A National Geographic photographer turns her lens to Pittsburgh

A week after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, photographer Lynn Johnson reflects on the tragedy that hit her hometown.

Photograph by Lynn Johnson, National Geographic
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Students from the Yeshiva School write and deliver thank you notes and donuts to the first responders—police and firefighters from station Zone 4 in Squirrel Hill.
Photograph by Lynn Johnson, National Geographic

National Geographic photographer Lynn Johnson had just landed at Pittsburgh’s airport last Saturday, October 27, 2018, when the pilot told passengers there was a medical doctor who needed to get off the plane.

A young woman ran up the aisle. “This was a trauma surgeon who was racing to work,” says Johnson.

As passengers turned on their cell phones, word of the massacre at Tree of Life synagogue spread.

“It was like a local version of 9/11,” Johnson says of the moment she learned what had happened.

Johnson has worked as a National Geographic photographer for 28 years. She has covered tragedy for decades, walking through Jasper, Texas and other towns where people have been killed because of hate. She wrote her graduate thesis at Ohio University on hate crimes. And she has pushed her own graduate students at Syracuse University to explore the uncomfortable. But this was different.

“I was born here,” she says. “This is my hometown. One thinks it can never happen in your hometown.”

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This child was born Ella Jane Silver. On October 27, 2018 at 9:45 a.m. she became Yisraela, child of Israel, during her baby naming ceremony at Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh. As she was being blessed, 11 people were losing their lives to hate violence less than a mile away at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Her mother, Lauren Sonkin Silver, wants to raise her daughter as one who is aware of her heritage, history, and faith. Both maternal grandparents are survivors of the brutality in the camps during World War II.

Johnson lived in the Squirrel Hill enclave for seven years when she was a photographer for the Pittsburgh Press. The two brothers who were killed at the synagogue, Cecil and David Rosenthal, lived at the end of her street.

“There’s virtually no degree of separation,” Johnson says. “If you’re removed you can pretend independence. I can’t pretend that here. It’s tough to have distance when it’s your town. Every photographer I’ve seen at the site is completely conflicted about raising the camera to their eye.”

At first, Johnson couldn’t do it. “I walked up to one of the temples where one of the funerals was and I turned around and walked away. I called and said ‘I’m not doing this.’ ”

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At the end of the block where the synagogue is located children have hung stars on the police barricades in memory of the victims and acknowledgement of the tragedy that has struck the community.

The moment reminded her of the time she was asked by a newspaper city editor “to go and ask a mom for a photograph of her dead child,” Johnson says.

“I did it but I vowed I would never do it again. Going to the synagogue felt like that.”

Later, Johnson would make her way to Pittsburgh’s memorial to honor the lives lost. She says she wanted to see who was there in the rain.

“I never work in my hometown,” she says. “I haven’t worked in this city for years and years and years.”

“You don’t see anything when it’s your hometown,” Johnson adds. “We depend on the heightened and the extreme, and now I’m looking for the daily, and the subtle and the brief. Close personal relationships are what makes Squirrel Hill so special, which is why this loss is so profound.”

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Twins, Ronna Wedner Levin (right) and her sister, Robin Exler (left) have prepared most of the flowers for the funerals. The flower shop was opened by their father, Norman, almost 80 years ago. The entire family goes to Tree of Life synagogue.

While working on her master’s thesis on hate crimes Johnson interviewed Pittsburgh native Fred Rogers, famous for the American television show Mister Rogers Neighborhood, whom she had photographed for many years including for Life magazine.

During the interview, Johnson says, “he asked, ‘Is your neighbor worth loving?’ That’s the project I would like to do. I see this as a kind of introduction to thinking about that.”

Johnson is still trying to make sense of what drives people to do terrible things. Earlier this year she photographed a story on the science of good and evil for National Geographic.

“The man who did the violence, what happened in his life that he’s that obsessed,” she asks. “What’s happening in our national discourse that he felt he had permission to do this violence? That’s something as a nation we have to address every day.”

National Geographic culture editor Debra Adams Simmons talks with photographer Lynn Johnson about covering tragedy when it happens in your hometown.

Debra Adams Simmons: You’ve done some really challenging work this year. How are you able to remain poised for such intense assignments?

Lynn Johnson: It's practice over many years and in many difficult situations, but fundamentally I think it is centered in a belief in the value of our profession as those who witness. I have also come to understand in my mature years, the value of listening (and not photographing) to someone's story. Sometimes it is all we have to give.

DAS: How is this Pittsburgh assignment different than all the others?

LJ: I never work in my hometown. When working for National Geographic we are always looking for the extreme—the intimate and universal in one frame, and somehow that is more easily seen when in unfamiliar terrain. The everyday, the familiar flattens out the moment.

The goal in this story is to confirm the special quality of a community. That alone is illusive and subtle. To find such moments at a time when people are burying their loved ones or feeling guilt or rage is quite a challenge. The daily is on hold right now.

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A woman stops to pray at a memorial at the other end of the block where the Tree of Life synagogue is located.

DAS: If National Geographic had not called, would you have picked up your camera to chronicle this moment?

LJ: No, I would have picked up my phone to witness but not to publish—at least in this time of news.

It is so rare to be able to be fully human and experience life not as a journalist but as one who is present. This would have been one of those opportunities. Nonetheless, I am grateful for the chance to confirm what is special about my hometown.

Also, thanks to working with National Geographic, I have had the privilege to do more long-form work and so am oriented to that approach. I'd much rather pursue this idea of visually asking and answering the question that Mr. Rogers once posed to me when I was working on my thesis, which was about hate crimes, "Is your neighbor worth loving?"

This is the challenge of our times, whether a participant or observer.