Swiss Photography: The Banality of Evil (Snapshots)

A woman sews patches onto a KKK robe. Credit: Anthony Karen


By Nathan Nye

Anthony Karen is an unusual man. He’s a photojournalist and ex-marine with a fascination for the outsiders and the reviled. I stumbled upon some of his recent work, which is deeply troubling and fascinating- a long term photo study of the KKK in America.

Since 2005, Karen has been contacting and photographing various branches of the Ku Klux Klan and photographing them in their daily lives, both in and out of the hood. The work is engaging and darkly catching. But, since it’s appearing on this blog, you can probably guess, ethically knotty.

Karen is a talented photojournalist. He tends to do long term projects, immersing himself in his subject’s lives and gaining their trust. Karen guards his trustworthy reputation preciously. He believes it’s the key to finding those hidden, undocumented places. Karen says that he does this by being unbiased and simply documenting what he sees. I don’t think what Karen says he is doing is totally possible, particularly given the stigma surrounding the subjects he chooses to work with.

Several of Karen’s projects share a similar theme- documenting a “dark side of society.” In addition to the KKK he’s documented the almost universally reviled Westboro Baptist Church and neo-Nazi/neo-Nazi adjacent groups. The groups he’s chosen to document fill a particular niche in modern American society; they are thought of as the fringe, crazy, and often evil radicals of our day. I would suggest that choosing to engage with these groups is necessarily political. There are at least two feasible agendas at play here. The first would be documentation. In this case Karen believes that the daily truth, ceremony and daily minutiae of the KKK are worth preserving. The second explanation would be to humanize his subjects. We get a rare peak into the relationships and fervor and, yes, pride that individual KKK members have, and this gives us a window that humanizes his subjects. I’m not saying that either of these projects is bad (or good for that matter), but humanization and preservation are agendas. Karen does not cop to this when discussing his work.

In addition to not owning his own angle into the material (whatever it may be), he also doesn’t go into great lengths about the potentially exploitative relationship that his preferred subjects have. To borrow Hannah Arendt’s phrase, the compelling and uncanny banality of evil is probably what makes viewers want to view Karen’s work in the first place. Karen’s success is based on the sensational and uncanny nature of his subjects.

This whole project raises many questions for me. How do we document the ethical pariahs of the world? Is there a way to present utterly human subjects when they’re being utterly inhumane? How do we decide what gets preserved into history, and at what point does a bias become injected into that preservation? Ultimately, to use a tired metaphor, Karen is claims to be the Switzerland of photojournalists. But, I don’t think any kind of blanket neutrality can apply to subjects that deviate this far from the norm. The other direction the metaphor could take is that Karen is Swiss banking and is aware that his apparent neutrality is what allows him to be successful. Regardless, in my mind, the ostensibly value free presentation of subjects like the KKK are either not totally honest or done in the interest of self-preservation. And to me, the motive of the work can be just as important as the work itself.

Want more? Hit us up at @KenanEthics, and we’ll keep the conversation going!