by Hannah Partridge, Ball State University

In the DLR class, we have discussed our society’s fascination with images of post-apocalyptic destruction and desolation. Movies, TV shows, and books depict abandoned cities reclaimed by nature, and we find them to be hauntingly beautiful. Jackie Johnson is an educator and photographer living in St. Louis, Missouri. Jackie was a part of a group of photographers who captured images of St. Louis’ abandoned schools, and their work eventually culminated in an exhibition titled “Empty Halls, Silent Classrooms.” These images remind us that while tv shows and films are making millions by fabricating desolate landscapes, many such places already exist in our real world, and they too have an important story that needs to be told. In order to explore these issues further, DLR team member Hannah Partridge interviewed Jackie by email on October 22nd, 2017.

Can you provide some background about the abandoned schools in St. Louis?

Due to declining enrollment caused by students moving to the suburbs and choosing charter schools, the St. Louis Public School system started closing schools. They closed some 45 schools in all. Leaving them open would not have been cost effective. There is a black market in St. Louis for copper and brick. Abandoned buildings are often stripped of copper flashing, pipes, etc., and buildings are sometimes burned in order to weaken the mortar, and bricks are stolen and resold in the South. The theft of copper flashing and vandalism leaves the buildings vulnerable to the elements.

How did you personally get involved in photographing the schools? 

The St. Louis Public School system partnered with other agencies to sell and rehab the buildings. In the summer of 2015, SLPS showed the properties one hour at a time. A couple of photographers heard about the tours and word spread from there. I personally heard about them from fellow photographer, Dave Adams.

Can you describe the experience of going into these abandoned schools and photographing them? What feelings did that experience invoke?

I had been exploring photography seriously for less than a year at the time of the school tours, and had even less time shooting abandoned buildings. Being allowed into these buildings was met by me with a great deal of excitement. Once inside however, I felt a great deal of sadness. Having at one time wanted to become an architect and now a teacher, the devastation found within these schools was at times mind numbing, at times heart breaking, and at times, just plain fascinating. My overall thoughts about photographing abandoned structures have evolved since that time. Now I see my role as a storyteller, to listen to what the building tells me. It was during these tours, to capture what was left behind, that started me on this path; the maps, the books, and the signs are all part of a story. Mine to capture.

How did the show “Empty Halls, Silent Classrooms” come to be? Was it always the plan to create an exhibition with those photographs?

The exhibition is the brainchild of fellow photographer, Jane Linders. From my understanding, she had seen the pictures of several photographers on social media and thought there would be some interest in an exhibition. She reached out to those photographers she knew, and a small show at the Refind Room was organized. From there, the Landmark Association picked up the show, and it was opened up to even more photographers.

Why do you think these images of abandonment and destruction create such as impact on viewers?

For this show specifically, I think that people like to reminisce about the schools they attended. In general, urban exploration, or urbex, is hot in photography right now. I try to bring something of the story in my imagery.

Has anything happened to the schools since the “Empty Halls, Silent Classrooms” show?

I don’t know of anything that is a result of the show. There have, however, been a few schools that have been sold and rehabbed into apartments.

Do you have any thoughts about the apocalyptic nature of your photos?

In general, I don’t view my subject matter with an apocalyptic lens. But neither am I wearing rose-colored glasses. In my photography, I try to tell a story or find some beauty among the decay, whether it be the play of light and shadow or changing the angle to see something no one else has seen. That being said, there is always, always the underlying understanding that there is no future, no revival, no opportunity, for some of these structures; the damage is just too great. The closest I’ve come to the apocalyptic vision was a shoot in the St. Louis Place neighborhood. The area was bought out by the National Geospatial Agency. The former residents had no way to move their belongings. We found shelves of books, family photos, and in one house, bacon still in the pan. Overall, it was definitely other-worldly. Now, it’s all fenced off, block after block of houses razed, waiting for the new buildings. If I were to let my thoughts wander to that post-apocalyptic world, I can see the devastation by nature and by human hand. As in many stories, it is the greed of man that leads to the downfall of mankind. It is that same greed that destroys neighborhoods, one block, one house, one brick at a time.

Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share about this photography experience as a whole?

This experience started an even deeper social consciousness regarding my adopted city. St. Louis remains one of the most racially divided cities in the United States. The Delmar Divide is a socioeconomic reality. Delmar is an east-west boulevard that is the line drawn in the sand. North St. Louis is 95% African-American. Most abandoned buildings in St. Louis are found north of Delmar (not schools found in the exhibition). I don’t have any grand answers, but when I enter a building, I try to be respectful of the neighborhood and be ever mindful that I am the person that now has the power of tell the story and that I must share that story with dignity and respect.

All photographs in this post are courtesy of Jackie Johnson