With the current state of things in the United States, people have taken to the streets to protest the country’s systemic racism as well as other deeply rooted injustices – discrimination against BIPOC people, the LGBTQ+ community, etc. Photographers are playing a crucial role in documenting what’s going on from one coast to the other as well as in spreading awareness about police brutality and the government’s response to the demonstrations. Katelyn Kopenhaver is one of them, and after George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the Minneapolis Police, she felt the obligation to capture the protests both in New York City (where she’s based) and Minneapolis.
Even though mainstream media has been usually focusing on the violence, the fire and the looting, Kopenhaver’s approach differs radically. Instead, she focuses on the calm moments pre and post protest, on the people attending them, and through her work, she raises questions about what happens before and after the images we’re used to seeing on TV and big newspapers. By engaging in conversations with attendants, she gives photographs more layers of depth and understanding, of empathy – something more photographers should strive for. In today’s interview, we speak with Katelyn about attending demonstrations as a photographer, the magic of photography, and how she’s living these crucial times in history.
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To begin, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? When was the first time you picked up a camera? And how did that moment lead you to where you are now as a photographer in New York City?
Sure! You know it’s ironic I ended up picking up a camera in the first place because when I was very young, like five or six years old, I hated when my parents recorded me. I would start crying and freaking out, and I think this phase potentially contributed to how I perceive the camera as an object of power. I often see it as a weapon – it’s a serious thing to be in front of or behind. Even the language associated with photography is quite violent. Nevertheless, I was fascinated with what the camera produced.
Around age thirteen, I noticed a black and white photograph my brother took of our family dog, and I immediately began with darkroom photography. After high school, I went to community college for two years, where I focused on fine art to increase my skills and keep myself challenged. I always found the teachers and professors who pushed and encouraged me. This helped me a lot. I have a serious work ethic, and I’m quite a perfectionist, which was developed from all my years of horseback riding. Horses are a passion of mine that will never tire. Thanks to my parents, I was fortunate to compete, ride, and be a barn rat for many years starting as early as age six. The rigorous sport and feisty horses contributed so much to who I am, it is invaluable – I could talk about horses forever.
In 2013, I made my way to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan after accumulating enough scholarship and grant money to attend. Since graduation in 2016, I have been working as a freelance artist and photographer, taking on commercial assignments, exhibiting in galleries, and collaborating with brands.
How would you describe your style of photography? Do you enjoy working with one particular element such as people or do you like to experiment with a variety of subject matter?
It is hard to pinpoint precisely because I have many ways I use photography and appreciate the medium. I feel like I’m a blend of an anthropologist and a journalist. Sometimes I make pictures, and sometimes I see pictures; it depends on what I am photographing and why. When I use photography to document another medium such as performance or installation, I use the camera to strictly record. When I capture someone’s portrait, I have different things I’m looking for and striving for. I use the camera as a way to study people; the camera gives me access that I would not typically have. Portraiture is also a collaboration between subject, camera, and photographer – this is something I adore. Sometimes quiet spaces and objects speak to me too.
However, I feel the photographer and artist in me are eternally battling. The photographer wants the perfect light, perfect composition, and the artist wants everything messed up, blurry, scratched, and wrong. I think this is why I use various cameras and film types, it keeps me on my toes. Most importantly though, I keep myself looking, discovering different compositions and contradictions have it be in people, the world, or myself.
As a young adult myself living in the United States, witnessing the brutal injustices happening on what seems like a daily basis can bring up a lot of emotions. Did you feel as a photographer that you had an obligation to use your camera as a source of documentation during what feels like revolutionary times? Did you feel any pressure to go out and capture these moments?
Yes. I felt immense pressure, still do. It can be overwhelming and I have to calm myself down. Even when I was a kid, I questioned information and challenged authority. Now, in my mid-twenties, it feels as if this demand for answers is heightened. Considering the horrors that are persistently covered-up, made-up, and forgotten about, you could say I’m angry (and I think a lot of people are). I see myself, I see my cameras, and I feel it’s my duty to move my body and go. Go find the answers to my questions that are only getting more complex. Go use my cameras but also know my place. Go expose, go help, go contribute.
Once New York City declared lockdown, I immediately went outside. What’s going on out there? Why? We often have this perception of what’s going on in an area because of social media, news, and clickbait headlines. Yet, what we see and what we live are almost never aligned. I’m not engrossed in the big headline moments that could get easily branded as spectacles and manipulated by the media, rather the moments of everyday life and the human experience. Exposing that misalignment and the manipulation we undergo daily is what I’m captivated by. The truth.
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Can you tell us why you chose to document the protests in Minneapolis and New York City the way you did? What inspired you to capture the quieter moments from the demonstrations?
There is so much to say but we have to listen, and we have to ask questions. As a society, we are not encouraged to ask questions and listen; we are encouraged to obey and point with our fingers. I’m curious about what people talk about pre and post protest. I’m interested in what people are doing with their bodies, their eyes. I’m also drawn to the surrounding language on advertisements as well as window displays from four, five months ago because the shift in context inevitably changes the meaning of the advertisement. The “What’s Wrong With Your Skin?” photograph is an example of that.
I especially love revisiting the streets after a demonstration. What happens the next morning? Who cleans up? What’s broken? What’s leftover? What do people do when they get home? What’s gone? Who won? I find myself going back to the scene of a crime or an event, walking around a space where something cruel happened. Something enigmatic lurks in the aftermath that draws me in.
Did you feel as though you were a protestor documenting your own personal experience or were you a photographer documenting the experience of others?
At the beginning of Covid-19 (mid-March), I began taking photos with a banner stating ‘Epstein is the worst kind of virus’ in iconic locations such as the sex trafficker and predator, Jeffrey Epstein’s old estate in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. In my art practice, I expose open secrets in conjunction with my own experience. These open secrets are ugly truths that many people don’t want to talk about or see, such as sex trafficking, psychopaths, pedophilia, and abduction. This subject matter is crucial and highly personal to me. With the current protests, I feel like a documentarian recording one of the biggest, most controversial and uncertain times in history.
However, I don’t want to claim, take away, speak for, or insist I know someone else’s experience or story because that would make me a fraud. Rather, I use my camera cautiously to understand and learn about those perspectives separate from my own, encourage empathy on a broad scale, and engage in a dialogue. Photography helps me learn more about others, thus myself. I want to highlight the injustices, show them, expose them, help where I can.
Some of my favorite photographs that you took are the group shots and individual shots taken of the people of NYC and Minneapolis. Can you speak about the kind of interactions you encountered as you were taking their photographs?
Thank you! I am currently working on a documentary film, Who is Behind the Mask, about the coronavirus and other injustices in our country. I took several of the portraits after interviewing the subjects, so they were relaxed and excited to be photographed. Asking people to be interviewed was interesting though. Some people would say ‘Oh, you won’t like my opinion on this or that,’ and immediately we would all encourage them to speak because we knew it would be good – and it was. It was exceptional and very moving to interview and meet people all over Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.
When filming or photographing, I usually don’t pose people because I like to see how they naturally hold themselves. Many were defiant and proud, and I aim to capture just that. With some, I had to tell them not to smile. This is what we’re trained to do when we see a camera, right? That’s so fascinating to me. When on the fly, I often approach people with unique fashion (not always) because what people wear says so much about them, and I have an affinity for unique styles. Sometimes I’m more sneaky (or I like to think so) and I don’t ask; it depends on the situation. I’ve noticed that the camera shutter’s sound turns a lot of people off; it’s like a bullet or something – when I record video, people don’t seem to notice because you don’t have the sound in the background.
I think about myself, a young woman with a camera. I smile and say hello. I’m genuinely curious, and I think people can feel that in my approach. Strangers usually don’t object to me because I’m not very threatening in my body language or voice; I use that to my advantage.
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When you’re in your element, is there a secret to capturing ‘the perfect’ moment/photograph? Do you know when you have captured something meaningful?
No secret, it varies based upon the situation of why, who and how I am photographing. I know when I capture beauty or witness a moment unfold, and that is so exhilarating. I also get surprised. Photographs I look at later reveal elements that I did not see in the moment, such as the ‘Black Beauty photograph’ in Minneapolis, for instance. These women are so stunning, and the text around them was suited ideally as well as the Deliciously Fun ad, that aggressively and ironically sits in the background of the Times Square police and news reporters pre-protest. Fun for who, I wonder?
It is impossible to see and be aware of every element around you, but this is why I love and hate the camera, it doesn’t discriminate. Some photographs age well with irony and contradiction as the context around us changes. Within portraiture, all the photographs I make are like mini-bonds with that person. It takes a lot of energy, but I love it. It’s so fast and then it’s over, and I only hope I captured them with justice.
Your works vary from strong black and white photographs to colorful portraits. When it comes to editing, how important is this step for you in narrating the intended story you hope to tell through your photographs?
I usually have a lot of text with my photo stories because I feel photographs can be so silent. I love mismatching color and black and white; digital and analogue; formal medium format film with a gritty disposable camera film. I choose to keep it unexpected, not so cookie cutter. However, I also am curious and open to observing how other creatives edit my work! It’s good for me not to be in control all the time.
What does the future hold for you as an artist? Will you continue to document protest and other socially-driven events?
As a photographer and multimedia artist, I want to continue to have a foot in both ponds, one in the commercial world, and one in the art world. I will continue to expose the harsh realities and open secrets in the world and document social events I feel strongly about because I cannot not. I also appreciate capturing portraits and receiving assignments in any which way. I work well and enjoy the challenge of parameters.
Are there any new projects you are currently working on?
I do have some projects I have been working on! For example, Who is Behind the Mask is a documentary film I have been shooting and currently editing with sound designer/producer Fred Helm since May 2nd. The film exposes the experiences and events of New York City and Minneapolis residents during coronavirus. Making a film is a super new territory for me, so I am excited to explore this area more.
Where Does the Truth Lie? is a piece I made for 125-year-old female supporting art gallery Pen and Brush. They launched a 200$ or Less artist initiative to help support artists during the time of Covid-19. During this time, I have been grappling with how often our perception gets controlled, mandated, and conditioned. We live in a world where the line between fact and fiction is non-existent. Truth frequently gets replaced with pleasure to serve other agendas and keep the public eye managed. On the contrary, the truth can also persist. Washing up time and again, haunting us, making itself unavoidable to the point where the only recourse is to face it. You can see it on this link.
Epstein Is the Worst Kind of Virus is a performance and photography project dating back to mid-March of this year. The project involves me revisiting spaces where Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell have walked. Recently, the banner just made it to the news! If anyone ever wants to reach out, send me a message on Instagram @katelynkopenhaver or email [email protected].
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