Q&A: Anthony Karen

© Anthony Karen

Anthony Karen is photojournalist living in New York. Anthony has served in the Marine Corps and worked many years in the personal protection industry. This year, Anthony has published his first book, The Invisible Empire: Ku Klux Klan.

Anthony Karen's website: www.anthonykaren.com

Priscilla Whitenight: What keeps you photographing, what motivates you?

Anthony Karen: It makes me happy. I think I might be consumed by it; it's all I think about. But it's more than just taking pictures for me, it's putting together a cohesive body of work and all the time and effort it took me to get to that point. It's also about people allowing me into their most private moments and accepting me along with a camera. It's a true gift and I feed off of it. What can be better than say, wandering around a remote region of Haiti and meeting a Vodou Priestess, who brings me to her temple? Before you know it, I'm sharing a meal with all of them, learning their rituals and seeing something that very few outsiders will ever see and even though you don't understand each other's language, the time just flows and you have an amazing experience.

I've had plenty of moments that unmotivated me, but in the end, I try to remember that I don't do this for anybody else but me, and right after I take my first shot, it all falls right back into place and I'm refreshed. I can't deal with the 9-5 world; I crave the edge, learning about other cultures, what makes people tick and yes, sometimes being in a dangerous situation. The people I photograph that are in the Klan all have jobs that they possibly could lose due to their beliefs, but they trust me into their homes and let me photograph their most sacred rituals. Anybody can Google my name and see how often I visit places like Haiti, and yet most Klan organizations welcome me without any restrictions. When I get home and look back at what I shot, I have to force myself to step back, and I'm like holy crap, I can't believe it. All of these things make up the forces that drive me.

© Anthony Karen

Priscilla Whitenight: How important is an artist statement with your work? Do you think your photographs should speak for themselves?

Anthony Karen: It definitely has it advantages with certain stories. It introduces you to the project and gives you insight to a situation you may know little about. I took an image of a little boy being chased by his mother a few days ago, without a caption it's just as it sounds, but then you start to read and you find out that the boy and his mother had a concession stand and they were selling food that they hand made. That rice crispy treat in the boys hand had an "88" written on it, the "88" is a code used in the White Nationalist circles to signify the eighth letter of the alphabet -- "H" - HH, Heil Hitler. And his mother was chasing him around during a neo-Nazi gathering.

Not every image will speak for itself, some require text. A simple portrait can be taken to new levels after understanding the story behind it. Not every project can consist of killer shot exclusively, you may need some loose ones to pull it all together and those may require additional information. With that, you have to try and distance yourself from the moment you were in when editing. Just because that moment you took that image was incredible or life changing, doesn't mean it will make a great photo. We all tend to have a hard time letting go of the images we love, but sometimes they simply just don't work, with or without text.

Priscilla Whitenight: What is it about the black and white image quality that you're drawn too?

Anthony Karen: I have no set standard in regards to color versus b&w. Some situations may require color for full impact, but I'll typically select several images from the intended story and match the color to the b&w to see which one works better. I find that b&w can sometimes bring a so-so color image back to life. It tends to give it that documentary feel and can add drama to certain stories. You can get lost in beautiful colors; sometimes I'd rather the focus to be solely on the story and the composition of the photograph.

© Anthony Karen

Priscilla Whitenight: How do you get access to most of the situations you're in?

Anthony Karen: It all starts with research, it's important to have some knowledge of the story you wish to shoot. I'm assuming you're referring to my more controversial stories, i.e. KKK, skinheads and God Hates America/God Hates Fags church?

I'm at a point of having a reputation of being very honest, so some situations just fall into place. I'm also not afraid to be who I am -- I'll show up to a place and everyone might look at me like I'm a federal agent until I crack open a beer or walk around introducing myself and just being me. I'm 6'3, workout, I live in NY (which seems to be the opening topic in 75% of the places I go to, especially once I start talking and they hear my accent), I'm not afraid to speak my mind and I can talk about anything. I'm not one of those repressed individuals that doesn't take the time to get to know the people around him/her. Patience, perseverance, reputation and connections seem to be what's working for me.

© Anthony Karen

Priscilla Whitenight: How do you set aside your "emotional side" when photographing a project that really affects you?

Anthony Karen: I've always had the ability to absorb myself in what I was doing at the time. I do well under pressure, like having someone shoot bullets at me or dealing with a person having a medical emergency, but I can't handle the stress of Christmas shopping, go figure. Anyway, few outside of the photojournalism field can understand how I can be amongst certain groups of people or see some of the things I have and not have some strong opinions. I tell people this: if you want to hear my personal opinion we can go out and chat over a drink, if you want facts, look at my pictures. I love animals, so you could imagine how hard it was to be watching the Canadian Seal Harvest or that I'm as proud a Marine as you'll ever find, but spent a week at the Westboro Baptist Church, whose members picket the funerals of soldiers killed in action. When I'm really focused on something I'm taking it all in. I'm trying to understand all points of views, the human side of inhuman acts, the love you can find in hate, etc.

I leave my opinions at the door. The Seal Hunt was the most difficult projects to be witness to, up until September 2009, when I documented several orphanages for severely disabled children in Haiti. I was concentrating on this one child and my camera strap brushed upon his arm. He immediately started to flail his arms and it was then I realized he was blind. He started grabbing at me and got up out of his wheelchair -- of course I didn't want my camera to get knocked out of my hands, so I backed off a bit. He looked upset and I took the chance of having my camera damaged by the wandering kids and put it down on a bed right next to me. I walked over to the boy, who was about 12 years old and he grabbed me. I picked him up in my arms and coddled him. He was wearing a diaper and I felt the urine drip down on my pants, but he was holding me so tight I couldn't help but to squeeze him back. He was digging his unclipped finger nails deep into the back of my sunburned neck, causing me to bleed and I remember a moment of wondering if he was HIV positive or not.

It was an emotionally draining day, it got to me and it lasted several days after I returned back to the States. I am extremely sensitive and emotional, and I took that moment and separated myself from the camera. I just wanted to devote 100% of my attention to that child. I did continue to shoot that day and did what I set out to do; I'm just giving you a little insight to a moment that "affected me."

© Anthony Karen

Priscilla Whitenight: What life experiences have most influenced your work?

Anthony Karen: My experiences have been an important factor in my life and helped define me as a person and a photojournalist. Growing up wasn't the greatest time in my life -- I was beat up in school and around the neighborhood, I was very quiet and I found myself avoiding social situations to be alone in my room. I started looking at things differently after a while, like I had a deeper understanding as far as empathy, compassion, caring and how to speak my feelings without reservation. I learned that I needed to express myself and be creative on an emotional level. I knew about all types of feelings, because I was in touch with my own and this helps me when I'm trying to connect with people.

I used to be into bodybuilding, I've been in the personal protections scene since I was 18 and fresh out of the Marine Corps boot camp. I've been around death, I volunteered as a Medic, Hospice and I've also had cancer. I take all these experiences with me and I wear them on my sleeve. I think the more ways you can relate to people the better, it opens doors and helps put people at ease.

© Anthony Karen

Priscilla Whitenight: What advice would you give to a young, aspiring documentary photographer?

Anthony Karen: It's not always about the school, gear, connections or being in a war zone. There are great stories all around us. Find a project that you are truly interested in and use it as a tool. Long-term projects are invaluable teaching aids and can help you develop the necessary skills to interact with your subjects. As with anything in life, the more time you put into something, it will show. I routinely search for photo essays similar to the ones I've shot, I ask myself what could I have done better or maybe gain some inspiration for my next shoot. I also like the fact that I can go back and take some chances photographically. I'll have a solid day of shooting under my belt, to the point most would go home...that's when I'll try a non-typical lens, angle, f-stop or even some playful shots that aren't those serious "documentary" style we often seek out -- sometimes you never know until you put it up on the screen.

Photography is very subjective so it's important to own the talent you possess and be somewhat comfortable with your own vision. It's difficult to put your heart and soul into something and have someone flip through your work like it's a Sears catalog. That's why you do it for you. It's upsetting to me how many novice photojournalist I've come across that have been so friendly and down to earth, only to start getting published and turn competitive and arrogant. It's like they lose track of things. This is our passion; think about how long people search to find the one thing that fills their souls like photography does for us. Don't let you head swell and turn into one of those guys sitting around the table in a third world country, bragging about their accomplishments and thinking their shit doesn't stink.

I'd also like to point out the importance of integrity in regards to our chosen field. We have a responsibility not only to the public but also to our stories and those we document. I can't even tell you how many times I've had to pay the price for a journalist trading in the truth for sensationalism. Do it because you can't live without it, not because of money or the possibility of fame. Making it in the business is getting harder and harder these days. If you're looking to get rich, you might need a backup plan, but that's okay as long as you make time for your personal projects.

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