The New Republic has published Mark Peterson’s dramatic images of clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend between white nationalists at the so-called “Unite the Right” rally, and counter-protesters who showed up to demonstrate against the rising fascist movement. Peterson has covered US politics since the 1990s. We caught up with him to find out why he covered the rally, what he was trying to accomplish, and how he positioned himself to photograph the white nationalist leaders—and the violence—at such close range.
PDN: What took you down to Charlottesville? Were you on assignment?
Mark Peterson: I went on my own. I’ve been kind of following [white nationalist Richard] Spencer. He had had a rally in June on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Nobody seemed to notice. At that rally he announced he was going to go to Charlottesville and do [this rally] in August. I thought it would be a large rally.
PDN: Why did you start following him, and what cooperation do you have from him?
M.P.: I have no in with him or carte blanche. I’ve just been following in the news what he’s been doing. I’m following [the white supremacist movement] because I think this is kind of the new Civil War in our country and that he—his group [National Policy Institute] is in the forefront of it. In the past when you would look at these groups, people could easily identify their racism and overt violent nature. But [Spencer] seems to have a much more polished message, and seems to be reaching a much larger audience. When his group is around, they’re all dressed in polo shirts, and khakis, and they look like a fraternity of these young men. I think he sails under the radar in a lot of ways, but it’s really creating a movement.
PDN: This work seems to be the next chapter of your Political Theatre project [published in 2016 by Steidl, and honored in the 2017 PDN Photo Annual].
M.P.: Yeah, that’s where I want to go with it, is to this Civil War—I hate to use that term like that, but a lot of minorities in this country say [the Civil War] never did end. This [racial tension] now bubbling up has been going on for a long time.
PDN: What’s your goal in photographing this movement and these events?
M.P.: When I went there [to Charlottesville] I wanted to do some portraits of people and show how quote-unquote normal they might look, but also to show the possible anger that’s just underneath the skin. I thought I would go and make portraits of [Jason] Kessler [who organized the Charlottesville rally], or Spencer and [former KKK leader] David Duke in that environment. But then everything spiraled out of control very fast and it became more about how these people came with shields, and they had flags with metal poles. And the metal poles weren’t to carry the flags, they were to spear people and assault people with. So they came with that intent, and that became apparent really quick, and people were fighting really fast.
PDN: Did you feel in danger? What did it feel like for you, and what precautions did you take?
M.P.: I’m not a conflict photographer and I’m a big chicken, but I’m also not very smart. So I was just kind of wandering through the melee. I got pepper-sprayed, I got hit with objects, and one of the Nazis head-butted me at one point. Yeah, I just kept feeling like it was important to photograph, rather than worry about myself, I would say.
PDN: You were also working at close range. How close were you?
M.P.: I’m not very good with long lenses, and it never feels like a picture to me with a long lens. So that’s why I like to work close. I want people to feel what I’m feeling. So yeah, I’m a few feet away from everybody.
PDN: You mentioned that a Nazi head-butted you, but what sort of OK were you getting to be right there with them, so they wouldn’t beat you up?
M.P.: There was one guy who had a hard hat that said “Commie Killer.” I was photographing him, and he kind of mugged and gave the thumbs-up, and the next guy came along and head-butted me. [Other people] wouldn’t threaten you, but they’d be, “Who are you, why are you here?” I would never respond, because I didn’t want to get into a discussion. I just wanted to keep working. The safest place to be would have been behind one group or the other, but I found better pictures to be in the middle. That’s why I was there.
PDN: So you were right between the two front lines?
M.P.: Yeah, because I wanted to see their eyes, and I wanted to see their intent. I mostly photographed the Nazis. They weren’t looking like, Oh, we want to come here and discuss General Lee and the statue [of Lee, the planned removal of which prompted the rally] and Southern heritage, which is what they claim the rally was about.
PDN: Are there images that you consider particularly strong, or successful at getting at what you were trying to get at?
M.P.: [One was] a picture of a man who had [slave] chains on, and was addressing the Nazis and was saying, “This is what that statue represents.” Next to him was the head of the New York Black Lives Matter group. Another picture that didn’t run was somebody with a [Pan-African] flag, waving it in front of a line of white nationalists. All those people had shields, and this guy just stood there, and waved the flag, and was very strong, and powerful to do that—unafraid.
PDN: I’m not seeing either of those pictures in The New Republic spread online.
M.P.: Maybe they didn’t put them online. But one [they published] is of David Duke. I covered David Duke in the 90s, and to him, [Trump’s election] was a victory. Then if you look [at the picture] of Richard Spencer, he’s standing there with four guys [bodyguards] around him in suits. He’s trying to look like a politician with Secret Service around him, you know? And what he was saying was, “I love the smell of tear gas in the morning.” And he kept saying it like he was being so clever and funny to mimic Robert Duvall from Apocalypse Now.
PDN: Was he aware of you standing there and photographing him?
M.P.: Yeah, he knew I was photographing him. That was in the penned area, where [Spencer and over leaders] were going to speak from. And they weren’t allowing the press in.
PDN: How did you get in there?
M.P. I just kind of snuck in. I walked in with a group, and the whole time I was in there, people kept going, “Who are you? Who are you with?” I kept moving around, and stayed in there a half hour.
PDN: What were you shooting with that you were so under the radar?
M.P.: I don’t think I was under the radar, I was using my usual Canon 5D with a 24-105 lens, and I have this brick of a flash that I carry.
PDN: Did you finally leave or get thrown out?
M.P.: I left because I could sense that things on the street were starting to get crazy and that was more [where the pictures were].
PDN: Where did you go from there?
M.P.: Just before noon, the police told everybody to leave immediately or they’d be arrested, so people dispersed. I was following different groups [around the downtown area], just to see what happened. When the guy drove the car into the anti-fascist group, all of a sudden the Dodge [truck] came backing up onto Market Street. It was badly damaged and I thought: Something’s going on here. So I ran about two blocks [to find] people lying on the street, all injured and hurt. It was sad.
PDN: Where do you go from here, now that these pictures are out? Do you think you might be recognized, and [barred from] future events?
M.P.: I’m going to keep trying to follow people [in the white nationalist movement]. These groups aren’t open to the press, so there’s already a barrier there. We’ll see what I can cover, but I want to continue covering what goes on, because a lot of this tension has been bubbling for a year now.
—Interview by David Walker
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