Silent Images: The Conversation Starters

Photo by Cyma Shapiro

Photo by Cyma Shapiro

Silent Images is a non-profit organization that provides charities with professional photography and video services that educate and inspire viewers to take action.

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Preserving the dignity of the story is most important to Johnson.

Tucked away in the far left corner of the old brick Matthews Marketplace on South Trade St. is a group of employees working diligently on a variety of projects, most of which involve the (shooting and) editing of videos. This is clearly a millennial-driven space – something one might easily see in New York City, Chicago or San Francisco.  Tall ceilings, tree illustrations on walls, prayers on cards, blessings on rocks, a bike from Africa, international still photos all bespeak and reflect the quiet passions and intent of David Johnson – owner of Silent Images. (Named with a nod to Proverb 38 1.) This place and work is clearly a calling for David and a mission with a message.   

“We are a nonprofit that tells stories for other nonprofits - we serve other nonprofits by helping to tell their stories,” said Johnson. “We’re telling stories of hope in the midst of some sort of injustice,” he said, explaining, “A nonprofit exists because they are trying to fill a gap for somebody…..(like, saying) ‘I feel overwhelmed

by something’ – genocide, human trafficking, lack of water, housing, whatever. But, we’re not going to tell the same story that the media is telling because they tell the doom-and-gloom  -- that’s what gets the most attention or makes the most money. We want to tell them the story of hope.”

Photo by Cyma Shapiro

Photo by Cyma Shapiro

This mission and message extends back to 2006: while returning from an overseas trip, then-English teacher Johnson looked up at an airport TV monitor to see the amalgam of overlapping current events he had missed – Anna Nicole Smith’s death and Britney Spear’s head-shaving incident, to name a few.   As a volunteer who had annually gone on overseas trips with nonprofit organizations, he had seen many catastrophic events – including the genocide of Darfur – where he’d just returned from. However, this time, he could not get the images he had just witnessed out of his head, nor the juxtaposition of the mundanity of what the media was showing versus what he’d just seen. There and then, he realized that the mass-media had failed - these less significant stories far overshadowed those that he felt were more important, occurring each and every day all across the world.

He came home a changed man with a “burn to tell stories.”  Johnson quit his job to put his creative writing skills together with still-photographs to capture images and events around the world. He found a void he thought he could fill – “no one was providing services for small nonprofits that don’t have budgets,” he said.   Within one year, he and his Board of Directors made a fundamental decision to forego utilizing photography, choosing to focus on videography to capture the story.

Silent Images team.  Photo courtesy Silent Images

Silent Images team. Photo courtesy Silent Images

“I’ve always been entrepreneurial, always looked for opportunities and been somewhat of a risk taker,” reflected Johnson, adding that while he was single and without encumbrances, he could more easily pursue an uncertain path.

Originally working out of a room in the First Baptist Church, then leasing commercial space on West John Street to finding his present two-level office space, Johnson is quite comfortable acknowledging that his life and work have melded into one.  “I feel like I haven’t worked a day in my life,” he said. "(This work is) purposeful, missionful. There’s something about waking up and doing what you (love) know(ing) you’ve contributed something, today, to help somebody out.”

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In his earliest years, Johnson used his own work and the work of wedding and corporate photographers who volunteered their time on his projects. Nearly a dozen years later, he has six employees whom he admires and is clearly bursting with pride when he discusses their work, skills, and abilities. “I love what they produce – they are so talented,” he said, adding that he has moved his role from being hands-on to serving as a “mentor, coach – really I’m a ‘cheerleader’ to them.”

Psalms 31: 8 - Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.
 
Photo by Cyma Shapiro

Photo by Cyma Shapiro

Working with donors as well as local and national nonprofit organizations, Johnson, himself, has been on nearly one dozen trips to Tanzania and Kenya. He and/or his employees have also worked in Burma (Bush Foundation), Mexico and South America (World Vision), Ethiopia (US Embassy) and With Open Eyes (Africa). Locally, he’s also made inroads with nonprofits such as United Way, Big Brother/Big Sister and Habitat for Humanity (Charlotte). All his work has been referred through word of mouth.

“Preserving the dignity of the story,” is most important to Johnson. “When you are dealing with sensitive subjects where people could feel exploited through the camera…My team all signs a kind of code-of-ethics that you are there to be a servant first, and a photographer second.  Yes, we’re storytellers and do a clean production…but we’ve treated (our subjects) with sensitivity (too).”

Photo by Cyma Shapiro

Photo by Cyma Shapiro

Within the next year, his employees will travel to Haiti and to the Middle East. “These are the stories that haven’t really been discussed,” he said.  His mission is to “connect the human journey to (capturing) that story.” Videos range in length from 30 seconds to 25 minutes.

Of significance to the naming of his company is “the importance of being observant and the importance of listening,” said Johnson. “I think those are two things you can’t teach and they are two timeless things that are particularly important for the next generation: to be observant and still, to be quiet and listen - which I imagine has become much more difficult.  When someone is able to do that, it makes their story (line) and production that much poignant and it grabs (the viewer’s) attention because somebody has paid close attention to the detail of the story… With all the distraction of social media, it gets harder and harder to be still,” said Johnson.

When someone is able to [be observant and still], it makes their story and production poignant and it grabs attention because somebody has paid close attention to the detail of the story.

Unlike many other businesses intent on continual growth, Johnson is clear that he wants to continue his work as a small company with a precise mission. “I’m content with our size,” he said. “There’s something about keeping it small and (retaining) the quality (just) where we are – we can produce high quality and with the personal touch.”

Most recently, Silent Images just released the first of three series on mental health issues – depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Next, they hope to tackle the subject of suicide, PTSD, and opioid addiction.  

“The things we look for are stories that haven’t really been discussed,” said Johnson. “We know the media covers stories, but often they just give facts and tragic facts. We want to do the human journey – the (personal) story.  We like to look for those quiet, hidden stories to unveil the conversation in a new way… We like to call ourselves the ‘conversation starters’ – we’re not experts in any of these areas, but we love serving those who are the experts and starting a new conversation around (any of) those topics.”

Viewers can watch “Into the Light” videos from the Compass & Light documentary series on Sunday, October 28 from 7 – 8:30 p.m. at Christ Central Church, 3646 Central Ave., Charlotte. RSVP @ Silent Images.