A Conversation With Photojournalist Julie Platner
On May 1st, Jeff Hall, the leader of the California chapter of the National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi group, was shot and killed in the living room of his own home by his 10-year-old son. As part of their coverage of Hall’s murder, the New York Times ran a series of intensely compelling photographs taken by 29-year-old photojournalist Julie Platner.
The pictures depict NSM members doing things one would expect, like giving the Nazi salute at rallies and holding up flags featuring swastikas, but they also draw back the curtain on the group’s domestic side. There are barbecues and babies, children playing at the feet of their militant parents, and, in some of the video Ms. Platner took which was later used by 60 Minutes in their coverage of Hall’s death, a quiz game.
In the interview that accompanied Ms. Platner’s photographs in the Times she was described as having given herself the assignment of covering the NSM. I was fascinated by the idea that someone so early in her career would have the impulse and tenacity required to see such an intimidating project through to completion, let alone come up with the idea. While doing research in preparation for our interview I learned that this was not the first time Ms. Platner has put herself in a dangerous position to get a story. She traveled to Haiti for the Wall Street Journal in early 2010 to cover the earthquake that devastated the island nation.
We spoke via telephone days before Julie moved to Los Angeles where she will be producing stories about emerging communities for NPR.
JP: I was working in film production for 3 years and I hit the ceiling. I always wanted to be closer to the camera, but freelancing had never occurred to me as a possibility. In between jobs I was always taking off to travel with a camera. I would come back and show my pictures. One day someone asked me, “Why aren’t you doing that?”
I went to produce a short film in India, but I really just went to hang out in India for 3 months. I came back and a friend of a friend hooked me up with someone to assist. I decided to not go to school at the last minute.
RB: To what do you attribute your desire to tell the kinds of stories that you seem compelled to tell? They trend toward some pretty bleak places.
JP: I’m compelled by the things that scare me. I always had really bad nightmares. Dark, dark scenes. It continues now. I think that has put me in a place where I want to see the dark side. I want to explore it, and I want to face it, so that it becomes as scary as it is in my head, or isn’t.
RB: You’ve received a number of awards for your work covering the National Socialist Movement in Southern California. How did you decide on that topic?
JP: I was working with a friend. We were both reading a ton about white supremacist groups, some of whom were known for being really violent. This was the more family-centered group. I called them the pot luck Nazis. I wanted to see the family aspect, how the group got together and interacted together.
Before that I had gone to Mississippi to cover the Obama campaign. I thought it would be fascinating to go to a place where there had been so much strain historically in race relations. I walked into a bar one afternoon looking for the party, looking for the people celebrating, and I found white people sitting around watching reruns of Sportscenter, saying, “What election are you talking about? We’re not going to talk about that.”
A lot of the black people I talked with couldn’t believe it was going to happen right until the very end. I was interested in what white people were thinking. I talked to one charming young man down there, Harvard educated, a doctor with a clinic. He told an off-color joke about Obama getting assassinated. I wondered what was going to happen after the election. I thought it would be interesting to look into this extreme side of things.
RB: You got incredible access to a group of people who I would assume are very guarded and used to being stigmatized. How did you go about winning their trust?
JP: They are guarded. They have such a provocative message that a barrier goes up immediately with other people, including media. I was trying to look past that, and I think that came through. At the beginning there was some negotiation. They wanted to know, “Are you gonna give us a camera?” I said, “That’s totally unethical. I would really like to come visit with you guys, but I’m not gonna do that.”
Jeff was the most personable member I met. He invited us out to California and we went to the rally with him in front of Los Angeles City Hall. He met us in a parking lot and escorted us to the hotel he was staying at. There were other reporters there to cover the event and I just kind of hung out while they did their interviews. I’m patient, and I think my presence is less threatening that way.
You could tell that most of these reporters were like, “Let’s get in, get our sound bite, then get out of here.” As soon as they finished they went straight to the other side of the massive police presence. I mean there were more police there than protesters and NSM members combined. Instead of going over to where the police were, I walked in with the NSM. After that they invited us back to the hotel.
People would come up to me when I was following them and say, “What the fuck are you doing with them?” I got a strong reaction from both sides, in equal measure. But the more I spent time with them, the more they trusted me. I really didn’t want to come in and judge or condemn. My work wasn’t to say what’s been said. I think that’s obvious. I went to discover those things that aren’t obvious. I already knew that these guys are angry and they don’t like black people. I wanted to see how they operated, how they interacted with their families, how they got to where they are.
RB: You imbue Jeff Hall with a sense of humanity through your pictures, including that image where he’s holding his infant daughter in his living room. Did you find yourself feeling empathy, not for their beliefs, but for them as people? Did you come to have any kind of affection for them, or connection with them?
JP: I found myself wishing I could save them. I wish I could pull them up from the place they’re operating in. Seeing Jeff and the kids, there’s something heartbreaking about it. There were guns everywhere.
RB: When did you hear of Jeff’s death?
JP: I was going to interview him the morning of the day he was shot. I had wanted to interview him the day before, but there were a bunch of people around. My producer had told me to go back when things were more quiet.
The information came in kind of slowly. First I just heard he was dead, but not how it had happened. One of the other leaders called me and told me, “Jeff’s dead. We wanted you to know.” I thought at first it was anti-NSM protester that had murdered him.
RB: What was your initial reaction?
JP: I was hysterical. I’d been in the house the day before. I got angry at Jeff that he’d surrounded himself with this stuff. All of a sudden he’s dead and his son is in jail. It had descended into such a dark place so quickly.
RB: How did your loved ones feel about you taking on this kind of an assignment? Your family must have had some reservations.
JP: My boyfriend was initially really upset. He’s Israeli. I’d come home with video and photos, though, and after a while he became fascinated too.
With my family, they trust a lot. I’ve always been kind of a renegade. I think they’ve kind of gotten used to it. My dad’s amazing. He’s always saying, “Julie, you can’t save the world, you know? You should be careful to spend your life in a way that’s good for you too.”
I think they’re proud of me, and I think they’re a little shocked.
RB: This isn’t the only dangerous situation you’ve been in. There’s a scene in the “Breach of Faith” documentary you did for TIME in Haiti, where people are looting a building and soldiers show up and then shoot someone. From the angle of the photographs it’s clear that the person taking the photos is mere feet away, right in the middle of what’s going on. The time lapse there is so horrifying that I covered my mouth while I was watching it, because it’s so obvious you’re not using a telephoto lens. You were right there. It seemed like anarchy; were you worried about being shot at that point?
JP: I did that trip with my boyfriend. Shaul is very experienced. I was in terrified mode. I was like “Holy shit!” and trying to find the nearest pole to stand behind.
For the most part, every time we would walk down those streets on that trip, people would come up and suddenly we’d have five body guards. But when there’s THAT much chaos, you become invisible. I’m more afraid in those situations of the crowd turning against me. Like when you’re taking pictures of people looting. Life or death can be mediated by the presence of a camera. I feel like I have a punch-card… a certain number of dangerous situations I can place myself in before I hit my limit. I rely heavily on my intuition.
RB: There is a young girl, Rose, who you photographed in the hospital before her leg was going to be amputated. That was so heart-rending. What’s the emotional cost of the work that you do, whether being inundated with the hate-filled rhetoric of the NSM, or the sadness and hopelessness of a place like Haiti?
JP: It’s huge. All this stuff stays with you. When I got back from Haiti I went through a three-week depression, hiding on the couch under my hoodie. There’s a certain amount of guilt that comes with being able to step into these situations and then step back out of them. It’s something I’m always dancing with. I just want to make jam and have babies and live on a farm. But I have curiosity and this impulse and I just keep moving forward into it not really knowing how it’s going to go.
I question what the images and stories I put out there generate in the world. Does covering darkness just create more darkness? I’d love to produce stories that are more inspiring and I hope to transition to that at some point. I’ll get there. I think it’s a process. I’m young, and there’s a long road ahead. I hope to get to a place where I can play with that line.
All images © Julie Platner.