Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Anthony S. Karen on the Rough South

New York-based photographer Anthony Karen has made a career documenting people who are, or who understand themselves to be, living in extremely difficult and challenging circumstances.

This work has taken him to places like Haiti and to Somalia, but it has also taken him inside the worlds of white supremacists and their more colorfully costumed colleagues, the infamous Ku Klux Klan.

The fear that white people do not, or might not, at some future date, run the world is not an exclusively Southern concern.

Anyone who believes that racism and fear-mongering are Southern preoccupations might well consult the Geography of Hate website and note the remarkably wide distribution of rage-tinged language-use across the United States.

Anyone who wants to know more about today's Klan and other organizations devoted to hate can consult the website and other publications of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

But the complex history of the South means that our own legacy of perverting justice and disregarding human dignity through organized intimidation is, or should be, an important concern for all Southerners.

Karen helps us do this through his unflinching documentation of the faces, lives, and cultic practices of folks who make fear and hatred central to their daily lives and identities as Americans.

Karen's first book on these folks, The Invisible Empire: Ku Klux Klan, was released in 2009 by Powerhouse Books.

His second book, White Pride, is just out from FotoEvidence, and is available through iTunes.

Karen also participated in a documentary about the modern day Ku Klux Klan, KKK: Beneath the Hood, shown this past March on the Discovery Channel.

The truly scary thing about Karen's images, of course, is that they show us that folks who are consumed by fear and rage and who believe that the categories of race explain their fear and rage look like ordinary folks, my folks, members of my family, and yours, too, I suspect.

There is something in our society that supports these kinds of attitudes. Some people feel empowered by membership in an organization that reinforces their specialness, their sense of entitlement, their alienation from mainstream America by reinforcing for them an identity formed around fantasies about race and history and privilege.

This identity is an illusion. The stories that support it are fantasies. Karen's work explodes those fantasies by showing us how banal, how superficial, how depressingly ordinary these folks and their ideas and their rituals really are.

Because of his masterful documentation of this aspect of our culture, so much a part of the history of the South, Karen is an Honorary Southern Photographer.

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