Interview by Svetlana Bachevanova
Anthony Karen’s passion for photography began in Haiti, where he documented the various Vodou rituals and pilgrimages throughout the country. His project was interrupted when an opportunity to photograph a Ku Klux Klan cross lighting came through. Over the years to follow, Anthony found himself with unrestricted access into America’s most private white separatist organizations.
Anthony was a contributing member of World Pictures News before going freelance in 2008. Over the years Anthony has worked on several projects, including extensive documentation of the Ku Klux Klan. This work has been exhibited at the annual Noorderlicht Festival and featured in various forms of media, such as the Discovery Channel, NPR radio, Life, Mother Jones, Focus and a special release book by Time/Life - Secret Societies. His work has been frequently featured in Norway’s Magasinet Plot and Life.com, including “Inside the Westboro Baptist Church”, which received two MIN Editorial Awards in 2011.
Anthony served in the US Marine Corps and worked for many years in the personal protection industry. He has traveled extensively worldwide and has volunteered on numerous international medical missions. His charitable affiliations include Friends in Deed, Hospice, Smile Train, Surgical Volunteers International and the Humane Society.
In 2011, Duke Universities Rare Book and Manuscript Library invited Anthony to include his ongoing life's work to its biographical archives. Earlier that year he received a grant from the George A. Robinson IV Foundation for his work with humanitarian causes.
His new book White Pride was published by FotoEvidence as a digital book for iPad and can be found at the iTunes store.
SB. How did you become a photojournalist? Do you remember the moment you made this decision?
AK. I can’t recall a defining moment. It was definitely something I didn’t expect or plan. I do remember borrowing my mother’s $130 camera to take with me to Jungle Warfare School in Panama one year. Unfortunately, for my mom and the images that I took, I got all gung-ho during a field op and jumped into a swamp that was glowing orange. Needless to say I had to buy Mom a new camera.
Eleven years went by after that incident and I still remained reluctant to borrow a camera, so I finally went in search of one I could call my own. At the time, I was interested in the all-encompassing, point-and-shoot with a zoom, but the salesman talked me into a Nikon with interchangeable lenses. Even then, being a photojournalist was a distant thought from my mind. I was more than content simply coming away with pictures that had artistically blurred backgrounds.
I guess the epiphany truly happened when I was in Haiti. It was said at the time that Haiti was considered a highly dangerous place. Between the potential risk factor and my peaked interest in Vodou practice and culture (another subject also cloaked in mystery), the destination was a “win” for me. I had always wanted to go, but when I finally did I was sorely disappointed with the images I took. I found myself being overly timid when approaching my subjects; I felt I needed to go back. With each return trip my images improved. Photojournalism quickly became as much a part of me as any of my physical characteristics and it continues to feed a unique side of me.
SB. In every project you undertake you want to show places and people invisible to most of us. What draws you to the dark side of society?
AK. The “dark side of society” is something very few outsiders have access to, which makes it the perfect place for a visual storyteller to be. The appeal of exploring that realm is a combination of several factors: it’s about the interaction necessary in order to be allowed into a very personal space, the trust that needs to be established in order to be granted the opportunity to bear witness to someone in, potentially, their most vulnerable moment, and the skill and artistry involved in capturing all of that intangible essence with a click of a button.
SB. Why did you choose to do a project about white pride?
AK. After “discovering” photojournalism, it wasn’t long before I realized the importance of documentary projects. I remember spending hours on the Magnum Photos website hoping to land some creative inspiration and wondering how on Earth I could remotely compete with these other photographers. It seemed they had already covered every story imaginable. It was all very intimidating and discouraging, to say the least.
I eventually came across Magnum’s archive of Ku Klux Klan images and noticed most of the imagery all displayed a similar context. I couldn’t help but wonder why no one had chosen to document the Klan without the robes on; to explore what went on when these people weren’t marching during a demonstration or having a cross lighting ceremony. So, those questions, combined with my passion for situations that are outside the norm, made it blatantly obvious to me that this was a project I needed to explore. It's a timeless and powerful subject that continues to bring out as much controversy as it did in the 1860's when the Ku Klux Klan was first established.
SB. Some people say that your photographs humanize these subcultures and so minimize the hatred at the core of their ideologies. What would you say to these people?
AK. Well, like it or not, they are human. I don’t advocate or refute anything when I’m presenting a photo project to others. There is no specific platform. What you see is exactly what I experienced, as a whole, from no specific angle or agenda. Think of this: as a viewer, what would you rather have, a story documented on the left, on the right or in the middle where you can form your own opinion? I have images of people doing normal everyday things, and I have images of nooses, swastikas, tattoos and clothing that clearly project the “hatred” aspect. There is no bias either way in my work, just simply a balance of what I’ve seen and experienced.
SB. Some time, working as a photojournalist, I have witnessed things that made me angry, but because of my role I was not able to express my feelings. How did you feel while photographing these groups?
AK. Those who know me know that my ability to repress my feelings or opinions can be non-existent at times. Of course we all have our opinions and, as a photojournalist, any personal feelings may come across through your images if you let them take you over. If I become angry or overly emotional I put my camera down. That has only happened twice to date: once when documenting an orphanage for disabled children, and another time while volunteering on a medical relief mission in Haiti immediately after the 2009 earthquake (both highly emotional environments and experiences)
The annual Canadian Seal harvest was a rough one for me as well but I hid behind my lens and found a way to go numb for that. On the other hand, I’m able to stay focused in most scenarios. For example, having a son currently serving in the Marines and having served myself, one might assume I’d be disgusted to spend a considerable amount of time with an organization such as the Westboro Baptist Church, the organization that routinely protests the funerals of our country’s fallen heroes. However, I didn’t hesitate to pursue a piece on them. Potential conflict like that becomes nothing more than random noise to me. Anyone is free to believe what they want, just please don’t scold my point of view, or force me to agree with you, and I won’t force you to agree with me. The world is too big a place to let a small percentage “get” to you so intensely. Logically, argument and anger are completely pointless. If somebody came at you denouncing something that you believed strongly in, you wouldn’t suddenly change your opinion. Argument becomes pointless because it will go back and forth to no avail, especially because frustration and anger can dictate the argument.
SB. You discovered that the KKK and the other white supremacy groups don't work together. What separates them from each other?
AK. This isn’t always the case. The more traditional Klan organizations are, indeed, a stand-alone structure when compared to a National Socialist-type group, but there are some organizations that are open to both ideologies and are willing to work towards a common goal. In general, the Ku Klux Klan opposes Nazism and skinhead ideologies. Some groups allow dual affiliation, but it’s definitely not the norm.
SB. Why did you decide to put the KKK and the white supremacy groups together in one book? What unites them?
AK. While the two groups have separate histories and occasional conflict, they share an ideological platform of white separatism. They are often placed in the same category when discussing hate groups or “pro-white” organizations. I’ve documented both at length and felt that having a section dedicated to each movement would offer a powerful contrast within this context.
SB. What do the KKK and the white pride groups stand for and what are they against?
AK. I can only comment on what I’ve observed. Contingent on geographic location, I’ve noticed an increase of demonstrations regarding illegal immigration. Other issues that have been addressed from the podium include the sex offender registry, same-sex relationships and homosexuality, local crime involving minorities, and welfare fraud.
Surprisingly, most of the racial issues are in frustrated response to the banking system which some believe is controlled and manipulated by the Jews. This type of thing is more the issue rather than the color of one’s skin, which is what some would typically assume to be the focus. I find that the biggest “black” issues for these organizations concern the mixing of race and high urban crime rates. They are all pro-America and this includes the skinheads and National Socialists.
SB. Do they fight for Christianity?
AK. I’m not sure I’d say fighting for Christianity per se, but more for the preservation of an undiluted white race. What they oppose is the mixing of races as they say it dilutes the bloodline and goes against God’s natural order, “You don’t mix a horse with a Zebra, each is perfect in it’s own design.” The cross lighting ceremony has great symbolic meaning to the Klan. They claim it to be the light of Christ that brings clarity from the darkness. During the ceremony they praise God, country and race. With regards to religion in general, their platform includes bringing the Bible back into school programs. They have a staunch position against homosexuality that stems from a passage in the book of Leviticus (Leviticus 18:22) that states, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.”
SB. Do they support Democrats or Republicans?
AK. I have absolutely no clue; I try to keep politics and organized religion out of most of my conversations in general.
SB. What do they think about Jews, immigrants, blacks and Catholics?
AK. If you gathered up 10 people you’d probably get at least six different answers, but, from my experience, I’d say illegal immigrants, Jews, black crime and interracial marriage tops the “dislike” list as a general consensus. Catholicism isn’t an issue from what I’ve heard.
SB. Do they have any political power?
AK. . West Virginia’s State Senator Robert C. Byrd was affiliated with the Klan in his 20’s, and the former leader of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke became a member of the Louisiana State Legislature in 1989. I’d assume some influence might be present on a local, town level, but I can’t really speculate beyond that.
SB. It seems that recently these groups are not taken very seriously. How much social influence do they have?
AK. There is a certain dialogue that routinely takes place. It happens between the sensationalist-driven journalist looking for the controversial shot of the kid with the swastika shirt, or someone yelling out the "N" word, and the individual with little education from one of these groups speaking on behalf of their organization, who has a better chance of trying to argue their point of view with a 5-year old. Ironically, these two personalities consistently seem to seek (and find) each other out. This “dialogue” rarely paints an accurate picture.
With regards to social influence, these organizations have quite a bit. There have been clear-cut spikes in membership due to the widespread access the internet provides through websites and social media such as Facebook. Current events are all over the internet, like the election of the first black president and, of course, there are no shortages of frustrated people reacting after hearing of a heinous crime committed by a minority. There are some people who will gravitate towards others that share the same outspoken views when situations or issues like these arise.
SB. Did you discover a difference between the KKK in the past and nowadays?
AK. The Klan was last unified in 1944, before being disbanded as a result of the IRS seeking back taxes. As a result, the Klan lost claim to all copyright: there was no longer legal protection of the name Ku Klux Klan and the title became public domain. Totally unconnected, independent groups began to appear throughout the country. I’ve documented two groups that were militant or paramilitary in structure but the majority of Klan organizations are traditional and strive to remain under the radar. It would be rare to hear about any of these traditional organizations on the news; with the exception of a few groups, they’re not interested in public demonstrations or talking to the media.
Of course, times have changed along with society and current events, but in some instances you’ll find ideologies are exactly the same as they were back in the 1860’s when the Ku Klux Klan was first founded.
SB. What is their opinion about Barack Obama, the first African-American President of the United States, elected in 2008? Did you ever witness effigies of President Obama hanging from nooses as it has been reported in the press?
AK. . I have a friend that took a photograph of a black doll hanging off the limb of a tree during a Klan gathering that he was documenting (not President Obama), but I haven't witnessed much backlash other than a roll of Obama toilet paper, a few anti-Obama themed bumper stickers and tee shirts. The degree of dislike for Obama is elevated, for obvious reasons, but I've also encountered members that, though they can't stand him, have a he-is-still-the-President kind of attitude.
SB. Can you make a parallel between either of these white pride groups and Islamic extremism?
AK. The only common thread is that both organizations (radical Islam and the Klan) have specific ideologies and religious precepts.
SB. Why do you think these organizations still exist?
AK. The answer to that question deserves more space than this interview allows. I will say this though, even if the Klan or Black Panthers went away tomorrow, it wouldn’t be long before someone came along to pick up the torch. Just as sure as you have love, you will still have some hate in the world.
SB. Do you think that the very existence of these groups violates the rights of other people?
AK. As far as the “very existence” of these groups violating rights, no. Society can’t have it both ways: we can’t pick and choose who has the enviable right to free speech. It’s every one’s right. Disliking someone different than you is not a rights violation, it’s just a lost opportunity.
SB. What do you hope to accomplish with this book?
AK. Like any photojournalist, I'm looking to introduce a specific body of work to a greater audience. I am hoping to offer another perspective into a world that’s often closed to outsiders. I'd be thrilled if it proved useful on a sociological level or maybe as a resource to an aspiring photojournalist looking to develop his or her story telling technique.
SB. Many Klan members go to great lengths to emphasize that their beliefs are about racial pride rather than hatred or terrorism or racial violence, but the 140-year history of the Klan belies that claim. How do your photographs dispel or reinforce the traditional notion of what the KKK is and what it stands for. Do you think your images put these groups in a particular light?
AK. I don’t think my images dispel or reinforce anything in particular. I have hundreds of images of Klan members simply at church or attending birthday parties, etc. But many sources and publishers usually pass on those types of pictures in order to make the photo essay marketable. It's hard to make the private home and everyday images work without some sort of Klan innuendo in the frame. The majority of the people I've come across are no different than somebody living next door to you; you'd only know they were in the Klan if they decided to share that with you.
It's a sensitive topic to report on. I once did an interview and mentioned that I thought one lady in the organization was very nice. The fallout and backlash of people calling me a racist, ignorant and naive based on this simple comment was enough to make me almost want to stop the project all together.”
“Little Charlie” of the Dixie Rangers of the Ku Klux Klan displays her custom made wedding veil, as her fiance watches on
SB. A lot of people view cross-burning as an overt act of aggression and intimidation. The people in the Klan, on the other hand, claim that burning the cross is a tribute to Christ's love and to the victory of light over darkness. Can you describe what the dominant emotion seems to be at the Klan cross-burnings you've attended and photographed? Is it, in fact, a type of Christian love? Anger? Aggression? Or something else entirely?
AK. This was the very first topic that was explained to me at the first gathering I attended, in 2005. The Klan states that they find the term “cross burning” offensive. They prefer “cross lighting” as it “dispels darkness, [and] brings truth and freedom to the world”. It bears witness to the light of Christ, according to their beliefs. The cross lighting ceremony is held in sacred covenant to people in the Klan. This holds true for the robes that are worn as well.
The cross lighting is the culmination of a Klan event. It is typically held an hour after sunset. During a traditional Klan gathering, most groups won’t allow drinking, cursing or the display of the swastika, either as a tattoo or on clothing. Shortly before the lighting, the participating members put on their robes and form a line to accept the flame from the Imperial Wizard (leader). After accepting the flame, members circle the cross while Scottish bagpipes play in the background. They periodically pause and raise the flame “for God, country, race and the Klan”. After several of these passes, they all approach the cross and place their torches at its base. They fall back to form a larger circle and, depending on the group, they might kneel or stand with their arms extended until the flames start to fade and the gathering officially comes to an end. According to the Klan, the “cross burnings” of old were used as a form of intimidation to terrorize people, but it was carried out by renegade members or bastardized splinter groups.