A Colossal Interview
Tonika Johnson On Using Photography as a Starting Point to Explore Chicago’s Ongoing History of Segregation
February 8, 2021
Colossal contributor Paulette Beete spoke with Tonika Johnson in November 2020 via phone. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. Shown above is Wade, an Edgewater resident, sitting on Nanette’s porch in Englewood.
Though not Chicago’s true geographic center, the intersection of Madison Street, which runs east to west, and State Street, which runs north to south, is the central point for the city’s address system. Chicago native Tonika Johnson, however, has been viscerally aware that the north-south dividing line is not a mere postal distinction since she was a teenaged photographer.
Trained as a photojournalist, Johnson ultimately decided against going into the field, choosing instead to remain an enthusiastic—and skilled—hobbyist. In 2017, she was asked by neighbors to be part of a billboard project designed to show that Englewood’s residents were more than a set of crime and economic statistics. Inspired by the success of that undertaking, Johnson created the Folded Map Project, which uses photography as a starting point to explore the creation of segregated neighborhoods in Chicago, and the systemic racism in urban planning, real estate development, and resource allocation that has allowed that segregation to persist.
The basis of the project is Johnson’s stark photographs of map twins—that is, houses that have the same address but on different sides of the city. She initially had planned to display the map twin photos side-by-side, but as she met the people whose homes she was photographing, she decided to use her journalism skills to facilitate recorded conversations between the occupants.
The Folded Map Project is, in effect, a project about seeing past statistics to the actual people behind them. And once you get to know people, you can get to a place of empathy, which for Johnson is the starting point for creating lasting change. As she described, “What it comes down to in Chicago is that it’s so segregated that when we talk about locations and geography, we’re really talking about people. And that’s just the truth of it.”
Though the ongoing pandemic has limited Johnson’s ability to introduce more map twins to each other, she’s used the time to make a short film that explores the genesis of the project and what she hopes to accomplish. She also has developed Folded Map action kits, which she describes as “a self-guided way for people to participate in the project. It invites people to not only find their map twin but to run errands in (that twin neighborhood) and to share back the experience.”
Paulette: How do you describe yourself as an artist?
Tonika: I only recently started calling myself publicly an artist. I was introduced to photography at the age of 13… so I was constantly looking and paying attention to everything. I used to joke with my friends that I wished I had a camera in my eye and that I could just take pictures with a blink. (laughing)
When I started college, my mentor, who was a photojournalist, advised me to major in something [that wasn’t photography] because he said, “you have an eye, and all you have to do is continue taking photos, and you’ll build a portfolio.” I still took as many photography classes as I could that were unrelated to journalism. Once I graduated, I was trying to decide [if I wanted to] be a staff photojournalist somewhere. In Chicago, I knew that at some point as a new photographer I was going to have to photograph crime. I knew that I was going to be sent right back to my neighborhood or neighborhoods like it. And I just didn’t want to photograph that at all. So I relegated my photography to being a hobby.
A couple of decades later, my neighbors had the amazing idea to rent five billboards in our neighborhood and…put messages and photos of the community on the billboards. All of them were like, “Tonika, you’ve been taking photos all this time. I know you have so many photos. (laughing) You should just be a part of the project.” We called that project the Englewood Rising Billboard Project. It started to get media attention in Chicago, and it was at that time that the news and fellow residents started calling me an artist. I said I guess I need to start calling myself an artist now since, you know, my community tells me, “No, that’s what you are. You’re not just a photojournalist.”
Paulette: I love that idea of being anointed by your community as an artist. I think that’s so powerful for your community to call out what they see in you. Your ongoing project, Folded Map, raises issues of equity and social justice. Can you talk about how you see that relationship between these issues and the arts and the way that initiating that conversation in the context of an art project can create a safe space for a discussion?
Tonika: As the film [about the project] reveals, it’s basically my life story. It’s an art project focused on the observations of someone that grew up in a segregated city. The ultimate point that I was trying to get across was that Chicago’s history of segregation is still with all of us today. I wanted to prove this point for people who might not make that connection [between] the disparity that exists and the history behind it. I wanted the project to be an entree into expanding people’s minds of Chicago’s history of segregation through thinking about their own lived experience. I really appreciated being able to do that through art, through photos and portraits and video because I wasn’t blaming people who live on these different sides. I was offering them insight into the larger question of, “did you really choose this? Does our segregation reflect how we want to interact? And if it doesn’t, then you have to question why is it this way?”
There is this narrative that people think [Chicagoans] don’t interact. But we do, a lot, especially through art. That’s how we know the city is segregated. (laughing) We know that we’re disrupting this segregation when we come together. And that’s why I think art is such a beautiful common denominator.
Regardless of whatever medium, if you are an artist, it is so easy for you to connect with another person that shares that same passion. You don’t care where they’re from. You don’t care if they create work that you find interesting. [If you respect their work as an artist], you’re going to want to get to know them. You’re going to start caring about things that impact the work that they make, how they make it. Art offers an opportunity of inquiry that I don’t think other areas provide. I think art is such a beautiful way to communicate that commonality and then offer an opportunity for people to understand more complex systemic issues. I think that that is something that other professions can benefit from, the sheer vulnerability that artists have when creating work, regardless of their different lived experiences. It creates a bond. And that bond transfers over to the viewer.
[In photojournalism,] you’re documenting an issue that exists, and that’s it. You do it in a way that helps people understand the issue, but I wanted to offer a solution. I am not only documenting the issue but also offering a creative way for people to engage with it.—Tonika Johnson
Paulette: It seems that thinking about your work as an art project rather than photojournalism also offered you permission to more directly engage with your topic.
Tonika: Photojournalism, at the end of the day, it’s a supplement to a narrative, a story, an article. I really wanted the images to be the narrative. I didn’t want to write that for people. I wanted them to pull from their own experience and their own thoughts to make the story, to make those connections with what I was providing them. [In photojournalism,] you’re documenting an issue that exists, and that’s it. You do it in a way that helps people understand the issue, but I wanted to offer a solution. I am not only documenting the issue but also offering a creative way for people to engage with it.
Paulette: Folded Map started with taking photos of the same address but on different sides of the city. You then expanded the project to filmed conversations of the people who live at those map twins, as you call them, visiting each other’s homes and talking about their neighborhoods. It’s interesting to see everyone’s body language in the videos, when they keep themselves apart when they ease toward each other.
Tonika: I knew it had to become video because of exactly what you said, the body language. The body language revealed so much about how uncomfortable very simple questions are made to be when you’re living in a city that’s segregated. You can’t even ask someone the question of “how would you describe your neighborhood? How much do you pay for rent? What is missing from your neighborhood?” Things that are actually common in other places are so taboo here because of that segregation. To hear someone say a completely different answer than you is uncomfortable, and it shouldn’t be. [I wanted to] show people this is going to be uncomfortable. We haven’t done this on a large scale with each other. We have not interacted and talked about these specific things, even with friends from different neighborhoods. You come together on the stuff that you like so it’s not often that you talk about stuff that you think is unfair in your neighborhood if they live in a different neighborhood than you. So it’s weird, and it’s uncomfortable, but it makes for good TV. (laughing)
Paulette: Although your work is now multi-media, it still seems to start with the photograph for you.
Tonika: The reason I love photography, especially with this project, is because how you view a photo and how you photograph something reveals actually more about you, as either the photographer or the viewer, than the photo itself…. So I really wanted to use that psychology of how we look at photos, how we interpret [the image], and what it makes us think about. I really wanted to challenge people with those portraits because I know that, unfortunately, in Chicago and places like it, we do have stereotypes. All of the questions I know people were having, or their own observations they were making about the photos, I knew it was steeped in what we had been taught to not only believe about each other but because of us being in this segregated city. I really just like photography being used in that way—to make people sit with their own thoughts. And then [they see a video of the same subject] to show them [who that person] actually is.
Paulette: This project is about segregation and what that means for communities and neighborhoods. But I think it’s also about empathy.
Tonika: That was the premise of the project once the [people who lived at the] actual map twin addresses got involved. I knew that in order to make everyone comfortable with being vulnerable, with answering these questions in front of other people, I had to reinforce that there is trust here. You can’t blame anyone for where they live. Recognizing that allowed for the participants to feel comfortable listening and talking, and it helped all of us, myself included.
You can’t fault someone when they describe to you what they love about their neighborhood, how convenient it is, why they chose to live there. You can’t get mad at that decision because it is obviously what we all want, you know? And when someone is telling you that the stuff they’re missing in their neighborhood is basic stuff, you definitely can’t blame them for that. So it was a conversation that allowed for empathy to be created, which is why I used my journalism skills to ask very specific questions: How did you come to live in your neighborhood? How would you describe your neighborhood? What are things that you don’t have access to on a day-to-day in your neighborhood that you need? Questions that could be open-ended but offered people an opportunity to share about themselves.
Paulette: I appreciate that there wasn’t any blame in the conversations.
Tonika: [In one conversation,] a Black guy from the predominantly Black part of the West side was meeting his map twin, who was an older White guy from the predominantly white part of the West side, and the White guy said, “No, I don’t like the fact that my neighborhood is homogeneous.” He was like, “I don’t understand how it is still getting so many more White people. This isn’t the neighborhood I thought it was going to turn into.” And so the Black guy was like, “Oh, I never thought about that. I just thought everybody who lived in neighborhoods like that liked how it was.” [The older man replied,] “No, I’m tired of another bar, brewery. I feel like someone is deciding what my neighborhood looks like.” And the Black guy was like, “That’s how I feel.” And so that was a moment for them. They summed up what I had hoped the goal of the project would be. Even though we have people who are beneficiaries of not only systemic racism but segregation, that is still something that they did not create. They are just benefiting from it. They didn’t create it. And so I just wanted the project to help people understand, you know? We have to redirect this conversation to not just only be at each other, but at the literal systemic institutions that continue to drive these divides.
Paulette: We’ve talked about the impact of the project on others. I’m also interested in how this project has impacted you as a creator?
Tonika: It’s helped me not have some of the stereotypes I have. I can’t put all White people in one box. (laughing) That’s an easy thing to do, you know? They are a product of the system, just like our lived experience is a byproduct of these systemic issues. Doing this project and talking to so many people across racial lines has taught me that it’s like this self-perpetuating, self-fulfilling prophecy of segregation. If your worlds are so separate, you’re only going to understand it as much as your lived experience allows. You can find truth in whatever silly thing you think because you don’t have anything to challenge it.
If your worlds are so separate, you’re only going to understand it as much as your lived experience allows. You can find truth in whatever silly thing you think because you don’t have anything to challenge it.—Tonika Johnson
Had I not gone to Lane Tech [on the North side of Chicago] for high school, had I not done the Folded Map Project, I could have easily said people on the North side don’t care about what’s going on in the South side. When, actually, I found out no, people do care; they literally don’t know how to help outside of voting. It makes sense that they don’t know how because the South side is mostly residential because of the lack of business investment. So you literally do have to know somebody if you are going to really experience the South side. [This project] has allowed me to see [segregation] from another point of view and to know why it’s so difficult for change to happen. One, [White people] don’t encounter people of color living around them. Period. And then also, when they start to open up and expand their own lived experience, White people in Chicago, they literally have to fight with their family. I’m talking like moms, uncles, grandmothers. In order for them to personalize the issue of combating racism, it’s so personal, that they literally have to argue or decide to like exclude themselves from certain family functions. I get why it’s easier to ignore [the issues]. Or to be continue to be blind.
Paulette: I know this project is ongoing, but what’s next for you?
Tonika: The next thing I’m hoping is to get as much of this city involved in doing the Folded Map action kit as possible. (laughing) And having them share back their experience because I would love to be able to create some visualization of what the shareback is. Then also I am working on two other projects. One is the project called Don’t Go, and it’s about me asking people who have been told to not go to the South or West sides of Chicago for them to explain the scenario in which they were told that and what happened when they disrupted it. Since the pandemic started, I’ve completed a little under 30 interviews for that project. I’m going to photograph them next year. Those stories are really powerful.
Then I am working on researching a project that I’m loosely titling Land Sale Contracts. It’s basically me wanting to photograph all of the homes that are still standing in greater Englewood that were sold through the racist practice of land sale contracts. There are a lot of people who still don’t know about that history and don’t know how that is the key reason a lot of Black neighborhoods started to decline. So I want to photograph all of the existing ones, and then hopefully have a collection of them be made a landmark, and to have one renovated and turned into a community space. So that’s a long-haul journey.
Paulette: My final question is: What is something that you wish that people would ask you, and how would you answer?
Tonika: Why do I do this? (laughing) Not like why did I create Folded Map, but like why do I do this type of work? There are two reasons. One, because I live in the neighborhood that I grew up in. And I’m still here not solely because I just wanted to be. I felt like all of Chicago was mine, like I said in the film, that I could live anywhere. But the reality of systemic racism put me right back in the neighborhood that I grew up in. Because I’d lived here my whole life, I didn’t need to stay here any more. But I couldn’t afford to live any place else.
Two, as a result of living here as an adult, I’m able to see [this neighborhood] through the eyes of my grandmother. I’m able to imagine what her struggle was like and what she saw in this neighborhood that she ultimately was redlined into. And it makes me want to commit. It makes me feel like it’s my duty to not have the struggles of the Black people here who are my grandmother’s age. I refuse to let what they went through just get swept under a rug. They actually moved here as contributing tax-paying citizens. They were able to obtain home ownership against insurmountable odds and also were taken advantage of because of that pursuit. I refuse for that struggle, that resilience, to be forgotten and for people to talk about Black people as if we don’t want home ownership, as if we didn’t have it. It was racism that destroyed it. I just don’t want a lie to be told about a place that is not extinct. Trauma happened here. Neglect happened here. Legalized theft happened here. Our grandparents, our ancestors worked entirely too hard for a lie to be told about their struggles. I’m committed to not letting it be buried.
Find more of Johnson’s work and explore the multiple facets of the Folded Map Project on her site and Instagram.