When he was a child back in the mid-1960s, photographer, performance artist, and filmmaker Chris Johnson lived in Brooklyn. That was pre-gentrification Brooklyn, meaning that Johnson, whose family was solidly middle-class, was surrounded by other African Americans who were both wealthy and poor, educated and uneducated.
“African Americans couldn’t buy property outside of a few exclusive neighborhoods like Harlem and Bed-Stuy in New York,” Johnson says. “So you had this rich mixture of different classes of African Americans living in close proximity. My family was middle-class, and I had doctors and lawyers living not too far away from me.”
However, those diverse neighborhoods changed as soon as the equal-housing laws began to pass. “I saw a radical division between African Americans who lived in the ‘hood and those who lived in mainstream America,” he says. “I saw that as it happened, and it was a pretty dramatic experience. It happened very quickly and it changed the nature of neighborhoods like mine. And that experience stayed with me for many years.”
In fact, it stayed with Johnson until 1996, when he was living in San Diego, where the Republican National Convention was held. “Even though I had a background of being a fine art photographer who studied with Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham, I was known as a performance artist because of a change in direction in my creative life,” he says. “I used creativity as a way to try to deal with social justice issues. A curator there at the San Diego Museum of Creative Arts was putting together a group of installations to try to attract the attention of the press who were going to be in San Diego for the convention, and he asked me to contribute to it.”
The installation was called RE: Public, and Johnson’s contribution, called Question Bridge, would become the focus of his life for the next two decades. “I reflected back to when I had witnessed the division in the black community,” he says. “And I thought, ‘What could I do that would create some kind of meaningful conversation between African Americans who live in the ‘hood and have that definition of community, and those who live in the suburbs of San Diego who are mainstreamed into white culture?”
But Johnson knew that simply attempting to have his subjects ask each other face-to-face questions about their respective cultures wouldn’t lead to any real answers. “I knew that if you put them in the same room and tried to foster a conversation, they would talk past or at each other across that big cultural divide,” he says. “But what if I just videotaped them separately asking questions of each other? If they felt safe because they weren’t actually in the other person’s presence, they might ask what for them is a really heartfelt question and that would give me the chance to take the question across that divide and create a kind of ‘question bridge’ between them and somebody else.”
So Johnson approached 10 African Americans from the inner-city and the suburbs of San Diego and had them look directly into the camera, asking questions back and forth to one another. One woman asked of the suburbanites, “Why do you talk like a white person?” Another asked of an inner-city resident, “Have you given any thought to where the money for welfare comes from, and do you even care?”
The result was so striking that an artist named Hank Willis Thomas approached Johnson about expanding his original idea. For the next phase of the project, called Question Bridge: Black Males In America, Thomas and Johnson collaborated with a team of artists to interview 1,600 African-American men from all over the country asking and answering questions like “Who are you? What is your purpose in life? What does it mean to you to be a black male?”
This version, which became both a five-screen video installation and a documentary film that was an official selection at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, was so successful that yet another version of Question Bridge was launched: A website and mobile app that are constantly updated with new questions and answers. It was created with the goal of getting 200,000 black men to participate.
Johnson says the ever-evolving concept of Question Bridge has taken his original idea to places he never expected. “When we first started Black Males, there was no Barack Obama on the national scene,” he says. “So the time since then has seen not only the emergence of Obama as a major part of our public discourse, but the tragedy of all the profile murders we’ve witnessed in our culture, as well as the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement.”
In fact, the Question Bridge project has had such an impact on the art world that last September, the installation was added to the permanent collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. One would think that that achievement would be a thrill for the installation’s creator, and it certainly is on a personal level. But as an African-American man living in the United States in 2017, Johnson says he has mixed emotions about it.
“If you had told me when I began this in 1996 that I was creating something that would become part of our history, I would’ve thought that that information would make me ecstatic,” he says. “And I am proud of it. But at the same time, it hasn’t changed the world. We do these kinds of projects so that no one ever has to do them again, so it’s disheartening to realize that every month we’re confronted with more examples of profiling and the fears that people project onto black males becoming tragedies. It’s hard to feel jubilant. It’s sobering to realize how daunting the challenge is. But you have to keep trying.”