Viral Image: Dave Killen’s Photo Of “Naked Athena”

The image of a nude protester named “Naked Athena,” shown here from Dave Killen’s twitter feed, @killendave, was captured this past weekend during the protests in Portland, Oregon.

WARNING: This story contains images of graphic nudity that some might find offensive.

Images of a nude woman appearing in the midst of political protests and uprisings may seem like a surreal juxtaposition. However, such images have been part of art history at least as far back as Eugène Delacroix’s oil painting of “Liberty Leading the People” in 1830. However, you don’t have to bury your head in a history book to see a real-world example of a nude woman appearing amidst protesters and standing off against armed troops. This past weekend, in Portland, Oregon, a city which has been reeling in recent weeks from violence and protests, photographer Dave Killen, who shoots for The Oregonian, captured one such image on the streets of Portland.

The image Killen captured, which first appeared on The Oregonian website and then on many websites afterwards, including The New York Post, depicts a naked women, photographed from behind, sitting in the middle of the street with her legs open, about 15 or 20 feet from what appears to be a line of about a dozen or so masked and armed policemen. (There is also video captured by others of the incident.)

We reached out to Killen to ask him a few questions about the image:

Interview with Photographer and Videographer, Dave Killen 

Who are you and what is your title? What is your role at The Oregonian?

I’m Dave Killen, 43, and I’ve been at The Oregonian for about 9.5 years.  My title is photographer / videographer. I’m a film/video editor by trade, and that’s what I was initially hired to do at the paper, but my role has changed over the years as our visuals staff has shrunk. I grew up in Portland but lived and worked in other cities (NYC, Minneapolis) as a film editor before I took this job in 2011. My dad was a longtime Pacific Northwest newspaper journalist (he retired in 2015; we had a few years together at The O), so I’ve always been immersed in journalism, even when it was not my actual job.

As for video, over the past few years I’ve shot, directed and edited three large documentary video projects at The Oregonian: “Thin Ice” (about a polar bear and climate change), “Ghosts of Highway 20” (about the marginalized victims of a previously unacknowledged serial killer) and “No Mercy” (about a woman who was horribly victimized by her father and disregarded by the international relief organization he co-founded).

How and why did you capture the shot of a protester named “Naked Athena”? What was going on before, during and after this was taking place?

This happened near the end of the night that began on Friday, July 17th.  It was the early morning of Saturday, about 1:45 a.m., when she appeared. I was with a group of protesters who had just been pushed back out of the main area of confrontation by federal officers in camouflage gear. They formed a line, along with what I believe were Portland Police officers, though I can’t be sure (the DHS uniforms and Portland Police uniforms look very similar). They had just cleared the main area with tear gas-like gas and “less lethal” munitions, so relative to that, things had calmed down slightly as they held the intersection. 

She approached from the north (walking south on 3rd avenue towards Taylor and the line of officers) completely naked except for a hat and face mask. She was quickly approached by several photographers but ignored them and kept going towards the police. She walked back and forth through the intersection parallel to the line of officers. They fired pepper balls near her feet when she got closer. At one point a protester with a homemade shield got in front of her, but she sidestepped him…she didn’t appear to want or need his help. She struck various poses. I didn’t see this at the time, but in some of my photos I’ve noticed since that she has some blood on one of her feet. I don’t know when she suffered this injury.

I was a bit wary of photographing her, knowing that we likely wouldn’t be able to use the images because of the nudity, and also that it might not be the best representation of the night’s events as a whole. I mostly stayed off to the side, though I did duck into the street to shoot a few frames, one of which is the one that has been widely distributed.

After ten to fifteen minutes, the officers pulled back and she was gone. I’m not sure exactly when she left as I had shifted my focus to the police by that time.

Did you shoot this image on your phone, on a mirrorless camera, DSLR, etc? Was there a particular lens you used?

I photographed her using a Canon 1 D X, one of two I carry, and a 24-70mm f2.8 lens at 50mm, 1/250 sec. and ISO 16000. I’ve use two Canon DSLR cameras to cover the protests—one with an f/2.8 24-70mm lens and the other an f/2.8 70-200mm. I sometimes carry an f/1.2 50mm and had it that night, but only used it early in the evening. 

Why do you think this photo has gotten people’s attention?

Probably a lot of different reasons. Nudity, of course, always draws people’s attention (and that was one of my concerns initially…the fact that she was nude would overshadow everything else. It’s also quite a contrast between her and the police, in terms of vulnerability: What they’re wearing or not wearing, and the bravery, or lack there of, that goes along with that. It seems like the kind of photo that grabs people’s attention and then allows them to interpret it in lots of different ways. 

You mention in your twitter feed (@killendave) that you encourage people who see this photo of yours also “to seek out the totality of the coverage of what has been happening in Portland since late May.” Why did you say this? Do you think there’s something about this photo that might be confusing or misconstrued?

I think this photo has a lot of potential to distract from the reasons behind the protests and who is leading them. There’s a lot of discussion online about it being an example of a non-Black person taking over the spotlight of a Black movement. A lot of people are assuming she’s white, and I’d be very careful about that–I don’t know if that’s correct. But if the image is read that way, I can definitely understand this concern, and again, this is one of the reasons I was wary of using this photo initially.

In addition to that, the moment itself isn’t a very accurate representation of either that night or what’s been going on in Portland since late May as a whole. The recent federal response has been very aggressive, with use of force that often seems completely disproportional. If this one photo, which doesn’t explicitly show that, becomes the lone takeaway for anyone on Portland’s protests, that’s inaccurate and unfortunate.

Is there anything else you’d like to comment on regarding this particular photo, or on the photos of protest taking place in Portland and around the country?

Tangential to what we’ve been talking about, it’s very easy to take images out of context. We’re seeing that a lot with the whole “Portland is a war zone!” angle some national outlets are pushing now. It’s important to present the totality of not just each individual night of protests, but also the movement as a whole. This is difficult when a single photograph can be isolated, stripped of its context and used in bad faith online. I don’t have a good solution for this other than imploring people to seek out as much information as they can from reliable local sources.

 

Check out Dave Killen’s twitter feed for more on him and his work.

An excerpt from Dave Killen’s twitter feed, which shows his image of a protester named “Naked Athena.”

 

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