Heather Elder Represents
Reps Journal

Photographer and Director David W. Johnson and Unpacking the Deeper Meaning of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Photographer and Director David W. Johnson is a person who sees his true value in being a cultural translator. Being multiracial and multicultural has immersed him in many different environments, which has taught him how to talk to people of all backgrounds in a sensitive and understanding way. Because of his background and how his professional career has evolved, David uses his experiences, to inform others of the power of committing to DE&I frameworks in order to create spaces where everyone can feel welcomed and comfortable. As a Co-founder and Executive Director of KNDRD and Founder of True Chicago, David brings his expertise and passion with boots-on-the-ground work with Chicago Youth and big brands to be a catalyst for education and real impact.

Recently, Publicis held a panel about DE&I and invited David to speak on his experiences. His insights bridge the gap between the art of storytelling in advertising and embracing DE&I. David’s perspective paints a broader picture, one where creativity and understanding intersect, and where our industry has the possibility to not just be image-makers but to shift the paradigm of branding, relationship-building, and narrative ownership.

Using the questions from the panel as a guide, we dive deep into this complex and important aspect of our industry.

Tell me a little about your background and how that helped you to find your north star in working with DE&I.

My journey has been one of navigating cultural landscapes and learning to culturally fit in. My parents divorced when I was young, so I grew up between the South Side of Chicago and a predominantly White Northern suburb of the city. And this has been a thread throughout my whole life, I immersed myself in various cultural spaces and became fluent in the qualities within them. This sensitivity and understanding naturally reflected in my work, whether I was directing, shooting, or contributing creatively.  and I realized that my true value lay in being a cultural translator, someone who can speak to anyone. From unconventional experiences like being a martial artist to exploring regions like Central America and East Africa, I discovered the importance of embracing diversity in both my personal and professional life. My North Star emerged from the belief that true wholeness comes from understanding multiple cultural spaces and speaking from them.

Do you intentionally integrate this perspective into your work, or does it seep in naturally? 

It's a blend of both intention and instinct. Much like speaking multiple languages, I approach projects with nuances that come from understanding different cultural lenses. An instinctive connection to these perspectives complements thoughtful consideration. This duality allows me to view my work holistically.

Define your interpretation of what diversity, equity, and inclusion means. 

I view DE&I as a unified concept, not separate compartments. While some may treat DE&I as a checklist, I see it as the foundation of a cohesive structure. A visual I use to compare this idea to a business setting is to imagine a house with many rooms, and one of those rooms is DE&I. If that room is on fire, ignoring it won't save the house. Instead, we should recognize that DE&I permeates every aspect, shaping the whole narrative. It's about understanding, diversity, equity, and inclusivity in everything we do.

What are the significant challenges related to DE&I today, and what advice do you have for addressing them? 

Challenges persist, and one that stands out is performative progress. When corporations approach DE&I to position themselves as thought leaders rather than genuinely addressing issues, it's counterproductive. A lesson learned is that authentic progress involves acknowledging and addressing gaps rather than disguising them. My advice is to lead with authenticity and embrace DE&I not as a performance but as a genuine commitment to growth.

What moments have sparked shifts in corporate policy and DE&I perspectives?

Historically, transformative moments, like the events of 2020, prompted reactive responses from corporations, allocating resources and capitalizing on social movements. However, lasting progress requires a shift from performative actions to proactive leadership. Rather than merely addressing surface-level issues, companies should aim to authentically engage with DE&I as an integral part of their identity and purpose.

As brands continue to navigate the evolving landscape of DE&I, it's crucial to understand that true impact emerges from authenticity, sensitivity, and a commitment to embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion at its core. 

What do you believe will be the transformative factor for companies lagging in policy to catch up?

The game changer lies in committing to developing healthy relationships with the communities they aim to connect with. Just like nurturing a real relationship, it takes time, effort, and a sincere commitment. Companies need to go beyond the surface-level display of their commitment and engage in meaningful actions that genuinely connect with the community's values, needs, and aspirations.

Can you share a personal anecdote that fuels your drive or serves as your inspiration? 

My inspiration stems from the idea that communities should own their narratives and brands should interact with them based on genuine stories and identities. Imagining a world where brands humanize the communities they engage with and respect their authentic narratives serves as a driving force for me. This vision of embracing authenticity and mutual respect guides my work in the creative space.

My organization, True Chicago just had our 6th annual conference in Chicago, IL. It was a weekend full of conversations about how young artists can activate their potential and find their path in the creative space. Seeing the impact in real time, in person is always really meaningful and is one of the biggest motivators to continue this work. 

Images taken by: Jayvphoto