Johnny Nguyen is a photographer, “a student and I’d guess you could say an activist, at this point, five months in. A five-month old activist.” The interview was conducted (and later edited) by Nic Paget-Clarke for In Motion Magazine on March 3, 2012 in San Diego, California.
Participate whenever I can
In Motion Magazine: How did you learn about Occupy Wall Street?
Johnny Nguyen: My friend in Texas sent me a Facebook invite to an Occupy San Diego event page before the inauguration of Occupy San Diego. I think it was already going on in Austin, Texas, where he lived, so he just sent me the link and it showed all what Occupy Wall Street was about, all the grievances. I read that and I was like, this is something that I’ve always been thinking about and never really had a platform or anybody to talk about it with. It seemed like a movement that seemed kind of cool. I’d never been to a protest. Might as well try this one out. That’s how I found out about it.
In Motion Magazine: And once you went to the event, what made you decide you wanted to get involved?
Johnny Nguyen: As somebody who takes photos, I had already thought about getting involved in terms of the photojournalist point of view. I knew I was biased, going in, but I really didn’t care. When I went into it, I already knew that I was going to sleep over and camp out. When I went there on the first day, I had my tent with me and my sleeping bag. I even had an audio recorder to get ambient noise to make a multimedia piece out of it. That was the purpose, because I was taking a photojournalism class as well. (But) day after day, I found myself just doing it because I loved the community part of it. And camping out there. I like camping as well. So, it was really cool taking photos of everything. It was all pretty cool. And ever since I have been involved because of that.
In Motion Magazine: How long did you stay camping?
Johnny Nguyen: We had a camp site for seven days, I believe. So, I was there for seven days until we got raided. On the day we got raided, I had to go somewhere so I didn’t take photos of all that action, when people got thrown on the ground and getting pepper-sprayed, because I had to go to this prior engagement in which my teacher forced me to go to because she said I made a commitment to them before I made a commitment to Occupy. She guilt tripped me to make me go on this conference thing.
I missed all that action. I felt cheated. I was there the whole week and this is what I wanted to do, take photos of that portion of it. But it didn’t phase me too much because there was a lot more happening. I just thought it was a funny moment throughout the Occupy phase.
In Motion Magazine: Then you came back?
Johnny Nguyen: Yes, I came back and participate wherever I can. I still had school, so I definitely had to organize my life to go to Occupy to hangout. I became a weekend warrior where I would go over there Thursday after school and stay until Monday or Tuesday. Wake up on Monday and go to school.
That was when we were still able to sleep there. Despite not having tents, we could sleep there with sleeping bags. I would do that until it was harder to find a place to sleep. At that point, I wasn’t going to people’s houses and sleeping at their houses. I relied on having a safe space in the Civic Center to set my sleeping bag out and still be able to sleep and wake up at a certain time.
I was still coming back, to answer your question. Back and forth, balancing school, and all that stuff, until it was harder to do without having a place to sleep.
People is what interests me
In Motion Magazine: What made you think, “Yes, I’m going to take pictures”?
Johnny Nguyen: What intrigued me at first was the storytelling element of it. Naturally, I love photography, but mainly it’s photojournalism is what I’m in love with. This is a photojournalistic experience. Like I said, when I started I was already trying to make a multimedia piece but I was having trouble making it because it’s not ending. It hasn’t ended yet. So, I don’t want to finish this multimedia piece. Basically, what made me want to take photos is the photojournalistic storytelling experience of this whole movement.
In Motion Magazine: You started to get to know people?
Johnny Nguyen: Naturally, I’m a good assimilator, I guess you could say. Hang out with everybody. Try to talk to people. It doesn’t matter. So, yes, people is what interests me about everything about photojournalism. In my photos you will see there’s always a person in it. I don’t take many landscapes or cityscapes, but if I do there’s a person there. On my architecture photography, there’s probably going to be people in there as well. It’s a natural thing for me.
In Motion Magazine: Do you think there has been a change between how you looked at photography before Occupy and since Occupy?
Johnny Nguyen: It definitely honed down my skills, in terms of the photojournalism portion of it. It’s gotten better, I think, because of my classes. So, if anything, my classes influence my photography.
I don’t know if the Occupy movement has influenced my photography. The Occupy movement has influenced my grasp on what is going on in the world. My photography is a different world.
In Motion Magazine: Do you think you reflect that in the pictures?
Johnny Nguyen: I think so. I hope so. At least the diversity. I’ve noticed that I’m a lot keen on shooting people to show the wide variety of people that are involved in this, I guess you could say. That’s what I pay attention to when I shoot photos. Making sure that everybody is kind of covered.
I don’t know if it has improved my photography skills, this movement. It has definitely empowered me. It’s made me more confident. But not photography. My classes and my teachers really influence my photography.
In Motion Magazine: Speaking about people, and the movement itself, how do you feel about the need for consensus?
Johnny Nguyen: I love consensus. I think the community building and the solidarity, all those elements, transparency, that builds a trust in order for us to come to a consensus. I know it’s going to be hard. It’s not going to be easy. But all these growing pains don’t phase me at all. When people argue, or whatever consensus is, these are growing pains that I’m already expecting to experience. I’m not worried. In terms of all those things, I think they are perfectly fine. I trust the body of people that work hard on that stuff.
Mingling. Experiencing a lot.
In Motion Magazine: Would you like to talk about your experience as part of Occupy Congress?
Johnny Nguyen: I liked that a lot because I really think that is where we should be protesting because our officials, or the people that represent us, who apparently we voted to represent us, to who we present issues, are not doing that. I feel that is where we should be concentrating.
So, being there for the first time, especially too, seeing all the history, it was kind of cool. It’s kind of weird to see things like the Constitution, the rights that we apparently have. You read it there. It’s at D.C. But, yet, it’s not being practiced out here. I thought, that’s kind of cool, but it sucks.
In Motion Magazine: What did you take pictures of?
Johnny Nguyen: I took pictures of cool action. Occupy Congress Day. I took pictures of the march to Congress from the campsite. I took pictures of action. I floated around that day and I stayed there for another three or four days after that. Hanging out. Getting to know the people at Occupy D.C. Mingling. Experiencing a lot, too. Camping in the snow in the park. Having a bus transit pass to be able to go see the city as well.
I concentrated on taking photos of action. The Supreme Court action on the 20th. Occupy Congress on the 17th. And also the bus ride, because we took the bus over there.
In Motion Magazine: What did you take pictures of when you were on the bus?
Johnny Nguyen: Inter-reactions at the transit station. Or, if we were talking to people on the Greyhound.
It became this mess where I ended up taking a picture of the bus driver on Greyhound kicking us off the bus. I took a picture of him and it became this viral campaign where we had people calling Greyhound people to complain about this certain bus driver. That picture got a lot of attention on my Flickr because of that -- because it was the only picture of the guy.
In Motion Magazine: Sometimes when I take pictures, I end up focussing in on different pictures that sort of symbolize a certain time period. Have you had that experience?
Johnny Nguyen: Yes. Definitely. Though it’s hard for me to envision now because my pictures are so recent. I take pictures yesterday, I see them right away. (But), that whole aura of a certain time period, by looking at a photo, I don’t see that yet. Maybe, I hope, in 30 years, looking back at a photo that I took that has that certain essence of a certain time period, that would be really cool. But I don’t see that now. That’s why I hope that people appreciate the photos that I take now, though maybe now it is hard to see the worth or the value. Maybe looking back ten years from now, twenty years from now, they will see the worth or value.
In Motion Magazine: You’ve taken pictures of the GA and other different events, a variety of aaspects of life. What draws you to certain things?
Johnny Nguyen: Sometimes I look at the shots and if it looks really nice, it doesn’t matter who is in it. If people are just lined up a certain way, and I like it, and it shows a lot of people, I can squeeze in a lot of people in a photo, that is cool too. (Other) times, it is more composition. How things are lined up. That influences what I take too.
In Motion Magazine: Right. I can understand that.
iPhones, digital, film
In Motion Magazine: There’s cameras in phones these days. There’s cameras everywhere. There are a lot more people taking pictures. We are learning as a social group how to take pictures in a way that maybe we’ve never thought of before. Do you have any tips?
Johnny Nguyen: Yes. I’m not against that at all, as long as people are down to take photos. I would just encourage people who love to take photos to learn the technical aspects of it as well because that improves a lot of photo-taking ability.
I’m not against Instagram (for example), that stuff is really fascinating. That’s one of the only reasons why I would get an iPhone. I want to practice photography on the cell phone level as well and master that. People are shooting amazing shots using cell phones. I’m a photographer. I’m sure I can do something with it as well. I just can’t muster up a $100 cell phone bill every month. That just seems ridiculous to me, just to have the Internet in the palm of your hand. And then you hang out with your friends and everybody is looking at their phones the whole party.
But I embrace it. Tips is to just get serious if you really want to learn about things. Grab an SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera, put a roll of film in there to shoot stuff.
In Motion Magazine: Are you using film or digital?
Johnny Nguyen: Film and digital. Occupy isn’t as big as it used to be, but when it was more covered, then the immediacy was more important -- to get it on the Internet. Now that it has kind of slowed down, I’m going back to using film. Especially because I am taking a film class, I want to use film again. I love film.
I just got that DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex). That’s my first DSLR ever, and I just got it 5 months ago, just before the Occupy Movement started. I took about 3 or 4 months to learn it as I was shooting it. It’s the first DSLR that I owned.
But now I am using film again. My next project is actually to get 12 really good images and print them on photo paper and get that shown somewhere. I have a few that I feel are pretty nice that I could definitely work with.
Right now, I have been scanning my negatives. I still have negatives and I scan them so that they become digital and I mess around with them on digital.
In Motion Magazine: So the advantage of digital is the immediacy of what is going on?
Johnny Nguyen: I take a picture of a march, if I release it 3 days from now people aren’t as keen to wanting to search for it. People search for things which happened the day before and move on. And photojournalism is all immediacy -- right? (Though) that’s more if you are working for a paper.
Now, my focus is fine art photojournalism, and that’s the film usage.
The potential of being historic
In Motion Magazine: Looking at culture in a broad way, as a reflection of who we are as people, why do you think it is important for you to take pictures of what is going on with Occupy?
Johnny Nguyen: It’s a documentation of a certain period, of something that is going on that has the potential of being historic. People could argue whether it is historic now, but it has much more potential than that. To be a part of it. To document this. I can definitely say that I have been here since the beginning of Occupy San Diego and that is something to hold on to and be proud of.
I want to be here when it ends. That’s my big motivation. I don’t know where it fits, but it’s a documentation of a certain time period of something that can potentially be historic, of mega proportions, for that portion of San Diego.
In Motion Magazine: Do you think you are documenting a way of life that is different from Wall Street?
Johnny Nguyen: Definitely. I think every occupation is going through their different things and I wish and I hope that there’s a photographer in every city who has been documenting it from the beginning. Telling their stories, of their city. I think that is beautiful. I love whenever I travel out there, or when I visit other occupations and I see other photographers, and we exchange information. It’s a beautiful thing.
In Motion Magazine: The world that you see through your camera, how is that different from the way financial Wall Street buys and sells derivatives?
Johnny Nguyen: I don’t know. I don’t know that world. That world is crazy. But I know that they don’t know too much the sense of the people outside of their world. They don’t understand the struggle of a student. Their students are probably fine in their private schools. They don’t understand what it takes to be working full time and to be going to school full time and it still be hard to pay tuition. They don’t understand that. They don’t understand the common worker. A janitor that is still fighting for citizenship and the process of how long it takes to become a citizen from the minute you apply till maybe you finally get it.
These people are out of touch. I don’t know if it’s different or similar or whatever in their world, but I just know that they probably don’t have a good grasp of what is going on outside of their world.