As a medical doctor, photographer, mother, world traveler and FAA Certified Drone Pilot, Claire Johnson has many impressive attributes. Intelligence. Persistence. Determination. But her greatest characteristic might be this: staying open to the possibilities.
That openness is what first led Johnson to medicine. In the last year of college as an undergrad, Johnson became an Indianapolis 500 Festival Princess, advancing all the way to the final pageant court where her sponsor was a prominent Indianapolis OB-GYN. “He said, ‘Have you ever thought about becoming a physician?’” Johnson remembered. “And I hadn’t. I shadowed him for a day in labor and delivery, and saw a birth, and I was sold. I said, ‘Sign me up.’”
The catch? She had to pass the Medical College Admittance Test (MCAT) to get into a medical school and Johnson still needed some science requirements. Instead of waiting another year to take Physics and then pass the MCAT, Johnson taught herself Physics and passed the test first.
While in medical school Johnson got married and had a daughter. Her second child, a son, was born in her second year of residency. After practicing as an OB-GYN in Orlando, FL, she began re-thinking what might be possible in medicine, combining her love of travel, her medical training and a desire to give back internationally. Soon she had assignments with international relief organizations that took her around the world.
That led Johnson to the middle of a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh. After a stint as strictly a medical doctor, she was back as both a photographer and a physician. And she was connecting with the kids in the camp by taking their photos and giving them instant prints. It was then an older gentleman, maybe in his 80s, walked up. He wanted a photo, too. And he had something to give Johnson.
“We know what we look like all the time. We go to the bathroom and look in the mirror,” Johnson said. “But they don’t have this concept of what they look like, because they don’t see themselves often. But when he walked up to me, and it was like, ‘Me, photo. Give me a photo.’ I took it, and then you have to wait those two minutes of magic before it appears on there, like, ‘Oh, wait. It’s coming.’
“And he looked at that photo, and the smile that he had on his face, I realized, it’s so universal…Innately, we are the same. We have the same joys. And it’s something that when you can travel, you have something in common that you can share with another individual anywhere.
“I really feel like I was able to give more smiles through my photography than medicine. Medicine of course can be lifesaving, and you’re helping injuries, but the smiles that I saw from photography and people being able to see themselves, it’s such just universal human experience that just really reinforced doing international photography.”
From there Johnson’s love of photography became more than a hobby. Through a camera lens she saw beautiful people she wanted to share with the world and once again she re-thought what was possible. Her medical career evolved to include non-clinical settings, and her children left home for college, enabling Johnson to work remotely full-time. To date she has visited 100 countries around the globe and witnessed all seven wonders of the world.
As her photography skills grew, so did Johnson’s desire to add to them. Watching a documentary on Netflix she was impressed by the different perspectives and angles drone cameras were able to capture. Impressed and determined to learn how to how to fly them, Johnson was even more determined when she learned that at the time – 2018 — of all the FAA certified drone pilots only 4% were women. And approximately just five were women of color.
“Those were the things where I tell myself, ‘Okay, I’m up for the challenge. I want to take this test,’” said Johnson. “To see such a fraction of drone pilots that are women, and especially women of color, I was even more motivated to represent.”
Not only did Johnson become an FAA certified drone pilot, but she also went on to learn geographic information system (GIS) mapping technology, enabling her to secure contracts under NASA as a subject matter expert and under the Bezos Earth Fund.
Johnson credits her belief in her ability to learn whatever it takes to accomplish her goals back to her upbringing. As an only child, both her parents worked. As a result, she became very independent. Whatever needed to be done, she would figure out a way.
“Even with my children I have always emphasized to them, ‘Come to me with anything. We’ll figure it out. We’ll find a way,’” Johnson said. “When I had to learn physics or GIS mapping … there were times where I thought, “Oh my god. How do I do this?” But I just kept persisting.
What’s next for the medical doctor turned photographer turned drone pilot and eternal adventurer? Johnson’s mother died in early 2022 and her death gave Johnson, now 50, pause to reflect on her own life and rethink once again.
“It’s reinforced who I am,” Johnson said. “My mother was a very, very loving woman but we were very different. I am extremely active with hiking and experiences around the world, and a lot of solo travel to third world countries. But my mom was a homebody, and so it’s really enforced to me that I just want to keep on living… I mean, this is it, you know? It’s one life, and I really just want to keep on living and experiencing and connecting with others, because for my mom, on this earth, it’s now over.”
Johnson’s next challenge will be closer to her Indiana roots, so she can easily reach her father if he needs her. After recently watching the documentary 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible about mountaineer Nimsdai Purja’s quest to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks in seven months and hearing one of the climbers was 82 years old, she had a target.
“I’d like to do several 14,000 feet summits per year,” Johnson said. “Even if I’m in the Midwest and I don’t have the hills, I can put on weights. I can rock climb. I can hike parking garages. And then I can go out to Colorado, acclimate a little bit, and do some 14ers.”
The key Johnson says is to set the goal, have a plan, and begin.
“I think it’s like what I do with medicine, what I did even with drone work, you just commit.
One of my friends always says, ‘Someday is not a day of the week.’ Just commit, and make the plan, and do it. Signing up for races, trying a new career. You just have to commit, and then go ahead and move forward. But we contemplate and we hem and haw about it, then we look back years later and say, ‘I should have, I could have.’ I would say, just jump in.”