Photographer Anthony Karen’s use of the word sir in emails might stem from his service in the Marine Corps. It could also be indicative of his humanitarian side and his affiliations with charities including Friends in Deed, Smile Train, and the Humane Society.
That simple level of politeness is also a small window into how he has been able to document as a photojournalist many of the most feared, secretive, and marginalized pockets of society around the world.
On his website, Karen writes that his passion for photography began during a trip to Haiti, where he documented Vodou rituals around the country. From there he has created series about Skinheads, the Westboro Baptist Church, and the Ku Klux Klan.
Gaining access to secretive pockets of society is based upon trust, something Karen doesn’t take lightly and that he sees as a foundation of photojournalism. “It’s a moment that’s constantly validated, the wordless acceptance into someone’s personal space with a camera,” Karen wrote via email.
To gain access into the Klan, Karen initially reached out to members through contact information on websites via phone calls and emails. His began photographing a Klan event in 2005, and after earning the trust of the members, he was allowed to photograph without restriction.
During an interview with FotoEvidence, which published his book White Pride, Karen spoke about his level of access to one of the least-understood organizations. “I think a lot of the credibility I’ve earned also stems from my basic philosophy that you need to give some of yourself in order to receive anything back. I spend time with people, I listen to what they have to say, and I treat each person as an individual. I don’t have to believe what they believe, but whenever I’m in someone’s space, I feel I’m obliged to observe without judgment.That's not to say I wouldn't intervene if I felt a situation called for it, but I choose to observe moment to moment and simply take in what I see and experience without presumption or pretext,” he said.
He also isn’t in a rush once he begins a project and is always looking to go deeper into a story while attempting to maintain a level of neutrality. “I have a keen interest in religious ideology and marginalized subject matter. I prefer documenting long-term stories, because I feel a story can always be improved upon; there’s always some nuance that you’ll discover with subsequent trips. This methodology has proven helpful as I develop as a photojournalist,” Karen said. “The more time and experience I amass, the deeper my self-criticism has become, even in editing, but hopefully always for the better of a project. I find I challenge myself more and always strive to go even deeper.”
Karen’s ability to gain access into the KKK led to a collaboration with the Discovery Channel on a documentary about the Klan titled KKK: Beneath the Hood.
“Whenever you’re granted access into a person’s intimate space, you’re establishing a relationship based on trust,” he said. “In my opinion, trust is trust. That doesn’t suggest I become complacent with my situation to the point of exploitation, nor does it mean I’m selectively disregarding certain moments to depict something that is not. I do admit I try to offer a balanced perspective as to my experiences within marginalized organizations. ... [T]o consciously distance myself will in effect (or could) create bias.”