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The Silent Storyteller

BY Eric Osterhus Journal
BY Amanda Uher
It’s shortly after 8:00am on a Wednesday morning. Just outside the window at the front of a busy coffee shop - underneath it’s iconic black-letter marquee – stands a man with a rag in his hand. He carefully wipes down the morning dew from the tables and chairs set up around the outdoor patio, making routine preparations for the incoming morning rush. It’s quite a different scene from the ones he’s witnessed through his camera lens... capturing stories from the Sudanese genocide in Darfur, to the newfound way of life among the long-oppressed people of Burma.
This is his story.

I sat down with David Johnson outside of Brakeman’s, the coffee shop that he co-owns in the heart of Downtown Matthews. He jokes that launching this venture was somewhat of a “mid-life crisis”. They saw an opportunity to bring a new gathering place to the community and did just that, but the coffee business isn’t exactly his day job.

“I spent the first chapter of my career as a teacher and coach. I loved it. I taught English. I loved storytelling, I loved writing, I loved creative communication.”

Like many teachers, David was fortunate to have the summers off. A full two months before the next school year would begin. Time he would spend with purpose.

Silent Images Matthews NC

“I spent every summer overseas. Those two months of ‘gold time’.... that’s such a great opportunity for teachers to go and explore. For me, that was time to follow my passion and do photography which was then just a hobby.”

Through the lens of his camera, David saw a need.

“The more summers I spent overseas volunteering with different charities, the more I kept hearing ‘Can you help us with our newsletter?’ or ‘Can you help us with photography?’ I just began to see there was a gap for communication. So that was kind of the idea... what if there could be a non-profit that provides communication assistance to other non-profits?’’

That idea would become a calling. In 2006, David made the difficult decision to leave teaching, a job he loved, and accept a unique invitation: to go into Sudan, during the genocide in Darfur, as a photographer.

David’s experience in Darfur would inspire him to write his first book the following year called Voices of Sudan. The experience left him wanting to do more.He took the idea he had to support other non-profits by establishing one of this own: Silent Images. He assembled a team of creatives – photographers and videographers alike – and they got to work.

“Our model was to support non-profits with professional video and photography so that they could do what they do...whether that’s building wells, creating microloans for women in Africa, or helping homeless kids here at home.”

Not only did these non-profits need storytellers, but it was clear to see the general public needed to turn their attention to these stories. David remembers returning home from Sudan to a constant barrage of trivial dialogue around pop culture headlines. As he listened and paid attention to the public narrative, he was left with one question: What are we having conversations about?

“It inspired me even more to want to use my camera to change the conversation... to turns people’s eyes and ears to things that are more significant. I wasn’t seeing the mass media doing that. It pretty easy to find other filmmakers and photographers and say ‘Let’s put content out there that matters. Let’s tell stories that matter.’”

David Johnson Silent Images

13 years and 43 countries later, David and his team continue to tell meaningful stories from around the world, guided by their mission of inspiring others to take action. They serve 75 non-profit organizations a year on average, producing near 200 videos annually at affordable rates; making their services accessible to charities who may not otherwise be able to tell their stories. Speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves.

It was time to wrap up our conversation, finish our coffee, and continue with the tasks of the day ahead. A short walk from the coffee shop on any given morning, just on the other side of historic Downtown Matthews, you’ll find the team hard at work at Silent Images. Walk a little further, and you’ll find David hard at work in his classroom. In addition to his work with non-profits and the coffee shop, he’s teaching again...much like the way his career began. Rather than English, he now teaches videography at the nearby high school.

Around the world, the stories told through David and his team continue to inspire others to take action. To share stories that matter. To speak for those who can’t speak for themselves.

As he so simply puts it, “There’s no shortage of stories out there to tell.”


Learn more about Silent Images and the work they do around the world at

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