Kent Johnson’s last assignment as a photographer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was part of his passion and an example of why his staff adored him.
It was a Saturday night, and he was in Conyers to shoot the Bill Pickett Rodeo at the Georgia International Horse Park. Monday’s paper needed a “lead” visual, and Johnson, the AJC’s photo editor, could easily have assigned the job to a staff photographer or even an intern.
But it was the weekend, it was last-minute and he actually enjoyed shooting the black rodeo. So he took the assignment.
“Even though Kent was from New York, he spent his summers and went to college in Oklahoma,” said AJC photographer John Spink. “This assignment was the Oklahoma part of him that was. Anytime the black rodeo was in town, he would find a way to cover it.”
Johnson was found unresponsive in his car Saturday night outside the rodeo venue. He had driven to the horse park but apparently never got out of his vehicle.
A cause of death has not been determined. He was 57.
“Kent was in the middle of every important story. He knew how to cover metro Atlanta and how to tell its stories visually,” said Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Kevin Riley. “He will be missed by the AJC and its customers.”
Johnson’s family will hold a celebration of life service at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Donald Trimble Mortuary, 1876 Second Ave., in Decatur. A viewing will be Friday from noon until 10 p.m.
Johnson joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1998 as sports photo editor. But as the paper’s photo staff grew smaller over the years, Johnson’s role stretched and expanded. He would hold several editing positions throughout his tenure at the AJC, but his camera was never out of reach.
“I was his editor, but he was the backbone of this department,” said Sandra O. Brown, senior editor for visuals. “He was tough and compassionate and he would definitely go to the mat for the photo team. As the visuals department grew to include video, he embraced it but made sure we never lost sight of still images and their impact. News and photography were his first loves, but his best love was what he had for his family – his wife and their three children.”
Johnson was born Sept. 21, 1959 to Norma Lee and Cordell Johnson Jr. in Peekskill, N.Y.
He would spend his summers with his grandparents in Oklahoma, and when he graduated from high school in New York in 1977, he traveled west to attend Oklahoma State University.
He pledged Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity in 1978 and graduated from OSU in 1982.
His career as a journalist started in 1982 at the Muskogee (Okla.) Daily Phoenix, before moving to Fort Myers, Fla., to work at the News-Press.
It was in Florida that he caught the eye of Leslie Williams, a business reporter for the Sun-Sentinel, at a 1993 luncheon hosted by the South Florida chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists.
“I remember he walked in carrying a gray Day Planner and he had these really long, determined strides,” she said.
Williams’ friend had just gotten up to mingle when Johnson appeared and asked Williams if the vacant seat was taken.
“I said ‘no’, and he joked later that I threw my home girl under the bus,” she said. “He just had a really strong presence about him and I felt that immediately. Everything about him seemed strong. That is how I first saw him.”
About a year later, on Dec. 10, 1994, the two married in Baltimore. They had three children: Alison, 22, of Atlanta; Daniel, 20, a sophomore at Middle Georgia State University; and Elaine, 10, a fifth-grader at Woodridge Elementary School.
“Kent was a very protective father,” Leslie Johnson said. “He was very proud of all three of his children, he attended all of their important events and he spoiled me.”
After his stint in Florida, Johnson worked as a photographer and photo editor for the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., and the Charlotte Observer. He came to Atlanta from Charlotte.
Spink, who has been with the AJC since 1984, said Johnson came of age as a photojournalist during “the golden era.”
“Kent was a Renaissance man. A man for all seasons,” Spink said. “His thinking was not restricted to New York and Oklahoma. He wanted to be informed and to know about everything that was going on. He had it going on all eight cylinders and always had a pulse of what was going on. That is how he connected with the photographers.”
Johnson was also a mentor, guiding the early careers of dozens of photojournalists, often with a dose of tough fatherly advice. Responding to recent social media postings of AJC multimedia journalist Armani Martin of a fun-filled girl’s weekend, he told her: “Girl you better put some clothes on before I call yo’ papi. You know I got him on speed dial.”
And he was very serious.
“He was like a general and you always kind of addressed him with respect. That was one of those things about real strong black men,” said Ryon Horne, who started at the AJC as a copy clerk and now directs most of the paper’s video projects.
“One of the first times that I felt like I was accepted as a journalist was when I did the teaser for the ‘Martin Luther King Jr.: 40 Years Later’ project,” Horne remembers. “Kent, who was known to be a very tough editor, sat at my desk and looked at the teaser. He didn’t say anything and then I realized that he had a tear in his eye and he said, ‘This is good.’ To get that kind of approval from someone like him made me feel like a real journalist.”
But that was not limited to young journalists.
Curtis Compton, who has been shooting for the AJC for 25 years, remembers when Johnson gathered the entire photo department together in his Houston hotel room on the eve of Super Bowl LI, where the Atlanta Falcons were taking on the New England Patriots.
“I call it his Super Bowl speech. He said nobody is gonna beat us, we are gonna kick ass and I wouldn’t take anybody before us,” Compton said. “Kent was always positive and always had a smile on his face. I never saw him angry and lose his temper. He always had your back. He was our rock. I don’t know what we gonna do without him. I don’t know how much credit he got for what he did.”
Aside from his wife, children and parents, Johnson is survived by one brother, Steven Johnson, who lives in Spain.