Pursuing a Life Behind the Lens
She lives her life behind the lens of a camera.
It’s been the cornerstone of her life, from age four when she squinted into the wrong end of the videocamera, to now, age 18, when she dedicates her time to finding the right subject, right setting, right angle.
Senior Iris Johnson is an artist, a photographer and videographer who plans to move 2,381 miles to Los Angeles, California to pursue her film making dreams. She’s going to forgo any formal schooling, from art school to a four year university, and jump right into what she calls “the real world”.
“Personally, the way I learn I just want to go out and start doing stuff,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to put my money away to a school when it’s not absolutely necessary for a degree, because a degree isn’t necessary for the film industry. It’s not like becoming a doctor, or a lawyer, it’s completely separate from those [careers].”
Johnson’s plan, money wise, is to rely on her parents for support while waitressing or working for additional money. For everything else, she doesn’t have much of a formal plan– her goal is to get to her “dreamland” city and make a short film. How that’ll happen is still up in the air.
“I plan to leave [Birmingham] the end of the summer– that’s what I’m thinking,” Johnson said. “Definitely before where the school year would’ve started, I’ll be out there by then. This is all ideally, though, in a perfect world.”
Even with these uncertainties, behind her decision has been hours upon hours of research. She’s always known, in an abstract way, what she’s wanted to do. After winning six “Gold Keys”, two “Silver Keys” and one “Bronze Key” in the scholastic competition in photography and digital arts this year, and three “Silver Keys” and two “Bronze Keys” last year, she knew a career in the arts could be realistic, but it wasn’t until her junior year when she had to start looking into the details.
“I knew what I wanted to do, but I had to start figuring out how I was going to go about doing that,” Johnson said.”So what I did [junior year] was so much research, basically looking at people who are in positions that I want to be in.”
Some of these people include Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher and James Cameron, all of whom did not attend any formal school after high school.
However, Laura Aughton, a Program Manager at a casting company and BPS alumni, now based in Los Angeles, doesn’t see many companies in her city hire people without college degrees.
“For most production related jobs, they are looking for some sort of college degree and beyond that, they’re looking for experience,” Aughton said. “It’s really hard to get an entry level job in production, if you don’t have any kind of experience.”
This experience, Aughton said, can be easier to get in college when companies offer internships for college credit.
“The way people usually get in on the ground floor are through internships and things that they can find in college,” Aughton said. “Even the most basic, un-paid internships are looking for some sort of college degree.”
At Seaholm, with 90 percent of seniors moving on to either a two year or four year university, Johnson’s decision wasn’t always understood.
FLEX teacher Robin Moten, who’s taught Johnson since her freshman year, had mixed feelings when she first heard of Johnson’s plan.
“I was really torn [when Iris told me],” Moten said. “I suppose like any responsible adult, I wanted her to take a more secure path. That doesn’t mean it’s the best path, it simply means it makes me feel better in knowing that she’s somewhere and safe. On the other hand she’s so ridiculously talented, that I felt hypocritical in wanting her to go to college.”
It was at home, however, where Johnson heard the most discontent with her choice. When Johnson admitted her plan last June, in the wake of her brother’s graduation, her mother couldn’t comprehend why she’d forgo the college “safety net”.
“I was really, really upset,” Johnson’s mother, Kerry Spencer said. “We’re a family of all college graduates, lawyers, doctors, all that good stuff.”
However, Spencer started to warm up to the idea as Johnson presented her research, and explained the rationale behind her thinking. Now, Spencer is fully supportive of her daughter’s choice.
“I’ve met peace with [her decision],” Spencer said. “She really has a good plan, and she is a highly motivated individual. You see all the statistics about gap years, and you freak out like it’s just an excuse to be lazy, but that’s such a far stretch from [Johnson].”
In fact, Spencer said, when it comes to film and photography, Johnson is a far cry from lazy. On top of school, Johnson can spend 20 to 30 hours per week working on her videos and photographs.
“She’s always doing stuff,” Spencer said. “It’s wild, it’s cool to see. She’s always experimenting… I want her to go somewhere, because I think to that it would be cool for her to have more pictures to take. There’s only so much in Birmingham and Detroit.”
Johnson takes this time because art is her life.
She can’t remember a time she did anything else, and frankly, she can’t picture her future without it. She’ll do anything to end up a renowned film maker, a Steven Spielberg of her time. Right now that means heading off to LA with nothing but her dream to guide her. In the future, it could mean taking a portfolio of work and going to college. Either way, she’s ready to take the chance.