Cuba, Cambodia, Mongolia – Jamie Johnson’s work is dedicated to children all over the world. For the past nine years, she has been exploring the stories of Irish Traveller children, whose lives are so different to those of her own children in Los Angeles. The American photographer takes more than just portraits: she also wants to know what dreams and possibilities the children have for their future.

Who are the Irish Traveller Children and how did you come across them?
My life has been dedicated to photographing children. In 2006 I took a trip to Cambodia and Laos with a friend and Leica shooter Julia Dean, and I found myself searching out the beautiful children and shooting their portraits. As soon as I got back to Los Angeles, I bought a Leica M6 and planned my next trip. I found this incredible passion for documenting the lives of children around the world and I had always been intrigued by the Irish Travellers. My mother-in-law lived in England, and I spent my summers there with her and my daughters. We would go to pop-up carnivals, where many Travellers worked, and she would always tell me about them and their culture. Shortly after my mother-in-law died, I decided this was my next project — I wanted to know more, so I booked my next trip for Ireland in 2014. Thinking I would visit for a few weeks, maybe two or three times, this became an incredible passion and journey into the lives of these families. Now, in June 2023, I’m back here again. I’ve forgotten how many trips I’ve taken, and never imagined 9 years later I would still be so incredibly involved in the lives of these children.

What is life like for these children?
The beautiful thing about these children is that they know what they know. They are raised to love and respect their culture. Many of these children are proud to live in the caravan their grandma once lived in. They respect their family values and traditions. Some live a very hard life with no water or power and live in poverty, but that is the only life they know. I think the greatest obstacle they face is the discrimination by society. I’ve never met a Traveller who wasn’t proud to be a Traveller.

What else makes them different from other children around the world?
Unlike the kids in California, they have no Xboxes or iPhones. They have ponies and puppies. It’s very much like going back in time. Back to my childhood in the 70s/80s where all I wanted or cared about were my rollerskates, and adventuring through a forest with my friends. There is an innocence, but also a fight against prejudice and bullying that they face constantly, just being who they are. Tough but innocent. Young but strong.

You chose to do this series in black and white.
I love the timeless feeling of black and white. It can transport you out of the moment to any time. Kids are kids, young, interested, innocent and full of hope and dreams in every town or country or time. It is the beauty of youth.

What distinguishes “children” as a subject from others – what was special for you in the work?
There’s something about the honesty of kids. They don’t care if they have chocolate all over their face, but they do have an opinion or thought or idea on just about everything. Some societies never let the children speak — I’m here to listen and to value the moments.

What was your photographic approach?
My intentions are always transparent and in good faith. I love to chat with the parents and I always send them all the photos, and stay in contact. I am always interested in making the relationships first and the photo second. I’m never interested in taking a photo of a stranger — that means nothing to me. I love to dive into peoples lives and traditions and dreams and world. I am truly interested. The thing about kids is – so many people don’t sit down and really talk to them. I want to know everything. I’m genuinely wanting to hear their stories and experiences. They love to be heard. I want to tell their stories and give their ideas value.

What fascinates you about portrait photography and what significance does the Leica camera have for you?
I love faces. I love people. I love diving into other people’s lives. If only for a week or month. Everyone has a story and I’m a passionate lover of lives and lifestyles and faces. Ever since I bought my first Leica, after that first trip to Cambodia, I have been addicted. I am a bit of a tech nerd and am continuously upgrading my camera or adding new ones to my collection. I’m currently shooting with the SL2S, but have at least six Leicas in my bag – super nerd! And yes, I had to buy the Vans Leica and the Bond 007 the second they came out – I can’t help myself. Currently the SL2S is my best friend.

Children are almost like a symbol of the future…
The thing with children, no matter where you go in the world, is that they all share a commonality of honesty, curiosity and laughter. It’s such a special moment in time before the world steps in. We are all born innocent and full of love. I love being a part of their lives, even if they just remember me as some American lady. Only this past week I ran into a wonderful young boy named John, who I photographed in Ireland in 2014. He was deaf and missing one eye, and was bullied quite a bit. After all the years that had gone by, he saw me immediately and ran to hug me. He told me how he remembers our time together and often thinks about me and wonders where I am. I too have thought of him often. That young 8-year-old boy was nearly a man now. Those moments of life I get to share with people mean everything to me.

Born in Brooklyn, and raised in NYC and SF, Jamie Johnson is a photographer specializing in fine art and documentary projects around children. Her passion for faces of the next generation has been a lifelong focus. She has travelled the world capturing images of children and childhood around the globe: from Laos to Cuba, from the Amazon to Mongolia. Her work has been exhibited in galleries and museums in Los Angeles, New York and Paris, and has been published in dozens of magazines. Johnson has won top 50 of Critical Mass in 2017 and 2019. Her monograph Growing Up Travelling was published by Kehrer Verlag and released in Sept, 2020. It won several awards for best photo book in 2020. Find out more about her photography on her website and Instagram page.

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