What Makes an Activist?

The Mantle sat down with acclaimed photojournalist KK Ottesen to discuss her latest book, "Activist: Portraits of Courage."



ACTIVIST: Portraits of Courage_KK Ottesen
Activist: Portraits of Courage, written and photographed by KK Ottesen. Image courtesy of Chronicle Books.


I have long been fascinated, and in some cases almost exhausted by, the sheer determination and energy it takes to be an activist. At any point in history. We admire, or revile, those for whom a seminal "moment" compels them to take action in a way we ourselves might not.


Technology allows entire movements to gain hundreds of thousands of followers, protesting or fundraising virtually. But what is it that actually moves the standard bearers to take up the flag and take actual, real-world, physical action? For every Angela Davis or Harry Belafonte there are many more who never took up the cause.


When cafes were still open and Covid-19 seemed like a "far away, contained" sort of problem, I met acclaimed photojournalist, Washington Post Magazine contributor, and author KK Ottesen for a coffee and a chat about her latest book, Activist: Portraits of Courage (Chronicle Books, 2019).


This collection of Ottesen’s close-up black and white photographs of over 40 activists is paired with interviews about their diverse paths to activism. The luminaries include well, and some lesser known, figures: Ai-jen Poo, Tarana Burke, Linda Sarsour, John Lewis, Bernie Sanders, Bonnie Raines, Pete Souza, and even Edward Snowden.


The following is an excerpt from our discussion, edited for length and clarity.




Morgan Forde: So how did you come up with this idea? I'm familiar with your first book, Great Americans, which was also based on individual interviews, although not featuring activists specifically. But where did this book come from?



KK Ottesen: There are a couple places. When I was an undergraduate I actually studied political theory. I was interested in government and philosophy and how they come together. So it's just always been something of a way that I've seen the world.


And then, just as things have been happening in the country for the last, chunk of time, not just for the 2016 election, but certainly exacerbated by that, there is just such a mess and people are not talking to each other. They’re so increasingly polarized and there’s echo chambers with people not even reading newspapers anymore. I mean we're losing whatever shared dialogue, culture, whatever it is that we have and it's dangerous and clearly counterproductive.


And so, for this book I was curious about how this has happened before in other periods like the 50’s and 60’s and how it’s been approached, and what has worked, what hasn't, and what lessons have been learned, and then just on a very personal level, what sort of inspiration can you find in rather uninspiring times?


I was curious about people who just took risks and said, "you know, things need to change, and I'm willing to make sacrifices to make it happen." So I just thought this would be a good way to try to contribute to creating some sort of dialogue with my own skills of writing, photography and listening to people. Get those stories out there.



MF: When I got a copy in the mail and I saw all the black and white, close up, stripped back portraits I thought it was a really cool choice. Because typically, when you see these people photographed, they're angry or they're in front of a crowd, and it's not very personal.



KO: And that's exactly right. Obviously what they did was important, but really for each activist I was exploring what led them to activism in the first place. So there's the individual decision to get involved in something, whatever it was, and to grow that sense of agency. That, "now if I do something, then I can actually make a change," sensibility.


I did it the way I did with the very close sort of intimate portraits so you feel like, ideally, you're sitting down with them. Maybe someone’s like, "oh, I don't agree with them at all. I’d never talk to them." I can understand where those readers are coming from, so I want to try to create some of those links between readers and the people in the book.


And I’d say to those readers hesitating to get involved in a particular cause, it doesn't have to be the angry protests. I think that was one of the stereotypes that was blown out for me writing this book. That it's just not a big part of it, and not a big part of what those people are. You have to be such an idealist to spend your entire life trying to change something. You have to believe that it’s possible because why would you do it otherwise? It would never work, right?


And so all these people just have this very strong sense of optimism and love as opposed to the angry hate which I think is kind of misunderstood a lot of times when you think about activists.


There are many ways that you can make change and there are many paths to it. So I wanted people to see possible entry ways that they can use whatever their tool is to do something without the pressure of thinking you have to have hundreds of people show up at a rally. You don't. You could have one person and you can really make a difference.



MF: And, there’s the way it looks different over time, too. In the book you talk to some of these people who have been activists through all these different periods of time which I thought was great because people tend to think of activism as "the Civil Rights movement was this chapter" and then "Black Lives Matter is this chapter," "feminism is these chapters," but a lot of times, it's a lot of the same people that are living and working through all these chapters of history, oftentimes simultaneously.



KO: Yeah and that was amazing. When you speak with somebody older it's so amazing. It's so tender, just the intergenerational mentorship that you see in some of these people. Folks like Harry Belafonte, who organized the March on Washington and then helped organize the Women's March and was sort of the sage that everybody went to try to talk with about it.


And so I think that, intergenerationally, there are different ways to be an activist. The tools change, so yes, now things can go viral whereas they didn’t before. But in a different way, like that iconic photograph of John Lewis on the bridge, there's certain things that stay with us and help crystallize what happened. Take Rosa Parks, for example. Other people refused to move on the bus before she did. But that was the one iconic photo that captured the moment and then things changed.


Ai-jen Poo_ACTIVIST_KK Ottesen
Ai-jen Poo is a labor organizer and social activist focusing on domestic worker rights. She was one of Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People" in 2012, and published her first book The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America in 2015. Image by KK Ottesen, courtesy of Chronicle Books.


So I think the other point is that there are so many people like the ones in the book. This is not a definitive book of major activists. There's so many people that are behind each and every one of these stories.


All these things that people are doing make a difference at some point. Some of them are obvious and go viral, or get written up in the history books, but many of them don't. And they're still out there. And they may be just as influential in their own right, and/or they may be what influences the next person who we then find out about.


So, the human need to do something is so compelling and so widespread that I think I was hoping that would also be something readers would pick up on.



MF: I think it's interesting as well that you mention intergenerationality. Have you seen reactions to either this book or other things that you've done, where parents say, "this is how I can talk to my kids about being an activist in a productive way"?



KO: I think so. It's so interesting because kids love the stories. I've spoken with a number of kids about this book and I have kids who are 10 and 12. So they know these stories and it's definitely shaped the way they see what they can do — seeing young activists or hearing about what older activists did when they were young.


When they hear about these activists as a kid, and what they went through and why they chose this, suddenly it hits them in a different way. And so they go, "oh, you know, okay, I could actually maybe mobilize something."


My daughter just started like picking up trash in front of her school. She gets this little group, they go early in the morning, it's freezing outside. She brings doughnuts. And then seventh and eighth graders gather before school to pick up their little area of the city because they've seen Greta Thunberg and people who remind them that you can do something about the environment now.


So much of it goes to the idea of agency and seeing yourself as able to do something. If you see all the negativity and if you don't feel like you can do something, then that's a really kind of a sad and almost dangerous place to be. But look, there are ways to do something about it. It just makes you feel so much better about your possibilities, and you'll be a more useful person.



MF: For people that have been in it for a while, is the backlash and even harassment at times something that you get used to over time, as an activist? Or is just because of the volume that the internet makes it out to be a lot worse now than it was then?



KO: I think probably yes. If you were to talk with Marian Wright Edelman, she’d tell you how you would be dealing with mobs. Like real physical damage, violence, attacks. It was a matter of course. You would crank up your car, but first you would leave the door open in case someone had planted a bomb in it. And you would just get used to it, you could hear bombs popping off all over the city. That's just the way it was.


And so, you know, Twitter trolls are not that bad. They're horrible. They're not as bad, but at the same time death threats are death threats and that's scary.


But she specifically, and John Lewis too, just talked about that feeling of, at some point you just kind of give over to it and you can't be afraid anymore and you just say, okay, and it's almost a release to know, in some sense, you're sort of in harmony with yourself, with your values. Whereas, if you you're afraid and didn't do something because of the threats, that's not a good feeling either.


But you know, there's still the sense that far too many people are lost. And some of the people in the book know lots of people who were killed.



MF: People that, I would imagine, don't get talked about nearly as much the movement figurehead types do.



KO: Exactly. And I think a lot of those folks, they say, "look, you know, the reason to be doing it is because I made it, and they didn’t, for whatever reason, and I've got a responsibility and I still need to do something because I don’t know how much time I’ll have."


Bonnie Raines_ACTIVIST_KK Ottesen
Bonnie Raines, her husband John, and six others broke into an FBI office in 1971, stealing files exposing the agency's attempts to target political activists. The group called themselves The Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI, and their actions remained a secret for 42 years. The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI, written by Betty Medsger, tells their story. Image by KK Ottesen, courtesy of Chronicle Books.


MF: And how much of that factors into them mentoring younger activists, because I have to imagine, there aren't necessarily bombs going off depending on where you are in the world, but looking the eyes of a thirteen-year-old girl that's inspired by Greta and knowing that if she goes down this path there's a lot more difficulty ahead of her, would be hard. Have they talked to you about their feelings on that?



KO: Not sort of as a cautionary tale, I don't remember that, but just the idea of sitting down with them and being very inspired by the fact that people are willing to keep lighting the torch and just keep doing it. I think that that's inspiring for them.


The older people were talking about younger people who are doing something after the Parkland shooting or something else, and they were just really happy to see that going on. 


I don't think anyone would change their path as an activist even though it's a hard battle. I think that they feel so committed to it, that that is the right thing to do, and that it can make a difference. So seeing younger people picking it up, I think, is a beautiful thing and the older activists make themselves available to the next generation. 




MF: On a slightly different note, Edward Snowden is in the book which I thought was a creative choice because people don't associate him with the John Lewises of the world and what he did has kind of been, I don't know that it's been overlooked necessarily, but when you look at what happened with Cambridge Analytica and all these unresolved problems around technology and Fake News, I’m curious to know, what was that interview like for you as a journalist?



KO: I think it's interesting, the way you said it, that Snowden is not seen as someone like John Lewis, and it's true. I mean, certainly people had a negative reaction to a lot of people in the book like, "No! That person’s not like John Lewis!"


But you know, John Lewis is somebody that most people agree has been an incredible freedom fighter, and he has. But, not to argue in favor or not of anybody in there, one of the things I point out in the introduction is that really often, maybe not one hundred percent of the time, but very close to it, people who were pariahs in their time, become heroes. At the time of Dr. King's death, he had a 75% disapproval rating, he was wildly unpopular. Whereas today he is a hero, a national hero.


So I think there are several people in the book where people will, you know, get angry. That's kind of the point, that’s what you're supposed to be. And nobody will agree with everybody in the book because they're across the spectrum. There are a few people at least who will rankle anybody who reads it, but part of the point is to challenge yourself to listen to their story and where they came from.


I had to do the same thing when I was interviewing them. I have a point of view, of course, and some of that is represented in the collection, but I tried to bring in more than my own point of view into the book.


So I think with someone like Snowden, boom, as soon as people saw the cover, you know, I got lots of comments.


You can totally disagree with what he did, but hopefully, you can recognize in what he did how you might have felt about something, how you might have done something, and while it still might not be the same point you end up at, you can at least say, "okay, I get it. I can sort of give people the benefit of the doubt that they are trying to do the right thing."


And, you know, these are hard issues. If he didn't say anything, there's a lot we wouldn't know. I think Snowden’s main point, which I agree with, is that you have to have things out so you can have a debate about them. If people don't know things are going on, they can’t have a debate. But yeah, meeting him was surreal.


As he said in the book, you feel this responsibility as a whistleblower, which is what he calls himself, that if you see something, you feel like you have to do something, not necessarily because of who you are but because you just happen to walk out and see it. You could keep walking. But then that person could do it again. So he said your responsibility is to say something, even if it's uncomfortable or dangerous.



MF: And you could argue in some sense that is how any activist starts out. Some don't necessarily have access to government secrets, but they see a civil rights injustice or someone being discriminated against and, in a way, they blow the whistle on either a cultural issue or "an understanding" that everyone's happy to just keep walking past and pretend doesn’t exist.



KO: That's a great way of putting it. Writ small, writ large, whatever it is, you know, there's something that you’re saying you're not going to tolerate anymore. You've seen it, and you're not going to let it go.




MF: Were there people that you wanted to talk to that you didn't get a chance to?



KO: Yeah, there were. I want to talk to Gloria Steinem, but I was told she was busy for the whole year. But I did find that sometimes once you finally could get it in front of the person themselves, often they were receptive.


Some of it also was I just ran out of time. There weren’t supposed to be as many people as there was in the book in the first place. So I would be happy if I could just keep doing it. There are so many stories, and they're very important to hear.



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