Photographer Johnny Man views the world through a perceptive, sociological lens
Johnny uses his medium to explore universal experiences, from China’s ageing population to the wide-ranging psychological effects of Covid-19 restrictions.
- Olivia Hingley
- 8 August 2022
As so much of his work focuses on people and their everyday lives, Johnny Man is thankful to live in a place so ripe and rich with material. “China is a country that has the largest population in the world,” he says, “and there are just so many interesting stories, so it really is hard to look away.” Being what he describes as somewhat a “nihilist”, Johnny has often found himself unable to find meaning in doing things, often leaving him feeling “upset and unmotivated”. That was until he began taking photographs. Soon becoming the exception to his tendency for pessimism, it became clear for Johnny that it was only natural for him to combine his love of people watching with his love of taking photos.
Originally, however, Johnny had a dream of becoming a filmmaker. Growing up in the Guangdong province, Johnny used to pass his time watching films and thinking up his own storylines. But, after his first stint in the industry, he became disillusioned and put off by the “intractable censorship on the entertainment business in China”. Leaving the field and in search of a new visual storytelling medium – and inspired by creators like Alessandra Sanguinetti and Catherine Hyland – Johnny found himself turning to photography. In 2018, Johnny then moved to Shanghai with hopes of having more opportunities to make a living out of his creative work.
It just so happens that Johnny ended up moving to a neighbourhood with a large elderly population, which later served as inspiration for his 2021 project Live the Life As an Elderly in the City. Primarily, the project arose from Johnny’s concern for Shanghai’s rapidly ageing population and his admiration for those he encounters everyday. “I really like engaging with them because you can feel they are treating you with real authenticity, no mask at all,” he explains. “They are so honest about who they are, whereas I see so many young people in Shanghai trying so hard to be ‘cool’ and losing their real sense of self-recognition.” Proceeding to document “whatever they presented to me”, Johnny confesses that there was little extra he had to do when capturing the essence of their being. The series certainly has a very off-the-cuff and relaxed feel about it; it paints a peaceful picture of people exercising, putting on lipstick and simply taking a solitary moment to themselves – with a few great outfits to boot.
Johnny’s more recent project Trapped After Lockdown is also one borne out of concern and empathy for others, but also a deeply personal one too. This time, Johnny explored the reality of people struggling to resume normality following lockdown, after himself experiencing a period of depression after a particularly “harsh” and “extreme” two-month lockdown. Being sure he wasn’t the only person experiencing these feelings, he sought out others who had been traumatised, aiming to photograph them within the confines of their home. Moreover, Johnny chose to edit the series in a square format to enhance the sense of claustrophobia and of being “trapped psychologically”.
Throughout the project, Johnny encountered one particularly pressing story: one of Roxanne, who is photographed on the roof of her flat as she is turning away from the camera. Johnny tells us that he had to obscure her face because the stories he told her put her at risk with the authorities. In her compound – after deliveries were paused and government provisions failed to arrive – food shortages became rife. She joined a group producing creative posters, which called attention to their plight. Later, she spent a day in prison and was interrogated by 10 officers. Despite being hailed a “hero” upon returning home, the experience left Roxanne feeling unsettled and uncertain, even after lockdown was lifted. With a clear eye for powerful visual narratives, Johnny has become a perceptive, sociological storyteller.
GalleryJohnny Man: Live the Life As an Elderly in the City (Copyright © Johnny Man, 2021)
GalleryJohnny Man: Trapped after Lockdown (Copyright © Johnny Man, 2022)
Johnny Man: Trapped after Lockdown (Copyright © Johnny Man, 2022)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.