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Utah man found new purpose photographing people, mustangs

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SALT LAKE CITY — Question: What do people on the street in downtown Salt Lake City have in common with wild horses in the western desert?

Answer: Both provide inspiration — and a sense of purpose — for a man who's lived most of his life without being able to walk.

"Mind if I just take a couple of quick ones?" Dirk Johnson asks, pointing his camera and rolling his motorized scooter toward a man he has never met. "What's your name?"

Dirk Johnson photographs horses in Onaqui herd at a waterhole near the Dugway Proving Ground from the seat of his Jeep.

Dirk Johnson photographs horses in Onaqui herd at a waterhole near the Dugway Proving Ground from the seat of his Jeep.

John Hollenhorst

"Phillip," the man responds.

"Phillip, my name's Dirk," the photographer says, zooming in to snap a close-up.

Johnson spends a lot of his time on wheels, much of it armed with a camera. A rollover car accident in 1980 left him paralyzed from the waist down. A few years ago, the difficulties of his paralysis, combined with a sense of loneliness after his children grew up and left home, pushed him to a low point.

"I just couldn't find anything to make my life worth putting up with the hard stuff," he recalled. "I was depressed. I'd given up. I'd gone to bed and said, 'Lord, I'm ready. Just take me anytime.' And he didn't. So, I had to come up with another plan."

His new plan evolved from a gift. A friend gave him an inexpensive camera, which gave Johnson new life finding subjects for his pictures.

"It forces you to look around," Johnson said, cruising through downtown Salt Lake City. "I found that this was a beautiful city. Lots of fun things to take pictures of."

"Sorry," said a woman rolling by on her own motorized wheelchair, apologizing for inadvertently driving directly in front of Johnson's lens. "No," he reassured her, "I'm taking pictures. Can I take a picture of you?" As she says "no" and zips away, Johnson calls after her, "I love your chair!"

With his camera he documents the life and rhythms of downtown Salt Lake City, pausing here and there to capture some of its visual poetry. But mostly when he's on the streets, he shoots people. He rolled up to three women sitting in a bus shelter, oozing politeness.

One of Dirk Johnson's photographs of horses in Onaqui herd.

One of Dirk Johnson’s photographs of horses in Onaqui herd.

Dirk Johnson

"I never embarrass anybody, I promise," he said, handing them a business card. "I post 'em on my Facebook page. If (your photo) is there you're welcome to it."

The women agreed to be photographed and Johnson snapped away.

"Beautiful," he told them. "Three beautiful ladies. How can I go wrong?"

To Johnson, the special people — some of his most frequent photographic subjects — are those who are on the street because they have no choice.

"I do take a lot of pictures of the homeless and people living on the street," he explained. "Panhandlers, I'll talk to them and get to know a lot of them."

After several years of observing their struggles, he learned to feel compassion for those who can get around better than he can but have no place to go.

"That taught me that there's a lot of people that really, really don't want to be on the street," he said.

His favorite camera subjects, though, are a long way from the downtown streets.

Periodically he gets behind the wheel of a Jeep — he needs an aide to help him climb into the driver's seat — and drives an hour or two to the dusty desert roads near the Dugway Proving Ground. It's wild horse country, and the Onaqui herd really gets his photographic juices flowing.

"I love it," he said, clicking away at a waterhole from the seat of his Jeep. "They're easier than people. They're a lot of fun, and they're real active when they come to down to water. That's what makes it fun."

Dirk Johnson's photo of a unicyclist in downtown Salt Lake City.

Dirk Johnson’s photo of a unicyclist in downtown Salt Lake City.

Dirk Johnson

The Onaqui herd is well-known for being easily approached by people. In the last three or four years, as others have discovered the herd's relative lack of shyness, Johnson is usually joined by other photographers. But he's typically the only one who stays in his vehicle.

"It's a joy to come sit and just take pictures all day and watch them," he said, snapping more photos through the driver's window. "It's my passion. It started out as photography and it's morphed into a love of these wild horses."

One night about four years ago, he was lucky enough to capture photos that briefly gave him a bit of internet fame. As evening light faded into night, he used a flash to record a photo sequence of a mare giving birth to a foal. He posted a slideshow on Facebook, and later on YouTube, and it went viral.

"I was actually concerned that it might be a little too graphic," he said, "but it ended up having about 650,000 views."

He's kept an eye trained on that foal ever since. "The one that was born," he said, "she's got her own baby this year."

He doesn't shoot for money, just for Facebook. For him, it's all about the living things — in front of his camera, or behind it.

"Anything that keeps me distracted from the day-to-day grind," he said. "It's just a pleasure to watch 'em run free. It makes me jealous. I like that feeling of running."

Johnson's photos can be found on his Facebook page, Dirk Johnson Photography.