NYC Street Photography Josh Ethan Johnson

Across different mediums, cultures, and through the expanse of time, artists have all struggled to answer the same question: can you capture the sum of a person?

You can certainly recreate their likeness. But—at the risk of sounding like a pretentious art history teacher—can you layer that likeness with hints of the experiences that built them? Or mirror the intangible elements that culminate in the subject standing in front of you?

Luckily for us, photographer Josh Ethan Johnson is attempting to answer those questions with striking results.

A natural empath, Johnson started taking photos of strangers on the city bus as a college student. Nearly 20 years later, he is a remarkably prolific street photographer who has worked with notable names like Vice, HBO, and a24.

Johnson was kind enough to sit down with me and discuss his process, NYC street photography, and the neverending pursuit of authenticity.

Josh Ethan Johnson Faces
From The ‘Faces’ Collection

The Approach

There’s a voice in every photographer’s head—sometimes whispering, often yelling—that demands they capture a moment. What spurs that need? For Josh Ethan Johnson it’s pure curiosity.

Unlike most street photographers who shoot from the hip and hide in plain sight, Johnson approaches his subjects on crowded New York streets and asks them about their lives.

“The reason I got into photography is because I’m very inquisitive to the point where I want to go up and tap somebody on the shoulder. Why are you here? What’s your relationship with your mother like? I want to discuss how you ended up right here in this time and place. Let’s get into it.”

“And I’m a personable guy. I look disarming… I think,” he glanced at me for affirmation. It’s true, he does. “Some people’s demeanor, some people’s stature, some people’s looks can work for or against them. But I think all of those different attributes that we have, physically or personality-wise, we end up learning how to use those to get the end result we’re looking to get.”

Achieving that envisioned end result is a little easier when you have the right gear. Johnson is the first photographer I’ve ever met who doesn’t hoard an excessive number of cameras. Instead, he utilizes a select few including the Sony RX100 VI, Contax T3, Panasonic GH5, and Sony a7rIII.

Endangered Species Josh Ethan Johnson
From The ‘Endangered Species’ Collection

Nerves Are Contagious

If you’re calm and measured, your subjects are more likely to trust you and match that energy. However, talking to people at random (especially in New York) is still risky. 

I’d wager that the majority of people skittering around midtown are rushed, harried, tired, angry or some combination of those four things. It’s the price we pay for living alongside several million other people. However, if Johnson gets rejected by a subject, he can always disappear back into the crowd and try again. There are endless opportunities for a shot.

His work in New York, while engaging, is preparation for once-in-a-lifetime, one-on-one interactions. 

“It’s harder to walk 100 yards up to a dude alone in a parking lot and then try to disarm them with your personality and start a dialogue…I look at this kind of stuff in New York as practice for the big show, whenever that is. That one moment when I have to really give myself a pep talk and get in the zone and be in the right mind frame.”

Elevation vs. Objectification

Many NYC residents live their day-to-day lives embracing the anonymity that comes with being one face in a crowd of millions. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who were born to stand out or refuse to fit in; people who aren’t afraid to tout their individuality.

Those in the latter group are usually the ones Johnson wants to politely tap on the shoulder and ask can I take your photo?

Endangered Species Josh Ethan Johnson
From The ‘Endangered Species’ Collection

The trouble is this: there is a fine, vital line between capturing a brief glimpse into the life of another human being and objectifying someone as a spectacle. Regardless of your intention when you snap the photo, you can’t control how an image is received.

“[A photographer’s intention] is defined by the viewer,” Johnson asserted. We discussed Diane Arbus—a photographer who famously documented marginalized groups—as an example. 

“Her provocative images, ‘freak shows’ and things like that, come down to intention. If her intention was to represent a tiny, small fraction of that community and get a dialogue going as a more altruistic motivation, it’s a bit more…let’s say justifiable. Instead of poking fun.”

And when stills won’t do a subject’s story justice? Johnson turns to video.

From The ‘Endangered Species’ Collection

Chasing Happiness

Johnson’s FACES series is composed of both stills and videos that take a deeper dive into the stories of subjects he finds particularly striking. However, his curation isn’t based around tragedy or shock value; he isn’t searching for a soap opera. Oddly, the thing he’s chasing is rarer and more complicated despite its appearance.

Johnson is on the hunt for people who are genuinely happy—not clown happy or temporarily pleased with their situation and hoping for more. He looks for individuals who understand themselves and are pleased with their lives.

He searches the New York streets for them like someone peering through moving water looking for gold. But it’s not enough to find them. Johnson wants to know how they’ve arrived at this peace of mind. What do they do for a living? Who do they interact with? What is their relationship with their mother like?

In these vignettes, Johnson, a restless optimist, spelunks down into the cool, calm world of a satiated optimist. It’s fun to go along for the ride.


Johnson firmly believes that in this, the age of social media, we’re trained to suss out artists’ intentions and authenticity at a rapid pace. For example, Instagram users glean meaning from photos as fast as their finger can propel them down their feed. 

Ever the optimist, Johnson believes that the majority of people can tell genuine, well-intentioned photographers from stock image profiteers.

“We can tell the difference because when [photography is] altruistically driven and not financially driven…there’s just this little extra level of something that you can’t put your finger on.”

“But we, [people] who are interested in this stuff, will spend our lives trying to figure out how to put our finger on that. Because it’s ever-shifting. You have it then,” he threw his hands up like a magician who just made their assistant disappear in a puff of smoke, “it’s gone. It’s fleeting.”

Johnson’s quest to accurately reflect subjects’ humanity is slippery and seemingly never-ending. 

“I took a photo six years ago and I still look at it and think ‘how did I do that? It’s so good.” He paused, a concerned look flashed across his face. “And I’m not patting myself on the back,” he clarified. “I did it. And I can’t even remember how I did it.”

From The ‘Endangered Species’ Collection

On The Wrong Side of The Lens

Roughly a year ago, Johnson kicked off his latest project entitled “The Wrong Side of The Lens.” The series (which has yet to formally premiere) is about lifting the curtain on the artistic process.

Johnson follows photographers around places where they’ve shot in the past and pokes, prods, and provokes them into giving insights into specific photos.

“It’s a conversation about context,” he explained. “[Photographers] have this ability to give or withhold it. I let them decide…if they say, I don’t want to give any context. I say, cool, let’s talk about that. Why? If they want to give context, I say cool let’s talk about that. What’s the context?

From The ‘Endangered Species’ Collection

In actuality, these recordings revolve around a conversation. However, after it leaves the editing room, the videos are 5-30 minute soliloquies of the interviewee. 

“They seem like they’re just riffing and waxing poetic and saying all this interesting stuff because [in real life] we’re having a heated debate and then I just let them go.”

“It’s a test to see how photographers think of themselves and on which side of the lens they fancy themselves. Some people are better in front of the camera, some people are better behind it. A lot of time, I’m finding that people who think they’re terrible in front of it are actually really good and have something to say.”

More From Josh Ethan Johnson


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