Photographer and author KK Ottesen’s most recent book, Activist: Portraits of Courage (Chronicle Books, published October 2019, 7 x 9 ¼ in, 300pp, hardcover $35), contains the words and portraits of 41 American activists. The photographs represent activists, ranging in age from 21 to 94, who have been engaged in a broad range of issues from a variety of perspectives. It’s why in this volume, which presents first-person interviews alongside the black-and-white portraits, you’ll not only find longtime icons—Harry Belafonte and Angela Davis, for example—but also new faces, such as Indivisible co-founders Ezra Levin and Leah Greenberg.
The project grew out of Ottesen’s longtime interest in activism and the roles people play in an active democracy. “In recent years, as the discourse has frayed and with all the crazy stuff that’s happening, I thought about the importance of the people who stand up to put things back on course,” she says.
More specifically, she wanted to understand what compels someone to act. “What kind of individual stands up and makes other people uncomfortable? Most of us are hardwired not to stand up but to be nice and polite,” she notes. It wasn’t just why people took action that drove her curiosity but also how they overcame the innate challenges of doing so.
And, she adds, the “point of the book is not so much about the individual causes but the individual decisions to take some action.”
Her hopes for the book? “To get people talking,” Ottesen says. “To show what it takes to move forward—pushing for policy changes or even opening a dialogue.” And to inspire others as much as Ottesen’s subjects have inspired her. “I may not agree with the person, but I understand their choice. And we’re not doing enough of that.”
Going into this project, Ottesen already knew some of the challenges she would face. Her first book, Great Americans, published in 2003, was a “snapshot of the country in a moment of time.” Through research, she found people in all 50 states who bore the same names as American icons. As she traveled around the country, she met, interviewed and photographed Eleanor Roosevelt, a full-blooded Apache; Greta Garbo, born in Italy, a divorced cancer researcher living in Kentucky, and many more. She asked each of them what it meant to be an American and found that “the way they said things was so incredible…you could not make up this group, and that’s what you hope for, a great mix of people.” And that book and experience gave her a solid background to continue creating these wonderful stories.
But, she cautions, “Any time you move a big project into action, it’s all on you. Without your pushing, it doesn’t get done.” From conception to finding a publisher, you’re on your own, she explains. Perhaps the trickiest part of bringing Activist: Portraits of Courage to life was getting in touch with the people she wanted to interview and photograph.
To make connections, “you keep your eyes and ears open. Sometimes you send an email, and occasionally someone responds.” She compares the process to tacking a sailboat—going back and forth, working your way further and further along. It may not be a straight path, but eventually, you get where you want to be.
Some of it is serendipity, but it’s also networking and reaching out, which helps make the necessary connections. “It helped that I was doing profiles for the Washington Post Magazine,” Ottesen says. In fact, a handful of the profiles in the book were originally published in the Washington Post Magazine and were, as she puts it, “a calling card.” One of them even ran as the cover story in the summer of 2017, which later helped her present the idea for the book to publishers.
Still, even when connections are made, there are issues to contend with. Ottesen had been trying to meet with Angela Davis for two years, and even when the interview was approved, something happened and the meeting fell through.
“She’s someone I had an enormous personal interest in for a long time. So I sent one last Hail Mary email right before the book was due.”
The last-minute email worked: Davis’ business manager arranged a meeting for Ottesen with her. But it meant the photographer would have to reschedule a flight to California. Instead, she hopped on a bus to New York. Ottesen says that at this moment during the project, she was nearly out of money, but the bus was cheap enough for her to get from DC to New York, and she didn’t want to miss this opportunity.
There were some obvious figures Ottesen wanted to include in the book: “You start with some of the names like Angela Davis and John Lewis, who you’ve known about for years and have been an inspiration.”
But she felt it was equally important to include others with “a different angle,” such as Pete Souza, who had served as White House photographer for President Barack Obama and President Ronald Reagan. (For both, Souza’s photos documented their day-to-day activities, instead of photographing them from a personal point of view.)
But for Souza, says Ottesen, the current administration is a different story. “He was so appalled at what he was seeing [from the Trump administration] that he felt he needed to say something.” Which Souza does on his Instagram account and in his book, Shade (which is a collection of some of those Instagram posts). In both, Souza presents photos from his years working for President Obama but writes captions that criticize Obama’s successor, President Donald Trump.
There are other figures in the book, as well, who offer a different angle on activism. Take Bonnie Raines, and her late husband, John, who broke into an FBI office in 1971 to acquire and reveal documents proving that the government was illegally spying on communities and activists. They were never caught, but their identities did become known 42 years later. However, it was beyond the statute of limitations. “You need whistleblowers in a democracy,” Raines explained to Ottesen during her interview for the book.
Such interviews require a lot of research, which is a large part of Ottesen’s preparation for her interviews. “I always do as much research as I can before I meet them,” she says, which she believes is what allows her subjects to be themselves, as much as possible. “To strip [away] the formalities. To have an exchange and get to know the person.”
Generally, she prefers to interview her subject prior to the photo session because “it gives you time to watch them for a while—the way they move, their expressions,” and this observation provides a better sense of what to expect when she takes out her camera. And although she starts out with the same set of questions for everyone, “a lot changes in the moment, and it evolves from there. Something may not be very interesting, so we’ll go down a different road.”
The conversation continues while she’s photographing, so “there’s not a lot of posing.” While Ottesen pays attention to the light and the position of her subjects, her main focus is on encouraging people to be natural. “With both photos and writing, I’m not after efficiency,” so she tells them not to worry about their mouths being open or awkward poses because “we’re going to throw those images out.” She adds, you can’t get them to be themselves without that.
Key Moments During The Project
Ottesen says there were certain portraits during the project that were particularly emotional and memorable.
When photographing gun control advocate Gabby Giffords at her home, Ottesen asked her, “What do you want to convey?” Giffords, who was injured in a shooting while serving in Congress, had her fist clenched at the time and said, “Hope, hope, hope.” That moment, Ottesen says, was “so powerful, so brave and so moving.”
Another key moment was her session with Congressman John Lewis: You can see the power of memory on his face when Ottesen photographed him in his office as he recalled being beaten by members of the Ku Klux Klan on the Freedom Rides in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
Ottesen says she learned that in 2009, one of those KKK members—now in his 70s—came to Lewis’ office to ask for forgiveness and was comforted by the Congressman.
Ottesen also photographed Belafonte for this project, in his apartment. “He’s blazingly eloquent,” Ottesen says. And with his more than 70 years of activism, “he’s living history,” she says. Ottesen captured his expressive nature as he talked about meeting W.E.B. Du Bois, having lunch with Eleanor Roosevelt and being a close confidant of Martin Luther King Jr.
By connecting and continuing to have a conversation with Belafonte, Ottesen found that she was able to capture a very personal and meaningful photograph during the photo session.
And, in fact, part of what makes so much of this book moving and accessible is this notion of intimacy, which Ottesen says even applies to the scale of the volume. For instance, Ottesen wanted to avoid producing a large coffee table book. Instead, she produced a book that’s the “size where you can hold it in your hands,” she says, “and interact with the words and the images.”
Ottesen’s Traveling Photography Studio
To photograph portraits of the figures in this volume, Ottesen needed to create a traveling studio of sorts. Key criteria included portability and being able to scale her gear to the spaces available to her.
For example, when photographing Pete Souza, she might use a seamless backdrop and have plenty of surrounding space in her Washington studio. But the next day, she may be taking a portrait of Congressman Lewis and setting up lights in his office, which means she needs to take care not to knock anything over while putting up a backdrop and positioning lights. Then, she may need to fly across the country to photograph Giffords in her home, which means Ottesen may have to explain to airport security that the strange-looking device is actually a Profoto D2 studio strobe, not a weapon.
For camera gear, Ottesen relied on her Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens, employing the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens for tight shots.
For lighting, she’d set up a Profoto D2 or a pair of Profoto B1s. While she tended to prefer the D2’s light output more than the B1’s, the latter is smaller and more convenient for travel and shooting in small spaces.
She generally used a transparent umbrella as a modifier and took advantage of the Profoto Air Remote to adjust lighting. She’d occasionally position an additional light between the subject and the backdrop to achieve more separation of the two.
Although she didn’t often have the luxury of shooting in a studio for this project, when she did, she shot against a seamless backdrop. She wanted the backgrounds to be dark, to elicit the same general feeling but not be exactly the same. She had more of a background choice when shooting in studio, but for traveling, she packed a black fabric cloth.
Depending on the space, she draped or clamped the fabric over a door, using gaffer tape to attach it to a wall or hang it from light stands. Dark seamless or cloth provided “the simplicity of being able to concentrate on the subject” rather than a distracting background that would draw attention away from the person. And she chose black for her traveling backdrop because “you don’t have to light it, and it doesn’t show wrinkles as much” as lighter colors. And cloth folds up easily.
Not surprisingly, Ottesen chose black-and-white for all the book’s photos. “I love black-and-white, especially for portraits. You filter out so much of the [visual] noise, and it allows you to focus on the person, their face lines, their eyes, their expressions.”
A perfect case in point is her portrait of Lewis. “You can see the worry line in the middle of his forehead. You get pulled into the vortex of his memory; it gives me the chills. It’s one of my favorites.”
Although she shot everything in color since the Washington Post generally prefers color, Ottesen converted the portraits to black-and-white using a combination of Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop and Nik Silver Efex Pro.
“There’s too much information in color. I love the simplicity of black-and-white and the ability to concentrate on a person’s face and movement.”