An Interview with Spotlight Artist: Ken Schles
By Ashley Yu
Ashley Yu: Our latest issue is called Risk. In what ways do you think your photographs reflect that theme?
Ken Schles: There’s an inherent risk in the way I’m approaching the subject matter. Trump has energized a lot of people to stand up for their beliefs that wouldn’t have previously. I’d probably count myself among them. I’m definitely risking my bodily self. I’ve been arrested 8 times in the last 14 months.
Ashley: If you don’t mind, would you want to tell us how that happened? Was it the presence of the camera that threatened the authorities?
Ken: I’ve been arrested for different reasons. When established powers do not offer avenues for discussion and isolate themselves, it’s our duty to actively engage in civil disobedience to bring such issues to the fore. When you protest with civil disobedience, you’re breaking the law. So, it wasn’t the camera itself that caused a problem. In fact, many people who get arrested are streaming things live or videotaping. It’s an important tool to establish a counter-narrative to what may be in the media.
Ashley: How did you first get into photography?
Ken: I went to in Cooper Union back in 1978. I was hoping to become a painter and was in love with the prospect. Part of the foundation program was a photography class. I wasn’t looking forward to it but my girlfriend at the time gave me her camera—a single lens reflex camera. Photography solved a lot of problems that I was having with painting.
Ashley: What kind of problems did you encounter with painting that photography enabled you to do?
Ken: Painting felt isolating. I’d be in a studio, staring at a canvas, and the canvas was staring back at me. There was a whole world out there I wanted to engage. I was fearful and the city was incredibly dangerous--the crime rate was crazy–people were being stabbed on the street. I saw the camera as a tool to gird me against the fears that I had.
Ashley: In our current state of political turmoil, what would you say is the intersection of art and photography with politics?
Ken: Photography is a tool that serves many masters and it functions differently according to the context and the creator. That intersection is fundamental and present right now. Just as there are wars of words, there are wars of images.
Ashley: But there are a lot of people who feel that protesting is “all talk, no action”. What’s your opinion on that matter?
Ken: It’s shocking how much it does do. It may not change the outcome immediately, but it sets the stage for discussions and for change later on. Very little in life has an immediate outcome. For example, when Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to be a Supreme Court Justice, people started protesting. Even the Democrats in the Senate said, “There is no way we’re fighting this. On paper, he looks unassailable.” I don’t think Dr. Christine Ford would have testified if the protestors weren’t there. The rape allegations wouldn’t have come out. And I can go back to the GOP Tax Fight. That’s another one the protestors lost, but everyone on the street knows that the tax bill was a total sham. I have a quote from Frederick Douglass, can I read it to you?
Ashley: Of course.
Ken: “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning...Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
Protests are a direct response. Nothing’s going to change unless you ask. Sometimes it’s as simple as going up with an empty bowl and saying, “please, sir, can I have some more? This isn’t right. I need a little bit more.”
Ashley: Your style is very raw and realistic, similar to photojournalism. Would you call yourself a photojournalist?
Ken: I’ve always had this difficulty myself. I do like to be present in the moment and be engaged with what I’m taking pictures of, but I think it’s apparent I also project my emotional reactions into what I shoot and how I shoot. As an observer, you can’t be anything but subjective. By being present, you get a kind of insight that you can’t get if you’re coming in from the outside. I had a painting professor who would talk about “making a mark on the canvas.” You can always tell if the mark is honest or insincere. The same is true with photographs.
Ashley: Is there anything you haven’t had the opportunity to share that you feel would benefit the story?
Ken: I was thinking, before you called, about the idea of “risk.” In general, little in life gained without risk. That for me, sums it up. Risk isn’t easy or comfortable, but it’s necessary.