Penny Johnson is a local photographer with an idea inspired by the popular Humans of New York photoblog. She took the idea, sought out a grant from the Millbury Cultural Council, and literally went to town. In an era where COVID-19 made us re-assess much of what we considered a priority, Johnson looked outward instead of inward.
"Having lived through a pandemic these last couple years, its easy to feel disconnected from my neighbors," she said. "I know I'm not alone in this feeling."
She took that feeling and turned it into an art project. The series of "Humans of" projects that formed in the wake of Humans of New York's success all followed a similar template: portraits of individuals who live in the community with stories about their lives. A couple weeks back, Johnson launched her website and her own photoblog highlighting volunteers willing to take some time for a photoshoot and some storytelling.
"Humans of Millbury," she continued, "is my way to get to know my neighbors, share in a part of their story, and get it out to the rest of the community."
Johnson, who grew up in Millbury and lives in town with her husband and daughter, has always enjoyed photography and the arts. She often performs in a musical duo with her husband (including a Cultural Council-sponsored slot in the Millbury Summer Concert Series in 2021 with Ash and Eric (formerly known as The Promise is Hope)), and with an opportunity to put some grant funding toward achieving a dream of sustaining herself through photography, dove right in.
"I've been taking photgraphs since I was a kid," she explained. "It's always been a serious hobby of mine and now it's my job!" Humans of Millbury is not only a way to tell stories, but is also a springboard for her professional aspiration.
"Apart from the community building aspect of it, I'm learning a lot about portrait photography," she noted. Beyond honing her skills, however, Johnson is honing her local bonafides within the community through providing an outlet for residents who may otherwise never be heard.
"People have been amazing," she said. "Being in front of a camera and sharing parts of who you are with strangers can be scary. People have gotten vulnerable with me and I am grateful. Every person's session has been meaningful.
"And I have new friends in town now!"
Johnson estimates that she has approximately 25 of the 100 planned slots scheduled so far. This does mean, however, that she still faces the challenge of filling the other 75.
"I need more subjects!" she said. "People can schedule a free session portrait for Humans of Millbury right on my website or contact me on social media." She doesn't want people to be afraid to put themselves out there, either.
"For those who are hesitant to participate... [don't] be shy! The experience is super laid back and takes just under 30 minutes"
Penny Johnson's "Humans of Millbury" can be viewed at her website, and she can be reached there, on Facebook, or on Instagram. For more on the Millbury Cultural Council or to apply for a 2023 grant, visit their website.