Lynn Johnson’s photographs of places where violence was committed are meant to be viewed as neutral places, photographed in black and white to present a rawness, just the facts. “These are the places where people died,” she says. “It is important not to charge them with any emotion or attitude.”
Yet, the impact of seeing the spray-painted outlines on a Texas road marking where dragging victim James Byrd’s body was found—in pieces—is no less profound. It was this image, taken when on assignment for Life magazine in 1998, that spurred a personal project about hate crimes and ultimately led to her work on a National Geographic story on the science of empathy—or, in the case of violence, a lack of empathy.
Most of the scenes she visited no longer bore physical signs of what happened there, which was a challenge: “I kept that image of the road in mind and tried to use that same simple documentary eye. I also spent time with anyone I could find who had suffered from the violent acts committed in the scenes I was photographing. That helped tap into the haunted nature of the place and the tragedies that happened there.”
For Johnson, knowing that acts of hatred are rooted in the brain often reinforces her belief that violent behavior be addressed in an unsensational, honest way so that there is a hope for change. “We are never a hairs breadth away [from violence],” she says. “It is part of the human condition but it’s the part we are supposed to getting a handle on. It’s not a given—we see what happens when leadership releases us from a civil society based on respect for others.”