Tonika Johnson: Photographing 'Everyday Rituals'

Tonika Johnson ’03 creates new narratives of Englewood and other Chicago neighborhoods through art-making.

“I know how to tell a story, and I know that because of Columbia and the resources it provided,” says photographer Tonika Johnson ’03. 

At Columbia, Johnson studied journalism and photojournalism. Her work focuses on capturing neighborhoods of Chicago that are typically only seen in one light. Johnson grew up in the city, largely in the Englewood neighborhood and on the North Side of the city. She began photographing her community while in high school.

Looking through her images, she realized the photographs she took were different than the typical depictions of her neighborhood. As an artist, Johnson aims to dismantle stereotypes of the city she knows and loves.

Social justice and art go hand in hand for her. “Photography is my form of social justice to shatter negative stereotypes,” she says. “I just really love being able to cut out a moment from a scene. I was able to perfect my vision of what I want to capture at Columbia.” The school taught her the fundamentals and technical aspects of working a camera and reporting that she continues to carry with her not only as an artist and a photographer, but as a storyteller.

In her most recent exhibition, "Everyday Rituals," Johnson bridges the gap between the black secular and the divine. Churches, hair, self-care, cooking: These fundamental elements and ideas structure the project. In this exhibition, Johnson sheds light on the routines, rituals, and environments that encompass contemporary black life and does so through new mediums like film. She is both documenting the everyday and elevating it from its origins to fine art worthy of a second look.

“With the political climate of today, especially with Chicago being a focus and the neighborhood I photograph in being a kind of reference, I want people to find a space of healing and beauty and to be able to appreciate this city and the diversity that still exists,” she says.

This story originally appeared as part of "A New Narrative: Artists Exploring Blackness" in DEMO 26.