National Geographic photographer Lynn Johnson spends most of her time out of the country on assignment, but she happened to have just landed at the Pittsburgh International Airport on Oct. 27, 2018, when she first heard that there was a shooting happening in Squirrel Hill.
“I’ve been a journalist and photographer for now almost 40 years, so I can’t say that much surprises me, but there definitely was something horrific about it happening in our town” said Johnson, who spent most of her youth growing up in Pittsburgh, and currently resides on the North Side when she is not traveling. “Not just because we may or may not know the people involved, but that it just made so clear that everyone is vulnerable, that no one is protected from this insane division, this hatred, animosity that continues to grow in this country.”
In the days following the massacre, Johnson photographed Squirrel Hill for National Geographic, producing images that show the humanity of a community pulling together after the most violent attack on Jews in the history of the United States.
Twenty of those images are currently displayed at Winchester Thurston School in Shadyside in an exhibit called “Is Your Neighbor Worth Loving?”
Johnson, a 1971 alumna of Winchester Thurston, has been a photographer for National Geographic for almost three decades. Prior to that, she was a photographer for Time Life, after having worked for seven years for the Pittsburgh Press. She often captures images that tell difficult stories, such as rape in the military ranks, and zoonotic disease. Her master’s thesis probed the impact of hate crimes.
Sally Allan, visual arts department chair at Winchester Thurston, reached out to Johnson in an effort to bring a message of hope to her students to mark one year since the attack.
“I wanted to have some kind of school response to the anniversary of the shooting at Tree of Life that focused on the positive reaction of the Squirrel Hill community as a microcosm for how we can help each other heal,” Allan said.
The exhibit opened last month and runs through Dec. 6.
“We have used gallery visits and work in many classes in middle and upper school in an age appropriate way,” Allan said. “In lower school, we showed selected photographs and only talked about community and helpers and didn’t mention the shooting. Lower school students wrote haikus about the importance of community. It is Lynn’s and our hope that other schools or organizations borrow the photos and pass them along to continue the discussion of the importance of standing up to hate.”
Johnson has strong ties to Squirrel Hill and its adjacent neighborhoods. She grew up near the Carnegie Mellon University campus, and her first apartment after leaving home was on Morrowfield Avenue. While she now lives on the North Side, she still comes to Squirrel Hill to shop.
“It’s like the center for me, my home,” she said.
Although Johnson has photographed many other locales in the U.S. that have been victimized by mass shootings, seeing her own city affected hit her hard. She wanted to capture on camera people finding ways to manage in the wake of such horror, and began her work by roaming the neighborhood seeking images that would tell that story.
“That was the first thing I did, kind of wander around to see what was going on in the community because I really thought it was important to see regular life,” Johnson said. “And that was one of the things I talked about to the editor of National Geographic, that I wanted to show how life continues to go on and how people were reacting not negatively but by helping each other.”
She was looking “for places and people to photograph who were coping,” she said. “I just didn’t want to haunt the funerals. I refused to do that. I figured if the newspapers needed to do that, that was fine, but that was not how I wanted to work.”
Although there is an emotional toll from a deadly attack hitting so close to home, for Johnson “photography is a way to figure things out,” she said. “For me, it’s always been an art form that allows one to ponder and puzzle out the complexities of life, even though there might be pain involved.”
The photographs from the exhibition are available for loan to schools, religious institutions and other organizations to further the conversation about the importance of community.
“When Sally asked to show them, I said, ‘Please show them and travel them and use them for education,’” said Johnson. “I would just love for them to be out there in the world so folks can learn from them. If people want to use the material to educate and sensitize and do the good work of keeping us from harming each other, these images are available.”
For inquiries about the exhibit, contact Sally Allan at firstname.lastname@example.org. pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at