Photos courtesy of Anthony Karen
Whether it’s humility, patience, diligence or daring, New York-based photographer Anthony Karen has a personality that’s ideally suited to a photojournalist — because somehow he infiltrates enclaves and subcultures that are notoriously closed off, among them the Ku Klux Klan, shantytowns in Haiti and one of the few surviving leaders of Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge regime.
After listening to a recent NPR interview with Karen, we were curious to know more about his start, his style and his process.
Interview by babydiscarted and discarted.
Why do you take photos?
I used to take photographs because I wanted to; now I also take them because I need to. I have to express myself in some creative way to feel alive — photojournalism allows me to do so many things. It fills my soul to experience the gift of being allowed into someone’s most private moments and the trust they give me to try and capture what’s going on the best that I can. It’s the beauty of creation, going home and seeing what I’ve captured on film. It’s not always a great image, but it’s a moment of time that I’ll always have access to. I can make that experience last forever. And I like to make people “feel” — hopefully it’s not a feeling to blog [about] me and say my images suck, but photography is so subjective. So what can ya do!
What would you like to achieve by showing people your work?
I would hope the same things as anyone who does something creatively — I mostly do it for me, but it’s also important to me to make people feel. Whether it’s anger, happiness or simply a view into something they’d never get to see otherwise. I hope to gain definition in my life; I hope to continue to learn and grow within my craft and as a person. I want new opportunities in which I’d be able to do more of what I love and additional exposure. Always to grow…. I’d love for someone to take a chance on me and to [be able to] shoot for more humanitarian causes internationally. That is my biggest goal at the moment.
How were you able to get your first assignments?
I started out with two long-term personal projects; those allowed me some credibility in my field. I was approached by several publications that wanted a story they wouldn’t be able to get otherwise. It was a win-win situation for everybody.
Did you find the assignments yourself and build up a portfolio?
I finally decided to stop worrying about not being in Africa and shooting famine or in Iraq documenting the war. As badly as I wanted to go, it dawned on me to take advantage of my situation and shoot one or two stories and do them well. It’s better to shoot one thing well than five things half-assed, in my opinion anyway. But yeah, if I had the chance, I’d be doing some half-assed shooting in those places…hahaha.
I looked for my own projects and I chose two strong stories and stuck with them. I stayed low-key until I had something to approach an agency with. I was still growing and wasn’t ready to go all out until earlier this year, when I submitted my book proposal to powerHouse Books in New York City. One of my biggest issues was editing, and it took this book to learn about saying goodbye to the ones I loved in trade for the best image for the story. I’m still working on that; that’s the hardest aspect for me. I’m not at 100% with my portfolio yet. I need to go back and finish several smaller stories, and then I have two more coming up. After that, I should be where I need to be…hopefully within another year or two.
What sort of training do you have, or is it all self-taught?
I’m self-taught, with a lot of mistakes along the way. I remember getting into my first gallery and they told me to bring in my framed work for a show. Nobody told me that I had to use a specific matte or certain frames. [When I showed up] they said I couldn’t use them and I was out some money. It can be a snobbish scene, but I learned a lot. I also learned that photojournalism is about passion and my passion doesn’t have time for self-centered people. I moved on from that particular gallery.
[From there] I made a list of questions and asked a professional friend of mine to answer them. I also took a one-day private workshop, but the person was more about showing off than teaching me. I went back to practicing everyday and taking advantage of CVS one-hour prints. I’d write the f-stops and aperture info on the back and study them. I’d also look at photographers I admired and mark all the images that I liked and think to myself why. I tried to learn the craft of telling a story. I’m still learning, but the repetitiveness of shooting a long-term project is the best method for me to go back and fill the voids.
What equipment do you use? Do you prefer film or digital? If so, what film stock do you prefer? What length lenses do you typically use? Is there a typical aperture setting you generally use? Do you shoot with multiple cameras?
I’m a Nikon guy, it’s all about the glass — however, I suffered many years without having the low-light capabilities of the Canon products. The new D3 has finally allowed me to start making better images. I felt the D2X had saturation issues and it didn’t work well at above 400 ISO; the D200 was a great backup, but it tended to be soft for my needs. I had a few software issues with the D3, but I’m loving life now.
I mainly stay with a 17-35mm 2.8 lens or the 70-200mm 2.8. I prefer the F 3.4 to 6.3 range when doing photojournalism — it really depends on the situation. I have a backup camera, but I keep it in my bag or car. I freak out when my gear bangs into something.
What has been your most difficult project to work on in regards to emotional fatigue?
By far the Canadian seal harvest, although when I was shooting, I was in my own little world. And I [also] had a few visits with handicapped orphans in Haiti… anything to do with suffering breaks my heart.
Do you ever feel unmotivated or too drained to photograph your subjects? How do you force yourself to keep going when you would rather not take photos?
Only recently. I did a one-hour audio interview with a magazine and I felt they produced a poorly edited version of one of my projects. I lost my faith in responsible journalism at that point and I wanted to cease shooting one of my stories because of it. I put those feelings aside once my camera met my eye during another event I had to shoot.
What was it like working on the slaughterhouse project shown on lightstalkers.com? Was this an assignment or a personal endeavor? How did you gain access? Did this project change the way you feel about buying meat in the grocery store? Change your opinion of the meat industry?
That was a personal project. I wanted something to photograph and thought it would be interesting. I was looking for things out of the scope of my two long-term projects, and since I love Vermont so much, I decided to start looking into it. I support local farming and one of the farmers I use gave me a few numbers. I documented a story on honeybees in Vermont that received a lot of play due to the decline of the honeybee population last year. I suppose that gave my intentions more validation.
I remember someone in the slaughterhouse saying the two things you don’t want to see in a slaughterhouse is a human hair on the table or a camera. It didn’t really change my views on the meat industry because it was a small, organic slaughterhouse and the cattle were free-roaming, grass-fed. Im sure standard large-scale slaughtering methods would disturb me immensely.
How do you get access to groups that are by nature very insular? Do you generally bring your camera with you the first time and begin taking photos immediately, or do you spend some time with them, gaining their trust?
I make contact and only go if I’m welcomed. I try to go a day early and leave a day later. I leave my camera in the car and introduce myself around. I try to get to know them and for them to know me. It’s all about the connection; without it, you’re only getting half the vision. You need a project like this to be natural. You’re supposed to be a fly on the wall and capture things in a way to define the situation. It’s not meant for shock value per se, but you need a balance of images to reflect the event.
I’m not trying to gain trust really, I’m just being human and when that moment comes to take a picture, I take it. I also ask everyone if it’s okay before I document a sketchy subject. Sometimes you don’t have that opportunity and you go by the visual acceptance of your subject. It’s a talent most photojournalists have; some, on the other hand, don’t respect that permission and take the shot anyway. In reference to my two major projects, I respect people’s space.
What kind of trouble have you had, if any, with your subjects, and how did you deal with it (i.e., resistance, aggression, violence even)?
One time some skinheads had gotten pretty intoxicated during a concert. It didn’t help that they didn’t speak English. I’m pretty big and one skinhead decided he wanted to start pushing me, not really moshing (a skinhead dance), but like a test of strength. I blew it off until he went near my camera and I told him if he did, it was going to the next level real fast – kinda talking in tongues since he didn’t speak English. But anyway, everybody else came right away and put him in his place. It was really nothing, to be honest. I’ve worked in the personal protection industry since I was 17 years old, plus I do plenty of crazy things as I’m an adventure junkie. Being polite and knowing how to talk to people in a rational manner works 95% of the time.There was also a time when I was in Cite Soleil. Haiti was having a lot of unrest during that period and I remember being in the back of a pickup truck driving around with several gang members while being shot at from a distance. Two members sitting next to me had to be 15 or 16 years old. There were some situations with loaded weapons, and I had to actually take rifles away from these kids and show them how to hold them properly so I didn’t get shot by an accidental discharge. That’s where some Marine training came in handy.
How much time do you typically spend with your subjects, like with the KKK project?
I go early and I stay late; I need to see and feel the situations in order to capture and define the time on film. If they had an event and I could afford to go, I did. I think I know more about the Klan then most — I understand that there are many different groups. Most people in the Klan stick to their geographical location. I’ve shot different groups in almost every state, so I have a broader knowledge, allowing me to produce a better-rounded summation of what they’re about, generally speaking that is. I got to the point where I had enough material to produce a book on the Klan, so I went back as much as possible to polish to the final product.
When you throw yourself into an assignment that you do just for yourself, how are you able to make ends meet?
I try to save money whenever possible and credit cards are indispensable.
Do you feel like the route to a photojournalism career is to travel overseas and bring back a body of foreign work to get noticed by galleries, publications and photo editors? What advice do you have for documentary photographers?
I used to think that way. As I mentioned above, it was tearing me apart not to be in Iraq or the latest catastrophe abroad. It still does, to be honest. But you can find good stories close to home if you look. Try and find something powerful that you can shoot as much as possible — learn it, know it, breathe it, and constantly look back and reassess your vision. Try new angles, take chances. You can always go back and shoot it again. Turn it into a long-term project and watch how your vision changes over the year. You’re sure to grow.
If you get some disposable cash, find something interesting and go a few times a year. It’s a way of life if it’s truly a passion; it’s not about competition or being the best. It’s being humble and learning about people. I know that’s all true when it comes to everybody else, but when I’m depressed, it’s all a bunch of crap…hahaha.A body of work is only a body of work; it’s got to be good or at least different. I started out with it being different. Over the years I think I’ve reached good — well, with the Klan project anyway. The total body of work will be published in April by powerHouse Books. I hope –- okay, I pray — it receives positive reviews by my peers.
What’s your next project? How are you finding new subjects? Are organizations/outlets approaching you, or are you approaching them with project ideas?
I’m going to document the God Hates Fags Church in detail this July, and I’m always sending out emails and trying to make something happen. I’m currently doing a long-term project on dying with hospice and I hope to connect with more humanitarian organizations. I still have more stuff to do in Haiti, now that my gear is in order, and I’ll continue to document skinheads until I can produce another book. Other then that, I have to keep some secrets for myself….
Anthony Karen’s site.
Anthony Karen’s lightstalkers.com page.