Photographer profile - Christine Johnson, Paws for a Photo
- Credit: Christine Willis
Portrait photographer Christine Johnson is making a new life and a new living after a devastating tragedy by asking her four-legged subjects to...
C hristine Johnson’s award-winning animal photographs can’t help but make you smile. Her sitters are beloved family pets whose portraits become treasured pieces of art.
But Christine’s growing success is born out of a devastating personal tragedy. Ten years ago, she looked on as her partner Simon Sait drowned in a kayaking accident off Anglesey. Simon, a keen amateur photographer, had encouraged Christine to take pictures and after his death she found solace in picking up his camera.
Christine, who lives in Warrington and owns the ICpaws pet sitting business and Paws for a Photo photography company, is now collecting a string of accolades and has just been crowned Pet and Domesticated Animal Photographer 2020 by the British Photography Awards, for the Bubble Alert image of her collie, Star.
‘Simon and I met through our common interest in photography. He was really keen to become a photographer and I’d been into it for a while, so I wanted to help him,’ says Christine. ‘I set him up on Flickr doing a photo-a-day project and I joined in, running my own pictures alongside him.
‘My photos of my dogs were a bit rubbish back then, with legs chopped off,’ she laughs. ‘Simon was always pointing out ways for me to improve and it was clear from the start he was really good – he knew more than me in many respects. He had a great eye and we really enjoyed developing our skills together.’
Nine months into their relationship, the pair headed off on a photographic adventure, kayaking off Anglesey to take pictures of seals. Difficult conditions meant they became separated and both their their crafts capsized. Christine made it to shore and scrambled up a cliff to raise the alarm. An RAF Valley search and rescue helicopter was dispatched along with the lifeboat. Thirty-four-year-old Simon was airlifted to hospital, but did not survive.
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‘It was freak weather: Simon died and I survived,’ says Christine.
In the months that followed Christine (then Christine Willis) struggled to come to terms with losing Simon, describing the short time they’d been together as feeling like a lifetime: ‘I felt as if I’d known him forever; he was a very kind, generous and thoughtful man. He did lots of work for charity and had a special way of seeing beauty in the world and in people, and he was a fantastic photographer.
‘At first I just couldn’t do anything. Then one day, about a month after he died, I picked up his camera and went out to take a picture that I knew he’d been wanting to get – a zoom burst of bluebells in a wood near my home.
‘Simon used a Nikon and I didn’t have a clue how to handle it, but I managed to get the shot and I decided to start a 365 Flickr project, just as I’d done with Simon in the beginning. That was the start of me taking my photography much more seriously.
‘Photography helped me survive; it focused me and it felt as though I was making something good come of something bad,’ she says.
‘Simon was, and still is, my inspiration – he’s in my head all the time – although it’s usually to tell me to do something different: to turn around or look over my shoulder, as there’s a better shot behind me.’
This year’s accolade isn’t 45-year-old Christine’s first success – she won the Portrait section of The International Pet Photographer of the Year 2019 and has been shortlisted for other awards. Her most recent win comes just as the 10-year anniversary of Simon’s death approaches: ‘I’m quiet at times like this of course,’ she says. ‘But I just grab my camera and go and take pictures.’
Now happily married to Chris Johnson, Christine is continuing life with her camera with her characteristic spirit of adventure. They married on a ship during an Arctic expedition to photograph polar bears: ‘We love to travel so thought we’d get married on an adventure. There was only me and Chris, along with two witnesses: the ship’s captain and a guy who played the guitar. It was amazing - and so were the polar bears.’
So how did she manage to get the winning shot of her collie Star and the bubbles? ‘Chris was blowing the bubbles – he’s my wrangler – that’s the name for people who help keep animals in place during photography or filming,’ she says. ‘You just keep trying different things and it’s brilliant when you nail the shot like that one. It’s great to win awards and I’m always learning; I joined a camera club after Simon died and I learned a lot from that. I was a bit sensitive to criticism originally but now I see it as really useful and I love to make something for someone that will go on their wall, that they will love and be proud of.
‘My collies are my world, so I appreciate how people feel about their pets and love creating something amazing for my clients from my photography. I’d like to think Simon would be proud of me and my pictures – although there was always a bit of competition going on, so he might be a tiny bit jealous.’
Christine uses special effects to make her work look like portrait paintings: ‘I like to paint with light and use photographic techniques to make things look a little different.
‘I’m always looking for new things but most of all I love taking pictures and finding tricks to get the animals to do something interesting or look comical. I use all sorts of props and things to make funny noises. There’s always a way to get the shot.’
Christine is now putting her efforts into growing her photography business alongside her pet sitting service: ‘Hopefully I can keep doing enough of it to keep my collies Will and Star in dog biscuits,’ she jokes.
You can see more of Christine’s images at pawsforaphoto.co.uk