Projects: Josh Ethan Johnson

Street photography has always, and will always be reserved for the rare few that possess the unlikely voyeuristic skill of simultaneously identifying and capturing a candid moment, in a fleeting split second encounter. The best of the street photographers out there somehow walk away with an image containing a depth and context which betrays its seemingly simply process.

In what has become a staple category within medium, street photography by its best contributors manages to shine a raw and honest light on society, gaining perspectives from ‘banal’ moments which would ordinarily go unseen or ignored.

One such contributor, described as being in the top 12 street photographers in the world by Huffington Post; whatever that means, is New York based Josh Ethan Johnson. Jokes aside, Josh has been a prolific photographer and filmmaker working with the likes of Vice, A24, Time magazine and Sony among many many others. His often humours, usually strange imagery deals with people in contradictory environments, religious nods, cultural statements; and to great effect.

Josh’s love for the medium of street-photography has developed to such a point that he has recently launched a long term documentary film series of twelve episodes called ‘Wrong Side of the Lens’. This self-shot project features some of the greats, including Jill Freedman, Daniel Arnold, Ray ‘Hamburger Eyes’ Potes and Aaron Berger to name a few. We caught up with Josh to discuss the creation of the show, his plans for the future and how he found himself in the world of photography to begin with.

Josh Ethan Johnson Wrong Side Of the Lens

"At school, I was always split between art and sport, showing promise in both, but eventually sport lost out to art more and more, in favour of attending art camps or joining bands, going on tour to perform. I then ended up in art school, which my mum was supportive of, but she would clearly have preferred that I went to a traditional university. At first I was more drawn to painting and illustration but I took a black and white photography class and they told us to come up with a project for final evaluation at the end of the year, and I decided to ride my bike around at night to city bus stops and just take photos of people. The photos turned out pretty shitty [laughs] but they’re very meaningful for me. This first project was a conscious effort to draw me out of my comfort zone, to use photography as a means of eroding my xenophobia that I think a lot of people naturally have. That was 25 years ago, and it’s been the same ever since, it’s been a great tool for me."

josh ethan johnson wrong wide of the lens
"Most of America, unlike in a huge metropolis, people are just in their cars; there aren’t really people out on the streets and I heard this saying about New York which described public transit as a great unifier, where you’ll find a billion dollar CEO riding the same carriage as a homeless person. Other parts of America just don’t have the same level of socioeconomic integration. This first project was exploring that, where I could actually find people outside, sedentary, in groups. People talk about social media being an isolating thing, but I think car culture maybe even is a bigger offender than that."

josh ethan johnson wrong side of the lens
"I’m a very self-motivated person, and I ended up dropping out of art school after two and a half years with an A+ average. I loved it, but it was expensive and I was paying for it with fictitious student loans. One day the penny dropped that I might have to take a crappy job for the rest of my life to pay off these incredible debts, and for what? to paint pictures and take photos of things that I’m coming up with the ideas for anyway? I’m not anti-education but for me, I’m a self-starter and the biggest challenge is in creating an idea, not necessarily executing it."

josh ethan johnson wrong side of the lens
"When I came to New York about 13 years ago, I began to realise that the thing I had been doing for 10 years by that point had a name. A friend of mine from High School, Daniel Arnold, was already out in New York making a stink for himself, taking the scene by storm. That’s when it really hit my radar, and as soon as I got here I was ready for a new challenge, so I picked up the camera and went bonkers with it. There was a community of supportive and egoless shooters here which I really appreciated, it wasn’t about backstabbing and competition, it was a positive and supportive community. I shot within that scene for a decade before having the idea to turn the camera on these photographers, to have them give context to an image or series of images they’d taken."

“Street photography relies heavily on withholding context, and this documentary series was an experiment to see if talking about it would elevate or detract from these projects or single images. The Wrong Side of the Lens was conceived really just to satiate my own curiosity, I felt a chip on my shoulder around academia after dropping out of art school and focussed very heavily on just doing the thing, rather than thinking about the thing. I was always concerned with over-intellectualising something that I felt should have more soul and emotion. With WSOTL, I felt a need and a possibility to explore more the reasons why myself and the others in the New York community of street photographers were so attracted to this weird thing; shooting complete strangers in the street. What is that, what went wrong in our childhood [laughs], what’s the psychology behind that.”

josh ethan johnson photo
josh ethan johnson


"Humans have a lot more in common than we don’t, but because we’re tribal by nature, we tend to focus on the differences. The commonalities shared between these photographers were very obvious to me, they were all particularly open minded people, non-judgemental, self-deprecating or having an ability to joke about themselves from a position of significant self-perspective; something I cannot say for all people. Above all, they were humble, bordering on insecure and I don’t mean that in a negative way. I mean that in a way I can relate to. A lot of people are attracted to this bold act of public photography as a means of breaking out of their shell, to actively erode their insecurities. I’m speaking largely from my own experience, but it’s broadly true of a lot of others."

josh ethan johnson wrong side of the lens
"There’s something very interesting about the sacrifices that these photographers accept in the pursuit of work. Particularly in the cases of Jill Freedman or Dan Arnold, who describe their relationship to the work as an addiction. They describe in detail what this addiction has cost them in life and they’re not necessarily regretful, but certainly aware of it. Success, or the public perception of success is in the eye of the beholder, and a lot of the time, these people don’t see themselves as successful or unsuccessful, they’re just waking up and dealing with the day ahead. This is the dilemma that a lot of great artists have to reconcile."

josh ethan johnson

josh ethan johnson

"The films were released all at the same time, on a single day, and I was fully prepared for the project to die on the internet the next day [laughs]. I had been working on the series for a solid 5 years, and particularly so in the last year, and while I wanted the series to be a success, I have no desire to be a marketing mastermind. I ended up teasing the series with minute long snippets over 50 days on Instagram reels, which happened to connect with what Instagram wanted at the time; a time length which was considered long-form for the platform at the time [laughs], with most people advising that the data suggested 6 seconds was the sweet spot."

josh ethan johnson wrong side of the lens

"Telling the stories with complete authenticity was the most important thing for me; I didn’t want to be disingenuous to the real context for sensationalism or clicks. I work as a commercial editor, so I know how to be inauthentic, churning any old bullshit story to sell a product [laughs]. Why I appreciate that job so much is that I learned how to do the complete opposite, how to make things meaningful and genuine. A lot of mainstream platforms like a neatly tied up narrative with a bow on it; they like closure. This series was intended to start a discussion, rather than close one." 

wrong side of the lens premiere 

"After I launched the project in late September, I rented a cinema in New York with my own money and made the tickets available to reserve. All 180 spots vanished in a day, so I added another day because of the demand. The second viewing I had to charge, because it’s extremely expensive to hire a cinema in New York, but again it sold out very quickly. I was then approached by passionate photographers from around the world wanting to host viewings and launch parties. We ended up making events with teams of volunteers in Amsterdam, London, Paris, Berlin and then LA."

josh ethan johnson wrong side of the lens
"The response has been quite staggering, I’ve received positive comments from so many people saying they binge watched the entire series over a period of 24hrs. I did this project for fundamentally selfish reasons, but I really wanted the community to love it because of how much it meant to me. I got so much out of this and now when people ask me why I do the things that I do, I find myself quoting these photographers, because they have phrased it so much more eloquently than I could ever have put it. As the great Japanese painter put it, “If heaven had granted me five more years, I could have become a real painter.” That level of humility when you’re at the top of your game, recognised for your work, to think in that way really resonates with me."


josh ethan johnson

Portraits shot in NYC by Pete Voelker
Portfolio imagery by Josh Ethan Johnson

To watch every episode of The Wrong Side of the Lens, click here. Josh is currently raising funds via GoFundMe to produce a second series in a more timely fashion. To support this project, please click here to donate.