After moving to Long Beach, California, photographer Seth Johnson was the victim of one of the most disturbing forms of nonviolent crime when someone broke into his home.
Although no physical damage was done, the experience made a tremendous impact and significantly altered Johnson’s perspective of the space he occupied and the community. He soon found himself in what he describes as “some pretty ridiculous habits” and was able to justify them based on that experience. Then photography offered him a way to mediate the experience with humor and work through the situation.
In 2016, Johnson began working on a year-long project just published in the new book, Keep Those Bad Guys Out, a series of photographs made around his home that offer a lighthearted take on household burglary, which accounts for nearly twenty percent of all property crimes in the United States. While many forms of crime have gone down in recent years, burglary has not, and its affect goes far beyond the material realm. Many victims suffer lingering fears stemming from a sense of violation and acute vulnerability.
Using home security manuals, Johnson offers a little levity in the face of what can be a debilitating source of stress, reminding us that in many cases, laughter is truly the best medicine. Here Johnson shares his experiences making this body of work, which take on a new layer of meaning in light of so many around the globe required to live in various stages of social isolation.
How did you get into photography?
“I was first introduced to photography as a way of making in high school. I took a darkroom class as an elective but was not thinking of photography as something I would be seriously engaging with long term. It was fun, though at the time, I was studying criminal justice and fully intended to become a police officer. Continuing to study criminal justice in junior college, I once again found myself in need of an elective and knowing from my previous experience I enjoyed photography, I signed up for another darkroom class.
“As an educator myself now, I would love to say it was my teacher who inspired me, but I think I just honestly fell in love with the process. It was the class I looked forward to most because I knew I would get to pour liquid magic over my materials and see (or sometimes not) and be surprised by the work I had done leading up to that moment. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before I found myself easily letting go of career in law enforcement I had imagined for myself for so many years.”
Could you share any specific references or sources for the various scenes you chose to stage and the information you obtained for safety measures?
“By the end of the project, I think I had acquired 8-10 versions of home security manuals. Some books had been recently published but many of them were quite dated. The older books ultimately ended up being more useful in some ways. Many new manuals placed a lot of emphasis on digital means of keeping your home safe.
“Naturally, a comprehensive and cloud-based surveillance system are great but also come at a significant price point. I was more interested in measures that could be taken with everyday objects or materials that could be found around an average home and could be accessible regardless of income level.”
Looking at the image captioned, “Landscape your yard so that when the rains arrive, you will have a natural moat,” I am curious to know, did you incur any property damage staging these photos?
“Thankfully not! The grading of that property was not done in a way that would properly divert large quantities of rainwater so I was fortunate that the house was elevated. There were a few staple holes in the side of the house when I made the string barrier but apart from that, I tried to inflict as little damage on my home as possible.”
Did you find any of the advice to be unusual, unexpected, or even absurd?
“Initially, the vast majority of advice I came across was really sensible, including simple things like locking your doors when you leave, not leaving windows open, don’t let your mail pile up, etc. These are things that most people do subconsciously. Many times the absurdity came in the interpretation or escalation of the advice.”
Humorous photography is always a challenging thing to pull of successfully. Do you have any favorite artists who have inspired your work?
“I totally agree! Humor is definitely not as easy as many (myself included) think. There are so many ways to approach it and there are a lot of people who do it well, however, I do find myself returning pretty regularly to the work of Bill Owens, Sophie Calle, and Robert Cumming.”
Were there any safety measures that you were unable to stage?
“I don’t think there were any safety measures that I really wanted to that I wasn’t able to stage. There was one, however, that I originally thought to include but it ultimately didn’t make the cut for a few reasons. The idea was to essentially change your posture from defense to offense.
“If you are simply proactive and catch the criminal before they commit a crime, all the other tactics will be unnecessary. Obviously, that logic is substantially flawed, however, at the time, I was reading a lot about traps people would make in the wild to catch animals for various reasons. I found several approaches to pitfall traps (essentially a large hole concealed with small sticks and foliage) and I was really interested in the idea on a visual level.
“I played with variations on the pit (some more aggressive than others) and different kinds of bait to lure the bad guys. There were also caveats depending on the bait. For example, if you place an aromatic steak dinner at base of the pit to lure a potential burglar, you may return only to find a now well-fed neighborhood dog. Through the making of previous bodies of work, I have learned it is unwise to try and make something fit regardless of how fond I might be of the image(s). I think this fell into that category.”
Could you speak about the timeliness of this series in light of the world being on lockdown?
“I have actually been thinking about this a lot recently. I don’t think I am alone in feeling a strange tension right now. In many ways, there is a terrific sprit of togetherness right now but that spirit is also paired with varying levels of suspicion.
“In Keep Those Bad Guys Out, the idea directly being addressed is how to keep your physical possessions safe. Indirectly, I think the work touches on ideas of what is worth keeping safe, our perceptions of ‘bad guys,; and how we wrestle with fear and obsession.
“There is definitely some overlap in our current climate, particularly when it comes to fear and obsession — from people panic buying toilet paper and any form of disinfectant available to people feeling the need to cover every possible part of their body whenever they foresee the potential for human contact.
“While some of these actions, to an extent, are responsible and we don’t want to be foolish or put anyone in harm’s way, I think in our isolated negations with ourselves, we can easily push or pull the line between necessity and absurdity.”
All images: © Seth Johnson