A few weeks ago I spoke to a large room of people at the Julia Dean Photo Workshops in Los Angeles about my work on the KKK. Late last year I received the Berenice Abbott Prize for an Emerging Photographer due to that body of work. Julia flew me out to for the opening which coincided with the grand opening at their new location in West Hollywood, printed, matted and framed the entire show and wanted me to speak about my work on the Klan. Because I had given them all the text I have written about that body of work, I spent some time thinking about what else to say about the pictures, the people in them, and my experiences.
I started with the idea that people do not always act based on reality. They act based on the stories they hear about reality. So, if you hear a story about someone saying something negative about you, it will most likely upset you, even if the story is not true. This is true about nations, and religions, and it is true about races. This is very important to understand because some stories are truly dangerous. Millions of people have died because of stories that were told. Nazis told stories about Jews. The Hutus in Rwanda told stories about the Tutsis. Whites told stories about blacks. Stories are being told today about gay people. Stories are being told about immigrants. Stores are being told about Muslims. And if people believe some of these stories, thousands, maybe millions of people will die. This business of stories its not just bedtime stories it’s lifetime stories. It’s life and death stories.
One of the most profound stories from the Klan work came from one of the young men in my pictures. As I listened for an entire summer about what David believed, and his explanations about why he believed it, I wondered if there was something deeper going on with his involvement, something behind it all.
He used scriptures from the Old Testament whose context I had little to no understanding of to justify his membership in the Klan. Finally on one of the last nights I was in Mississippi, while he sat on the hood of his car he told me about his mother and how two black men murdered her back in 1992. This story was never among his reasons for joining the Klan. Finally we had arrived at a reason that made sense, albeit wrong, it made his involvement understandable. Later that same night, he continued to explain his position and he used a scripture from the New Testament,
John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
…that whoever believes in him.
Immediately I asked him about my friend, who was a strong believer in Jesus and who goes to Mass every weekend. My friend was African American. Would he be permitted everlasting life?
David paused a moment and said he had never thought about it that way before. He said, based on the scripture, he thought my friend would have eternal life.
Listening to one story lead to another story, which months later lead to an email that David wrote me. He said, “Chris, I’ve been thinking a lot about your interviews and your questions and I think the Klan has it all wrong. I’m leaving.”
All of that because of some questions.