Nomadic Lives

Jamie Johnson & Norma I. Quintana
Nov 19, 2022 – Jan 14, 2023

Jamie Johnson, Young Boxer, 2018, silver gelatin print
Norma I. Quintana, Harlequin, 2001, silver gelatin print

Jamie Johnson & Norma I. Quintana

Meet the Artist: An evening with Norma I. Quintana
Thursday, January 12, 2023, 5–7 pm 
Location: Harvey Milk Center for the Arts Ballroom, 50 Scott St., SF (Upstairs from the Photo Center)

Opening Reception: Sat, Nov 19, 2022, 2-5pm
Location: Harvey Milk Photo Center, 50 Scott St., SF

Free and open to the public

Exhibit Dates: Nov. 19, 2022 to Jan 14, 2023

Curator: Ann Trinca & Melissa Keesor, Director of Harvey Milk Photo Center

Gallery Hours:    T-Th 3–8:30 pm & Sa 11 am–4:30 pm


“As a mother, artist, and observer of familial connections around the globe, Jamie Johnson makes work that speaks to family, culture, and time passing, but also leaves room for humor and pathos.” — Aline Smithson, photographer


“These images tenderly reveal both the magic and humanity of lives lived inside and beyond the rare glow of the center ring’s spotlight.” — Chandra Prasad, author


Photographers Jamie Johnson and Norma I. Quintana chronicle the everyday lives of Irish Travellers and an American one-ring circus. 

As documentarians, both photographers capture their subjects by embedding themselves in the community. Jamie Johnson has traveled to Ireland several times to understand the customs of a people who live on the margins of mainstream society. Norma I. Quintana spent a decade following the same circus troop, observing artistic roles and relationships evolve.

As mothers, Johnson and Quintana were both drawn to the aspects of childhood within these cultures, wondering how families on the move manage to establish security and identity for their children. Among the Travellers, Johnson found deep respect and cultural values rooted in their long history. In the face of enormous prejudice and persecution, faith and family ensure their resilience. 

In circus society, Quintana witnessed generations of performers passing down skills to the next. Fathers balancing babies who were destined to be acrobats; mothers doing their daughters make up before entering the tent. Performing together is an intimate act like any other family spectacle, cultivating trust and togetherness.

These black and white images suspend the characters outside of time. They could be portraits from the turn of the century or the 1940s or any point in history. The consistencies of children playing dress-up, cuddling pets, napping on laps, or running in a field, transcend time and place.

Johnson and Quintana entrance the viewer, pulling us into the unique and fascinating worlds of these nomadic cultures.

Jamie Johnson is a photographer specializing in children documentary projects and well as wet plate collodion photography. As a mother and documentary photographer whose bread and butter comes from photography, Jamie’s passion for faces of the next generation has been a lifelong focus. She has traveled the world, capturing images of children and childhood around the globe. From Laos to Cuba, from the Amazon to Mongolia, around the world and back, she has found a universality in the world of children, and her passion grows stronger with each new adventure. The lifestyles, cultures, and traditions of growing up around the world are closely examined in her photos, and each connection she makes with her young new subjects creates lifelong friendships with the families.

Her first monograph, Growing Up Travelling, was published by Kehrer Verlag in September 2020, and has been named Best Book of 2020 in many popular publications. In Fall of 2021 she won Photographer of the Year 2021 for her work with the Irish Traveller children.


I have spent my entire career photographing children all over the world. The last several years I have focused my eyes on the Irish Travellers that live in caravans on the side of the road or in open fields throughout Ireland.

The Traveller community are an Irish nomadic indigenous ethnic minority. There is no recorded date as to when Travellers first came to Ireland. This is lost to history, but Travellers have existed in Ireland as far back as history is recorded. Even with their long history they live as outsiders to society and face unbelievable racism growing up. As a mother of two daughters, I became so interested in the culture and traditions and lives of these children. I have spent many years traveling back and forth to Ireland to document these incredible children.

The experience I had photographing the grit and beauty, that is the everyday life of a Traveller child, is one that inspires me every day. Their deep respect for family and cultural values is refreshing, one that can be quite difficult to find in the age of social media. Travellers are not immediately accepting of an outsider holding a large camera, so I took my time getting to know and understand these faces that represent the new generation. My ever-growing fascination with the children of today has led me all over the world, capturing their innocence, or in some cases loss of innocence, in its most raw form.

A part of this journey was being able to document an era that is so different from any other I have photographed. It is one that is and will always be rapidly changing. Each time I visit it is a whole different world. Yet with the relationships I have been lucky enough to make, it feels like I never left. I am exponentially grateful to the young people I’ve encountered and documented over my years.

It is with an honest heart I hope to show that these beautiful children who have great hopes and goals and work every day to reach their dreams no matter how hard they have to fight racisms and stereotypes placed on them for centuries. A child is an innocent, happy, precious part of the world that should be loved and accepted and encouraged no matter where or how they live.

Norma I. Quintana is an American photographer and educator based in California. Born in Cleveland Ohio, she earned a Masters in Social Sciences from Case Western University and worked in human resources during her corporate career. Quintana began her career in documentary photography in the late 90s, attending Napa Valley College for a photography degree completed in 2001.

Quintana has also studied with such influential photographers as Mary Ellen Mark, Shelby Lee Adams, and Graciela Iturbide from Mexico. She works in the tradition of social documentary—primarily in black and white, analog photography. Collaboration is essential to her process. The images, Quintana insists, would not be possible without her subjects’ willingness to reveal themselves.

Her initial project documenting a one-ring American circus took her over a decade. Following the same group of tight-knit performers, she embedded herself behind the scenes. Images from her series Circus: A Traveling Life have been exhibited around the world and were published as a monograph by Damiani Editore and distributed by D.A.P. Artbook Catalog in 2014.


In the summer of 1999, an American, one-ring circus came to my hometown in Napa, California.  This was their inaugural tour and promotional tickets where being distributed at a local café. I was intrigued and wanted to know more. With my camera in hand, I drove to the address on the promotional brochure and headed to the pitched circus tent. James Judkins, the impresario, and founder of the circus greeted me. We talked about his dream of creating a circus in the “big top” tradition—similar to the European practice, highlighting feats of accomplished athletes. He was not interested in exotic animals.

Beyond the theatrical costumes and bright lights, I wanted to know more about the people and their stories.  I wanted to document the cultural world of their nomadic lives, their day-to-day existence, belonging to the larger family of the traveling circus.

The circus came through the region each summer, and for 10 years, I worked with Mr. Judkins.   My decade of documenting stories and photographing an American, one-ring circus evolved into an extensive series of portraits and my first monograph, Circus: A Traveling Life. 

Each year, the families of acrobats, aerialists, jugglers, and contortionists welcomed me and my two children with enthusiastic smiles and open arms. In many ways we became part of their circus family. Their children referred to me as “the photo lady” and I often watched the children while their aerialist mothers were in midair. In return, the mothers would occasionally take care of my children while I was photographing. This series represents a reciprocal collaboration between subject and photographer. 

The circus taught me many life lessons. I grew as an individual, as a mother and an artist. We don’t really know what we’re capable of until we try. As I witnessed missteps of the artists, it taught me to embrace “falling” and making mistakes without self-consciousness or self-doubt. Since I work with film, analog photography, there is always the anxiety that the perfect moment might be lost. I learned to trust my own vision and imagination in the face of unexpected events. Just as I was seduced by the circus, I worked to capture the stories and values of the people of the one-ring circus through my lens. I followed my photographic curiosity, embraced the nomadic life and created my own high-wire act in black and white.