Photographer Interviews

On Documenting White Supremacy: Photojournalists Share Experience, Advice and Warnings

November 2, 2017

By David Walker

The demonstration by torch-wielding white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia focused media attention this summer on the re-emergence of the hate groups in the U.S. For photographers, the story presents challenging questions: How are they to get images beyond the sensational clichés—burning crosses, Nazi regalia, contorted faces spewing hate—to show nuance and increase understanding? And how can the story be told without giving a platform to a dangerous movement that thrives on publicity?

PDN asked those and other questions to photographers who have already immersed themselves in projects about white supremacists. Johnny Milano, Anthony Karen and David S. Holloway are among those who have documented hate groups in the U.S., while Paolo Marchetti and Natalie Keyssar have done so in Europe.

All were drawn to the subject by a desire to understand people with beliefs so alien to their own—and most everyone else. “They could be your neighbors,” says Milano, who started his project as a student at ICP, and wasn’t satisfied to make predictable images at weekend rallies. “I wanted to explore how these organizations operate on a more intricate level.” His effort to document Klan rituals and Klan members behind the scenes has taken him to a dozen U.S. states over the past six years.

Holloway says he first got interested in the Klan when, to his shock and dismay, one of his high school friends intimated a desire to join the Klan. Not long afterwards, when Holloway was in college, a campus racist hounded him for dating a black African exchange student. “I approached him and…he agreed to let me hang out with him and his friends and photograph them,” says Holloway, who has documented white supremacists intermittently for the past decade.

He and others say that the work requires fortitude. “Right now, hate is a trendy topic, but this isn’t new. Its popularity will come and go with the news cycle, so you have to decide if your soul can handle being surrounded by so much negativity,” he says. The work is also risky. “I’ve been called an informant and beaten up a few times,” he says, adding that he had to suck it up to maintain his access.

© Paolo Marchetti

In Milan, Paolo Marchetti photographed a woman holding a neo-Nazi flag during a march against immigration. © Paolo Marchetti

Photographers who document white supremacy face questions about whether their work does more harm than good. Media attention “100 percent helps their cause,” Holloway says, recounting a heads-up he gave to one of his subjects before some images appeared in Time magazine. “You’re going to look like an asshole,” Holloway recalls warning the subject. The man just smiled, explaining to Holloway that the story was bound to win at least a few sympathizers, and maybe even some followers.

Holloway says he weighs his discomfort at supporting their cause against other effects of his work. “Its tougher for them to operate under the radar,” he says. “The community knows them, the police know them and it makes it tougher for them to get away with a lot of what they are trying to do.”

Besides, turning a blind eye doesn’t make the problem go away. The question isn’t whether to cover the story—it is vitally important—but how. Coverage that is “superficial and sensationalist” is a problem, Karen says. “The media and a small handful of Klan organizations have been feeding off one another—a particular Klan organization gets its message out and the media gets its sensationalism…. It’s insulting to me as a serious documentarian, it’s nothing more than irresponsible parachute journalism in my opinion.”

Keyssar says the biggest challenge for photographers “is showing something beyond big scary white men, because that doesn’t help us understand any nuance, or their role in our society, or how we can deal with it.

“If you fall into the drama, if you show them as bad asses [and] hit it from the surface, but you don’t go deeper, and you don’t analyze, then there’s an argument to be made you’re enforcing whatever stereotype they want to project.” She adds, “If they can put their slogans all over your images to make propaganda, if there’s no context, maybe think about what you’re doing.”

Nuanced work requires not only time but access. And that is difficult to get. Milano says he spent months making phone calls, emailing, and reaching out on social media before getting any response. From his first contacts, it was still a painstaking process of building trust with people to get them to introduce him to others.

Marchetti says, “I actually sought dialogue. This and my emotional openness allowed me (with some luck) to be involved and accepted. Basically I spent more than three months without my camera, to allow them to smell and know me slowly, a little at a time.”

Photographers are grilled about their beliefs, and otherwise treated with suspicion. Keyssar warns against being lulled by a false sense of safety, and warns: “Move carefully and think about what they’re going to find out when they Google you.” Karen recalls how one Klan leader “would always greet me with a half hug and he’d have his arm around the small of my back,” checking for a recording device because he suspected Karen was a government agent or informant.

He eventually earned trust, he says, by “being honest and wearing my personality on my sleeve.” But access is always precarious. Milano lost access for six months after publishing a photo of someone who hadn’t said he didn’t want to be photographed. Photographers say they avoid arguments, and endure the vitriol in silence. Karen recounts grinding a bottle cap into his leg, just to keep his mouth shut and his eyes open “during one extended ‘conversation’” in the home of one of his subjects.

Keyssar says it’s difficult to distance herself emotionally from her subjects because their hate is so visceral. But she has to maintain distance to understand and convey with pictures the underpinnings of that hate. “Take yourself out of it,” she says. “Get out of the way and do the journalism as with any subject.”

That racists are people, too, raises complicated questions about how to portray them. Karen, who has had a remarkable degree of access, ended up photographing a neo-Nazi family in Pennsylvania for several months. His images show their hardscrabble daily existence against the disturbing, ever-present backdrop of their racist beliefs. In some photographs, for instance, the children play innocently amid the most repugnant racist symbols and messages.

“My approach has been controversial, as many would rather see these men, women and families as less than human. Instead, they are human beings with strengths, weaknesses and strongly held beliefs, even if such beliefs go against a more popular grain of inclusiveness and societal standards,” Karen says. “Showing them in this more ‘human’ context challenges others’ perspectives, including trying to understand why these groups have chosen this particular path.”

Marchetti says he struggled to maintain journalistic objectivity, and not let his own prejudice and anger get in the way. “I did [that] to give myself the opportunity to understand their fear, and not to go their…way, that of intolerance, because like them, I was also scared by others, precisely by them,” he says.

Still, Marchetti depicts European fascism as a heart of darkness, and a danger. Given Europe’s history with fascism, his point of view is understandable. “I often wanted to paint them as I saw them, thus projecting on[to] them my prejudice,” he says. “I alternated different kinds of tolerance or anger with them, depending on my emotional energies and my inner strength.” He ended up photographing different groups in five different countries.

As with any subject, the white supremacist movement is territory that photographers negotiate in different ways. Viewers—and the public discourse—benefit from the diversity of perspectives. But the stakes are high, for viewers and photographers alike.

John Edwin Mason, a photographer, critic and University of Virginia professor who was an eyewitness to the events in Charlottesville, warns photographers not to rush in naively. Know the history of white supremacy in America, he says. “To paraphrase Tod Papageorge: If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not reading enough.”

He explains: “You don’t want to be the victim of your sources, some of whom are sophisticated, educated and articulate. If you don’t know where they’re coming from, you might get swept away by their rhetoric, by their personality, or by the moment. You’ve got to steel yourself against that.” He adds, “You’ve got to be really solid in your own beliefs and convictions, and you’ve got to know the subject matter past and present, then you have to spend the time.”

Keyssar’s parting advice is that “if we can’t get honestly curious, as opposed to just excited about access to something we think is bad, then we shouldn’t be working on that subject.”

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