Unhinged, up close and unguarded, photojournalist Anthony Karen reveals the staggering and dynamic existence of the contemporary Ku Klux Klan in a new collection of photographs.
The images range from startling to familial, cutting between crosses lit in flames and a noose hanging beside a front door to an afternoon cookout or trip to the grocery store.
A statement perhaps on the complex perspective of humanity, Karen says the project aims not to gain attention for the Klan, but document a truth often befuddled by previously held beliefs and understandings.
“I grew up hearing about the KKK, I’ve seen all the cliché photos, etc., but I have a genuine curiosity and this would pertain to the New Black Panther Party or the Taliban as well,” Karen tells theGrio. “These interests are in regards to me wanting to see people with certain ideologies at their leisure.”
A legacy of hate re-imagined
Objectivity being key, Karen spent several years gaining access to the inside world of the Klan, which led to his ability to capture some of the most exposing images of white supremacist culture seen in awhile, if not ever.
The photographs were shot all over the United States, including the North, South, East Coast, Central and Mid-Western regions.
The KKK currently does not exist as a unified group, but an amalgamation of more than 40 subgroups with over a hundred different chapters around the country.
In the home, shrouded by the proverbial white hood, and at outdoor gatherings, Karen displays the Klan during a range of organizational rituals and with their kin.
It’s an honest look at the many facets of a civilization known mostly for terrorizing and attempting to obliterate populations outside their own demographic.
Even Karen admits to being surprised at times.
“The majority of groups didn’t allow smoking whilst in the robe, the consumption of alcoholic beverages and the use of profanity is frowned upon at any time during their gatherings,” he explains. “It was only after the cross-lighting ceremony took place, which is the culmination of most get-togethers, that the guests and members were permitted to do such things. I’ve also encountered many members that didn’t seem to hate as much as one would assume by their affiliation. Some only professed to advocate racial separation. Preconceived notions of people following this ideology to be exclusively poor rednecks that live in the South is as wide of a generalization as stereotyping everybody that lives in East New York a gang banger. It simply isn’t the case.”
Witnessing another side of American culture
Yet extremist subjects are apparent among the more moderate.
One woman clothed in a white robe holds up a t-shirt emblazed with the words “Ni**er Family Tree” over a picture of a tree draped by nooses.
Members gather to assemble crosses and light them in the darkness.
An elderly man aims a pistol at a cockroach on a wall inside his home while his family ducks for cover on a nearby sofa.
Somewhere in between these photos lay images of children, grandparents, and one close-up shot of a conference sign reading, “Faith is the Victory.”
Karen, who takes interest in religious studies and marginalized societies, intends for the photo documentary to provide insight into what many people regard as a hard and difficult truth about American society.
“The fact that someone is able to wear a shirt that displays an affiliation to the Klan or have a tattoo of a Swastika and not have their a** beat on a daily basis shows me that we are more tolerant then we give ourselves credit for,” he points out. “Is this tolerance good or bad? That’s a debate in itself.”
He adds, “We can’t pick and choose who has the inalienable right to free speech and I’ll gladly take this freedom over censorship.”
Unmerited publicity or the honest truth?
Of course, some might argue such exhibits breed further hate or offer publicity for a group who’ve centered their entire lives on the denunciation of others.
Karen refutes the assessment, alluding to the point that turning a blind eye and embracing ignorance doesn’t take away from the fact something exists.
“These types of stories are often documented in a superficial and sensationalist manner,” he feels. “The restricted access contributes to an unbalanced perspective. It is my intention to show things in another context, the stories some wish to ignore or what is otherwise in the shadows.”
Because of his broad portrait, Karen, a former Marine and bodyguard now living in New York, collaborated with the Discovery Channel on a documentary about the Klan, titled KKK: Beneath the Hood.
His other work as a journalist includes photo documentaries of Vodou in NYC, White Nationalists or Skinheads, the controversial Westboro Baptist Church, earthquake victims and orphans in Haiti, and scenes from the West Bank. Additionally, he produced a multimedia project on post-crisis Vodou ceremonies in Haiti.
In truth, Karen says he felt more emotionally stirred documenting torment in Haiti or at an annual seal harvesting than he did encapsulating this vein of American hate.
That, the photographer points out, comes as no surprise.
“I was introduced to racism at an early age, so along with my experiences growing up, traveling to countries like Palestine and being cognizant to life around me…It didn’t really impart any additional understanding [of racism] other than the ineffective ways people were dealing with racist views,” he recalls.
As far as his reaction to the KKK, Karen remarks, “I’ve seen and heard just as much hatred hanging out listening to people in New York.”
Follow Courtney Garcia on Twitter at @CourtGarcia