“I think people think that I have some kind of nervous tic or something,” says Johnny Joo from a coffee shop in the suburbs as he moves his sugar packets around before adding them to his tea. “I’ve gotten comments like that because I’m always looking around. But I’m just looking; I look at things like this place and I think about these colors and maybe using them in a concept. Maybe that’s just being a photographer. I just absorb information. If you don’t absorb information, you don’t look around, you don’t realize what’s going on, you’re not going to learn anything.”
The 25-year old photojournalist’s work has been seen on USA Today, Buzzfeed and Huffington Post as well as in local publications. He is perhaps best known for his urban exploration photography that capture desolate places in our own backyards. Joo captures such raw feeling–whether it is hope, loss, emptiness or something else entirely, one cannot help but be moved by his vision.
“My mom, stepdad and I would always pass this little countryside barn on the way to my sister’s,” recounted Joo when asked what sparked his interest in urban exploration. “My mom decided one day that we could stop in the driveway because I kept asking her about it. I thought it looked cool and creepy, like Silent Hill. So we stopped one day and walked through. I had my little point and shoot, so I took a couple pictures. There was this little farmhouse, a horse stable and another house on the property and whatever. There were a few buildings in the front with a cemetery next to it. Once I could drive, my friend and I went back to that spot, parked at the cemetery, hopped over the fence and went all through the property, then went back into the woods and found this big mansion. It was like a real-life video game, just finding stuff and discovering things and trying to find old documents and things like that. Keys to unlock the different doors in the house, they’d be in drawers and random stuff.”
In high school, Joo combined his love of photography with an elective credit.
“I got really into taking pictures when my friends and I would go exploring, so when I was in high school, I took a photography class where I had to use a film camera,” he said. “That got me to learn more about photography and I thought it was interesting.”
But aside from that class, he has never received any additional formal training.
“The way I learn is by hanging out with people who are into photography and do photography,” he said. “I’ve learned things from that class that I’ve taught other people and other people have learned things in other classes that they’ve taught me. Then we’ve sat in garages for hours setting things up and trying to photograph them. We’ve learned a lot of techniques on our own that people actually use, just sitting down and really thinking about things.”
“Like, if you were to do a waterdrop photo, a lot of people think you need some really bright lights focused on this scene, but there are other ways. We figured if we used these strobes and we dropped the water and flashed the strobe and shoot that from complete darkness it would work. So, we’d set a two second long exposure on the camera in pitch black and drop water and then flash the strobes so it would capture that. It took a whole bunch of tries, but it worked. You do that two second long exposure in the dark so it doesn’t get anything else, it just gets that one moment and it works faster, you get a faster shutter speed because you catch the strobe itself instead of the camera shutter speed. So it’s like, tricking the camera into working faster than it could.”
“It’s always fun to do stuff like that with any genre of photography—portraits, objects, products, buildings. I think it’s important to learn every part of photography and always be taking pictures of things, even if it’s not your main thing you take pictures of, it’s still cool to just take pictures of things wherever you are and wherever you go.”
Recently, Joo traveled from Ohio to Oregon, documenting his experience along the way.
“It started off when one of my best friends moved over there. I wanted to try to get out there and visit him, so I put all these ideas together to make a project out of it,” said Joo. “Something where I could discover more and meet people and help them along the way and in the end go see my friend. Create a community effort of getting awareness out to people on how you can be a good person. I helped people along the whole journey. I set up a little donation page for the project and all the money that was raised went to people along the trip. A lot of people got really mad at me for having a donation page because they didn’t read through and realize how the donations would be used. I funded my trip by myself. But with those donations, I helped people get groceries, I randomly bought food for homeless people.”
“Sometimes it was random. I’d be in the store and I’d pay for the people behind me,” he added. “That whole pay-it-forward thing. I thought that was cool because I’d just tell the cashier that whatever the person had behind me, I’d pay for. I thought that was fun because most people would just be really confused and all you do is say something mysterious like, pay it forward. Don’t wait for them to say thank you. It makes them think more about what just happened. When you have the means to do it, it’s fun and it feels good. I’d see homeless people in Portland creating art and trying to sell it, so instead of buying the art, I would just pay them for it and then tell them to keep working on whatever. I couldn’t have really taken the art anyway because it would have gotten smashed in my car.
“People who were busking, I would pay because it was like going to a concert and paying for a ticket and they were really talented. It was pretty much always random. I ended up giving $800-1000 to people across the country. That’s not a ton, but I’m not rich, so that’s a lot to me. If I was rich, I’d be giving tens of thousands to people because it’s just fun to help people.”
“There’s a lot of stuff I’m writing about but I didn’t take video of any of it. People are probably going to be mad about that. I photographed a couple of the people I talked to because it was permitting in the moment. I’m really sick of these videos that I see online where someone helps a homeless person on a hidden camera and this homeless guy doesn’t know he’s being watched, then tell him he’s been on camera the whole time and that they just want to show the world whatever. What are you showing the world? You’re making money off of putting this homeless guy’s completely horrible life out there. He has nothing and you’re exploiting that. You gave him $100, but your video got 5 million views, which means you made $5000. I know how it works. My YouTube has ads on it, too. So you got $5000, while that homeless guy who you exploited has $100, which can either let him eat for a couple weeks or get a cheap hotel for a night. What does that do in the long run? Whenever I see someone post one of those videos, I get mad. These videos are all bullshit.”
“If I give someone $20, they can just have it and I don’t need to take their picture or a video of them, unless it is permitting because they wanted their photo taken. Out of all the homeless people that I’ve met, I’ve maybe photographed five percent of them. I don’t need to broadcast that I’m helping people. You shouldn’t have to broadcast that. You should help someone. If you want to share the story of how you helped someone, that’s cool. But they shouldn’t have to give you something—like their picture—for you giving them something. Just tell your story to someone else and hope that they help someone else.”
When asked what he hopes people take away from his work Joo said, “I just think it’s interesting and impactful at the same time. If I can relay it across to people how I want to and how I see it, have other people see it the same way, I feel like it could make some kind of a difference in people’s thoughts. I do that through poetry and writing, whatever I can to explain how I feel about that. Take something that you would normally see, like this building and how it is now, with people and everything. But I’ve been in places like this that have trees on the table, just growing in dirt piles. The ceiling falls apart, it falls onto the table, the sun shines on it, it creates a little life just from sunlight. It’s crazy how things work like that, there’s actually stuff in the ceiling tiles that will give life if the sun shines on it and seeds float in from the windows. I think that’s cool to see.”
“When you see something like that, you realize that we are neglecting so much for so long that nature starts taking it back. It makes you realize that nature is obviously way stronger than we are and could wipe us out at any moment if we stop paying attention. So the more we stop paying attention, the more we’re going to lose. The more it will be replaced by crap and indifferent people. If more and more people stop caring, the more it’s going to happen to these places and it’s a big waste of anything—equipment, shelter, anything. The more that we keep losing our history, the less our future generations will give a shit.”
“Paying attention to what’s going on around you is important,” Joo added. “If a group of my friends go out to eat, we all have to take our phones and put them in the middle of the table and if someone goes for their phone, they pay for the whole meal for everybody. Step away from your phone for a minute. I have to use my phone for business, I’m on my phone a lot, but when I’m with my friends and stuff, unless it’s something urgent for an important client, if I’m with people, I’m with people. Don’t pay so much attention to your phone because you miss a lot that’s going on.”
Love Johnny’s work? Get your hands on his book Empty Spaces here.