Julian Johnson

Julian Johnson is currently an undergraduate Studio Art major at Wesleyan University, based in Austin, Texas (US). His practice involves photography, music, and creative writing. In this interview Julian shares his work Hi, How Are You? and discusses how photography relates to his experience of anxiety and depression.

What is your background — how did you get started and what attracted you to photography as a medium?

I’m born and raised in a Catholic family in Austin, TX. I’ve played the drums since I was kid, so I guess art has been a part of my life since I was little, but I didn’t get into photography till college. I was back home over winter break working as a food delivery driver, depressed as hell. I would spend my time roaming around my hometown taking pictures on Snapchat, and it was pretty soothing. I had a lung cancer scare round that time – it ended up just being built up scar tissue from when I had bronchitis a couple of times that year. So when the test came back negative, I blew my money on a used camera and just kind of ran with it ever since. I had a lot of social anxiety at school, but I took my camera out with me as a social crutch, shooting at parties and concerts. I was thinking about dropping out of school for a while because I felt like I was too depressed to keep up, but I got into an intro photography class for the next semester, and decided to stick around. And now I’m an art major at Wesleyan. It’s been a medium that has kept me going, and it’s functioned as a diary to some degree, capturing the feelings I can’t really put to words.

You grew up with Marfan Syndrome, a genetic condition that affects connective tissue. How did this affect you growing up and what impact has that had on your mental health?

I was diagnosed when I was five. I wore a back brace for ten years to help with scoliosis, had a spinal fusion when I was fifteen, and had jaw surgery when I was eighteen. I’ve had a few hernias and a ruptured appendix, and I deal with chronic pain on a daily basis. But I essentially grew up not feeling comfortable in my own skin, and recoveries from surgeries made me feel really isolated. It has no cure, and most of the time I’m fairly chipper, but it tends to eat at me existentially. I broke off from the church at sixteen, and that’s really when my mental health got bad. I developed some self-medicating tendencies to deal with it, occasionally leading to self-harm. I guess it’s just an ongoing mind-body connection, dealing with pain that won’t really go away.

Your project Hi, How Are You? is shot in China, a place you cite as having a huge impact on your mental health. What was it about your first trip in 2017 that played a positive role in your mental health and what role did photography play in that?

I got a grant from my school last summer to go to China to work on a project called I Country, I Uncountry with a butoh-esque dancer named Monica Sun. She writes, “From birth, the child of the immigrant suffers from a sort of sea-sickness. Oscillating precariously between her native country and her adopted country, her center is in chronic flux.” I photographed her performing around eastern China, navigating this liminal space and dealing with “a deep sense of confusion and pervasive longing.” She was a huge support system for me because she noticed I was struggling a lot with mental health, though I myself was in denial about feeling depressed and suicidal. I felt very isolated because I didn’t speak the language and knew few people in Shanghai. It was also my first time being relatively sober in a while, but it was really that summer that I started working on myself. I’ve started therapy and got on medication since.

When I first came to China in the summer of 2017, I got my first tattoo on the forearm where I used to burn myself – it reads, “Hi, how are you?” It’s a reference to some graffiti art in my hometown, a way of checking in with myself, and a translation of the only Mandarin I knew when I arrived to Shanghai. As time goes on, it also symbolizes the amount I debt I owe to this country for my progress in my mental health.

Can you say a bit more about how the series came about and your involvement in Lifeline Shanghai?

I was in Shanghai again this summer staying with Monica and her family, and I reached out to a few non-profits to see if I could volunteer and take photos for them. Lifeline is the only English speaking hotline in China (though they speak many languages), and it’s a huge resource for both locals and expats. The director, Coreene Horenko, was super welcoming to me, and since I wasn’t in Shanghai long enough to qualify to volunteer on the hotline, she gave me an assignment to shoot abstract photographs that they can use for social media and to sell at a community event in the fall for World Suicide Prevention Day, trying to raise money for their organization and to keep their important work going.

The images feature a real graphical quality with layers and lines — what were you looking for when making the work? Have you got a favourite image and why?

I usually have a hard time making photos without people in them because I feel like I need a protagonist for it to be a good shot. I was really looking for visual motifs that kept popping up around Shanghai, things that referenced place and loneliness at the same time. Advertising language kept popping up for me too, and I’d come up with little tag lines like, “Hanging in there?” and “Need some support?” But I think the graphical quality comes from my instinctual composition for the assignment – I felt like each picture should work as a piece of art and an ad in the subway. 

In regards to a favorite image, I guess it’s the watermelon peels. I kept seeing peels around the city, so I bought a watermelon at a store a few blocks from my apartment. I ended up throwing out my back in the process. I’ve had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that I can’t do the basic things anymore without hurting myself, like carrying groceries or bending over to wash the dishes, even though I’m 21. But we ate it with my neighbors, and I scattered them out the next day as a little memorial for my body. I also just like how the big peel in the middle looks like a smile – a little dose of sweetness.

Is this the first time you’ve explored mental health in your practice — do you think you’ll continue?

This is the first time I’ve consciously explored mental health. Looking back at the pictures I’ve taken the past couple of years, a lot of them reference mental health to some degree, but it was subconscious. And I’m definitely going to continue. My professor at school, Sasha Rudensky, tends to say that we all pretty much just have one story to tell as artists, and I think mental health is a part of my story, and will be for the rest of my life.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on my senior thesis, Chronic, which is about living with a chronic condition, either physical or mental. It incorporates still lives like these, but also interviews/portraits of patients, western doctors, alternative medicine doctors, healers, exercise classes, and other systems of support. There isn’t an easy answer or solution for a lot of people, and it tends to be an invisible struggle. But it’s proven to be very cathartic so far. For most of my life, I’ve felt alone dealing with my pain, but there are a lot of people out there, and that sense of community definitely helps in the healing process.