Look for a new post every Wednesday, and please give each featured curator a follow and a high-five! Now let’s get to it.

Hello! Who are you?

My name is Melissa Johnson. I am a photographer based in Los Angeles. In thinking about why I am drawn to photography or why I choose to capture the moments that I do, I am reminded of the statement I crafted for my upcoming group exhibition (The Los Angeles Chapter of Black Women Photographers presents “Our Black Experience: Stories from Black Femme, Queer, Non-binary, and Transgender Photographers”). It follows: 

I have never been what one might refer to as a “conceptual artist.” I don’t often work according to a theme or in order to relay some deep subtextual meaning about society or mankind. I am simply a storyteller and an observer of life. Each photo I take is like an entry into my diary. It is unique only because it is in my voice, seen through my eyes, and shared with the amazing people and places I come across. It is intimate and vulnerable in the way that only a solitary moment shared can be. It is memorable purely because it is birthed from my own life’s mission to make others feel seen, known, and loved. 

If I could distill the intention of each photo down into one statement it would simply be: “I see you.” 

What camera do you shoot with? Why that one?

I shoot with a Sony A7Rii. I was really drawn to the dynamic range of Sony mirrorless cameras, and this was the latest model at the time I purchased it. I also really love the hand-feel of these cameras; they are so light weight and grip well. 

Show us your favorite shot ever and tell us the story of how you got it.

Wow, is this the hardest question ever! I am one of those weird people who see “favorite” as a fluid word that can change from day to day! I think, however, today, this shot of a little boy is my favorite. 

It isn’t necessarily because of the moment — though I think it’s a beautiful moment — but more so what it has come to represent. 

This photo was taken just a few years before Tamir Rice’s life was abruptly taken. I can’t help but think it could have just as easily been this little guy, or so many like him. My little brother. My baby cousins. My future son? There’s a meme going around about a little black boy joyfully expressing his love of corn. It’s so cute! But every time I see another person share the video or interview him and talk about how cute he is, I can’t help but send a silent prayer that they will love and protect and celebrate the adult black man that this little one will become as much as they do the sweet little soul they do now. This photo for me represents the idea — the hope, really — that we will embrace and cherish the whole person, from cute little boy, to young guy learning and growing, to an adult man with feelings, hopes and dreams, and a soul just like all of us. That’s why I called it “He Matters.” 

Who or what inspires your photography?

It may sound a bit clichéd, but everything inspires me, at least on some level. I definitely go through phases where I am a bit more obsessed with one thing or another. During my time at Yale, first it was trying to emulate Henri Cartier-Bresson, then Degas in photo form, which naturally led to an admiration of dancers. From there, as much a result of the difficulty of syncing college schedules with other students as anything else, I began taking self portraits in dance wear! Since college, I’ve flitted from one subject to another with my “planned” photography shoots with set dates, times, models, costuming, etc. 

When it comes to my street photography, however, I just take my camera on a photowalk or pull out my camera phone when the moment suits me and wait for inspiration to strike. Sometimes it’s the way the light falls, or a particular building or mural I come across; other times it’s a person with a certain look in their eye or a community event I happen to stumble upon. My favorite thing is to find beauty in the mundane. It doesn’t matter too much what I photograph as long as I can invite people to look at it in a new way.

What’s your favorite photography book, accessory or other item you want to recommend to other photographers?

It’s been over a decade since my college days, but I still love photos of dancers. I fell in love with a book called “The Art of Movement,” which features a collection of photographs by Ken Browar and Deborah Ory of dancers in New York City. There is just something about the fluidity of movement of a dancer doing even the most mundane of things that really speaks to me. (Protip: Sometimes I go to exhibitions and can’t yet invest in the art, but buying the book of the photographer for me is the next best thing!)

What do you curate on Flipboard and why? 

I of course curate articles on photographers, particularly Black street photographers. However, Flipboard is such a wealth of information and subjects, I also flip content in fashion, dessert recipes and beauty trends.

What are your tips for other photographers on Flipboard?

I think the biggest tip for me was downloading the Flipboard browser extension. I love that I can create a space for all the amazing articles, websites, and videos on a topic in one place even if they are from wildly different sites. This can be a great tool for planning shoots and shows, as a more in-depth type of mood board. 

— Mia Quagliarello, head of creator community and newsletters, is having fun being a part of The Photography Exchange 

Don’t forget to show Melissa some love by following her on Flipboard. Melissa is also a contributor to The Photography Exchange, a new community for photographers on Flipboard. Email photography@flipboard.com for an invite.