MARTIN PESCA, host:
From Voodoo practitioners in Haiti to the Klansmen of the backwoods of Arkansas, photographer Anthony Karen has been able to get access to some of the most closed subcultures in the world. Karen captures intimate images of societies outsiders engaged in taboo activities. They are Neo-Nazis, notorious Khmer Rouge members, the new Black Panther Party. Usually they are all operating in secret circles where outsiders are unwelcome. Anthony Karen is here in the BPP Studios to talk about gaining trust and getting access and suspending judgment. Hello, Anthony.
Mr. ANTHONY KAREN (Photographer): Hello, sir. How are you?
PESCA: You are a former Marine. What type of experiences did you have back then? Did they influence you becoming what you call a self-described adventure junkie?
Mr. KAREN: I think I've always had an adventurous side in me. I kind of like what happens just behind the close door. I'm intrigued about things that you're not suppose to see or experience. The Marines didn't really - it helped me be a little more confident in certain situations.
PESCA: Perhaps to be all that you can be? Or is that the army?
Mr. KAREN: No. We can - we could do it to all branches, I guess. It help me with being a little extra polite to people, and I carry myself in a certain way in all situations.
PESCA: So that helps in gaining trust and getting access, to be polite so that they could look at you and maybe see a guys who's not out to get them?
Mr. KAREN: Well, there's no specific recipe, but I think honesty is a big part of it. I engage in conversation with people. I care about people, I want to hear what they have to say. As a photojournalist I go in early, I stay late. Typically you'll see a person come in for a story, and they'll come in or like right in the middle of the events, and they'll stay for an hour and they leave. I actually spent time and talked to people. I want to learn about them. I'm curious what's going on in their lives and what brought out them to their beliefs. And I don't always have my camera in my hands, and sometimes I'm just hanging out. I'll share their food, I'll drink with them, and I think it just makes people more comfortable and more open. Being a photojournalist it's a two-way street, it's give and take. You need a connection with someone. If you don't have that connection you're not going to take the photographs that you want.
PESCA: And so your method of going in and getting to know them, they are not methods, they are not a ruse. You're genuinely interested.
Mr. KAREN: I'm just being me.
PESCA: Gotcha. What was the first - you know with listed Voodoo and Neo-Nazis and the Khmer Rouge. Which was the first one you really tried to crack?
Mr. KAREN: Not so much crack as more of an interest. Voodoo.
PESCA: Yes. Voodoo in Haiti.
Mr. KAREN: Yes, sir.
PESCA: How did you get in to that?
Mr. KAREN: I just always wanted to go and I just got on a plane once, and I just did it.
PESCA: I know you were into zombie movies as a kid? When were you first exposed to the idea of voodoo?
Mr. KAREN: I saw a movie when I was 14, and that kind of intrigued me about it. And then you see more about the voodoo on TV like it's a taboo thing, and it's scary. Don't go to Haiti, you're going to die. So I need to go even more at that point.
PESCA: And so, when you went in did you know who talk to? Did you have a game plan?
Mr. KAREN: The first few events I went to were kind of staged. I didn't know that at that time, but after a while, I kept returning. And I kind of realized what was fake and what wasn't fake.
PESCA: Who where they staged for? For you or for anyone who shows up?
Mr. KAREN: Yeah, they have a tours come in, and they kind of know what's going on and they'll put on a little show. But, after a while you kind a realize what's real and what's not, what's pure and what's just a show. And so pretty much now I know when and where to go to see the real thing.
PESCA: Then who - how did you find out the real people to talk to, and then the second step is how do you say, all right, not only would you let me watch it, you're going to let me photograph it?
Mr. KAREN: It's again, it's a connection between two people. You just go in and you let them know who you are and you just gradually pull out your camera. And if they don't want their photograph taken, they'll pretty much put their hand up and shy away. But generally, you know, people can tell what kind of person you are, and they are open-minded to it most of the time. When I go I usually - it follows the Christian calendar, so I try to go on Christian holidays, and I know where to go and where this events takes place.
PESCA: What was the next when you did after voodoo?
Mr. KAREN: I was trying to take photographs of the Klan because I felt that it was never really covered in depth, but mostly I just wanted to add some shocking images to my portfolio. And I met up with this guy, he's an imperial wizard, and he was also in the marines, and he kind of liked me, and he let me come in to one event, and we established kind of like relationship. I always follow up with emails and I sent him photographs and before you know it, he let me do whatever I wanted to do. And with that under my belt, it opened up the door the new groups.
PESCA: That first experience, would he try to convince you to join the Klan, or kind a probe of you for your own beliefs? How did you handle that?
Mr. KAREN: He wasn't that kind of guy actually. He actually ran to day school for black, white, Spanish, all kinds of children. He was really - he was a nice guy. I mean, he always spoke of Christian beliefs. I never heard any hatred in his voice. His wife didn't really believe in the clan, but she supported him, and he put a lot of trust in me. I brought in another journalist with me at one point. And he was very open to it and he vouched for me a lot times, which was really big in this particular situation.
PESCA: When he way vouching for you, was he saying, this is Anthony. He's not going to - was he saying he's not going to lie about us? Or was he saying, he's not going to show our, you know the side we don't - that's true, but that we don't like to talk about it. How would he phrase it to his fellow klansmen?
Mr. KAREN: I'm not really sure what happened behind close doors. I'm pretty sure it happen like I'd want to go to a specific event and I would say, you know, I know such and such a certain a person, I've been to the rally before. And then that person would probably try to contact him, and he say no, he's OK. I never had any problems with him.
PESCA: Do you know if the, I'm going to assumed that the people who, the voodoo practitioners they, after the photographs were made, they weren't looking to draw other people into their you know belief system. But, what about the klansman? Were they trying to use the photographs or any sort of publicity to kind of gain converts?
Mr. KAREN: I don't really think they use my photographs for anything They don't really know - I told them I worked from an agency and I, you know submitted them in magazines, but I'm not a journalist. So, I've no real control, you know where my images go per se. I do have a no-tabloid clause on them so people can't use them inappropriately because I think being invited in this personal situations, it would be ethical for me to say give them to the ADL to use against them. It's just not an ethical situation for me. So, I just try to use them neutrally.
PESCA: Is the Klan and the Neo-Nazis, are they connected, are they pretty much separate entities, like you had to talk to whole separate group of people when you're dealing with the Neo-Nazis and spoke to the klan?
Mr. KAREN: The traditional klan, they really don't want anything to do with the swastika. It's two different ideologies.
PESCA: And so, how did you then decide to get into the Neo-Nazi sub culture?
Mr. KAREN: I just thought of it was a spin off, something else to do or something else - you know it's along the same lines to that taboo, mysterious, mafia-type situations, but you know I tried it, and it panned out. It worked.
PESCA: When you - so you talk about this klansman who ran a day school, and you said was you know not hateful to you. What about the Nazis that you dealt with? What was - Did they say anything hateful? Did they try to, you know, convince you or try to figure out where you stood on things?
Mr. KAREN: I've been asked to join you know a few times of course, I'm big, I'm white. You know...
PESCA: You're like this - how tall are you? About 6'4?
Mr. KAREN: I'm 6'3.
PESCA: OK, so you're 6'3. You're with - let's paint the picture. You are - you know, kind a look a little like I don't want to - you know, make you embarrassed, a little like Captain America, the blue-eyes, the crew cut, the very big muscular guy.
Mr. KAREN: Yeah.
PESCA: They want you on their recruitment posters.
Mr. KAREN: I've been asked. You know, it's not my thing. You know, I'm a photographer, but thank you.
PESCA: Uh huh.
Mr. KAREN: I've never noticed any like, violence or anything at all these events. I mean, I've had a couple of situations where you know I had actually to say, all right guys, you know. We were at a hotel and some guys were making fun of the manager. He was from India, and nothing great, just some razzing, and I was like, come on guys this isn't cool.
PESCA: And did they listen to you?
Mr. KAREN: Yeah.
PESCA: Do you try to frame the photographs to make a point or to purely document? You're trying to create interesting juxtapositions, so that the viewer will say, Oh I see what he's trying to convince me of here.
Mr. KAREN: I'm not trying to convince anyone of anything. The thing is, when I first started I took a couple of shots, you know, like how can you make a story or a book out of the klan? It's all been done already. You know, what the lightings? You know, it gets pretty boring. After all everybody has seen it, but how can I make a good story out of it? So, I kind had approach it at different levels. I want to get the private moments. I needed contrast.
PESCA: What about the Black Panther party? What interaction have you had with them?
Mr. KAREN: I tried to get them - with them for quite a while. They invited me to a couple of events, and I got some photographs, and I wanted to get ina little deeper, but you know, I've been trying to for three years, and it's not really, it's not really blossoming.
PESCA: How about the Khmer Rouge?
Mr. KAREN: I met with Brother Number three in Pailin, Cambodia. Let's say about maybe four years ago I was at his hideout up north, and I was pretty in tense.
PESCA: So, the Khmer Rouge. Are they in hiding in the - I know that they're being they're on trial right now.
Mr. KAREN: Well some of them...
PESCA: Some of the leaders are.
Mr. KAREN: Yes. Some of them.
PESCA: You're talking about the ones who are still active in the jungles of Cambodia?
Mr. KAREN: I don't know so much active. These are old men. You know they are like in their 70s. This guy, he design the thesis for the year zero campaign. So, he was second in command to Pol Pot, and I was up north and it was made known to me that he was in the vicinity, if I had an interest in meeting him, and i jumped all over it. And through a series of connections I finally found out where he was, and he invited me into his house.
PESCA: Let me ask you this question. It is possible that in our talk to you here today and in the brief time we've met, you have fooled me and that you are really cynical guy and a big operator, I can't tell. But, the impression I get is that you're really a genuine guy. You really do come to it with no bias or as little bias as the person can.
Mr. KAREN: Yes.
PESCA: What I want to ask you is, there's a whole a lot of journalists who'd say, you know, I have a lot of bias. They might say about the klan, I hate those klansmen, but I can still do my job. Do you think someone with a totally different make up than what you have, like someone who really is kind a cynical and has a lot of opinions at heart can do a descent job doing what you're doing, or do you think you have the kind of be the kind of the guy you are, were really and genuinely you're an unbiased person.
Mr. KAREN: I am biased to a degree, but what I'm doing - what I love to do photography - like, you're a journalist too. If you get into a situation where, you know, you're doing something nobody's done before, you're all googely inside. It doesn't matter what is. You feel like you know, you're in a unique situation, and this is rewarding to you, whatever it is. So I am who I am, I go in, I don't have any preconceived anything. I'm not unaware of the tragic histories and past and pain of these organizations, but I'm there to take photographs. If I see something done wrong, I'm going to do something about it. You know, if I'm in a different country and I see someone try to hurt someone, I'm putting to down my camera and I'm going to intervene. I don't care if my life is on the line, that's the kind of person I am. Like I've said, it's about a connection between two people. If you don't have that respect, the connection, it's just not going to happen.
PESCA: So, you're trying to get inside as best as you can the Black Panthers. Any other group that you are looking at...
Mr. KAREN: No. I'm trying Yelland(ph), the Fark(ph). I'm doing this for years. You have no idea how long it takes to get into these organizations.
PESCA: Photographer Anthony Karen, thank you very much for coming in.
Mr. KAREN: My pleasure, sir. Thank you.
PESCA: You can check out Anthony's pictures and video of his voodoo and KKK coverage. It's up at the BPP blog at npr.org/bryantpark.