Johnson & Johnson has been fined over $3 billion for marketing the antipsychotic drug Risperdal to children. Over 18,000 boys and young men are now suing the company over a side effect of the drug called gynecomastia, which causes adolescent boys to develop female breasts. Photographer Richard Johnson recently completed a photo project to tell the boys’ stories: it’s titled Risperdal Boys.
“This is a story that needs to be seen to be adequately understood,” Johnson says. One of the main challenges in shooting this series was making the subjects feel comfortable enough to allow a stranger to photograph their sensitive and embarrassing condition.
Johnson worked with the lawyers involved in lawsuits to locate young men who were willing to participate in the project. The subjects found all lived hundreds of miles apart from each other. Plugging their hometowns into Google Maps, Johnson came up with a 6-day road trip that covered 10 cities and over 4,000 miles.
“When we weren’t shooting or sleeping, we were driving,” Johnson says. His destinations included inner-city Detroit, soy fields in Indiana, a small town in Oklahoma, and a college dorm in Cleveland.
“When marketing Risperdal, Johnson & Johnson disproportionately targeted clinics that treated patients on Medicaid, so the drug’s victims are disproportionately lower-income,” Johnson says.
The photographer shot 3 sets of photos with each subject: a candid portrait, a posed shot in a natural environment, and a shot in front of a backdrop with a single strobe.
“We only had a couple of hours with each subject, and we had to work where they were comfortable,” Johnson says. “Sometimes that meant shooting outside at sunset, and sometimes it meant shooting inside at midnight.”
Each subject was also given the final say regarding publication of the photos, and model release forms weren’t even discussed until the photos were shown. Out of the 10 young men, only 6 of them allowed the photos to be used in the final project.
“Of the young men who agreed to allow their pictures to be used, to a man, it was because they wanted the world to know what happened to them,” Johnson says. “Most of the young men in the project suffered alone; they’ve never met someone else with their condition.”
“All agreed their struggle would be easier if they knew others were facing the same bullying and social isolation that they faced as a boy with breasts,” he continues. “There are potentially tens of thousands more guys out there that don’t know why they’ve developed breasts, and they don’t realize how many others have similar stories.”
Johnson says that despite being slapped with a $1.2 billion fine in 2012 and a $2.2 billion fine in 2013, and despite the thousands of ongoing lawsuits, Johnson & Johnson still sold $800 million worth of Risperdal in 2016.
You can read the stories of the men in Johnson’s photos on the Risperdal Boys website.