Action Figures

KK Ottesen ‘89 and Hayes Davis discuss the intimate “portraits of courage” in Ottensen’s recent book, Activist. 

Harry Belafonte, Dolores Huerta, Billie Jean King: well-known activists, all. 

But Clyde Bellecourt? “I didn’t know who he is, and everyone should know who he is,”’ award-winning photographer and author KK Ottesen ’89 said. “He is a Native American activist with a phenomenal story. He was behind the so-called Red Power movement…It’s an important part of our history and it’s not known nearly as much as it should be.” 

In a Conversation with Friends on January 7, Ottesen and Upper School English teacher Hayes Davis discussed Ottesen’s recent book, Activist: Portraits of Courage (2019). Composed of a series of intimate black-and-white photographs with accompanying first-person narratives, the book offers intimate insights into a wide swath of activists, from those who have been fighting for decades, to others just beginning their journey; from those that are household names, to others who lit the spark on well-known movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. 

The timely conversation followed on the heels of a day of both horror and hope, with the nation simultaneously witnessing an insurrection at the Capitol and the state of Georgia electing their first Black and Jewish senators—the latter, a result of ground organizing and voter rights activism.

Ottesen introduced attendees to her book by showing some of the featured photographs and walking through the process of creating this book. She began the project about five years ago, as the Black Lives Matter movement was growing in response to racial injustices, activists at Standing Rock Indian Reservation were protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the 2016 election cycle was in full swing. “I was feeling frustration with the world and the country, and trying to figure out, when you feel the frustration, what do you do with it? You take action,” Ottesen said. “So I talked with activists who had been through horrific times in our national past and found a way to take action to do something to try to change the trajectory. On the one hand, it was looking for wisdom to glean, and on the other hand, very much looking for inspiration, encouragement, and the example of how we can each take our tools and our experiences and do something with them.”

As an example of how the book is structured, Ottesen showed a photograph of a pensive John Lewis with his eyes closed, an image she captured as he closed his eyes and transported himself back to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. She read from his narrative, which Ottesen recorded while snapping a series of photographs; in it, Lewis described the thoughts going through his head while he was being beaten by police officers that day, and how his inviolable belief in nonviolence helped him continue to fight in the decades to come without bitterness or hate. He also shared the belief that fueled his half-century of activism: “You cannot be at home with yourself when you see something that you know is not right.”

“The reason I did it that way, with the photos and interviews in first person narrative, is so that the reader feels like they can have that privilege of sitting down and talking to those individuals in a personal way,” Ottesen said. 

She also spoke with people across the sociopolitical spectrum: Grover Norquist, Edward Snowden, Gabby Giffords, Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin, and BLM co-founder Alicia Garza. “There will be some people in the book with whom you will disagree, probably strongly,” Ottesen said. “And that’s kind of the point for me, too. The point is that we understand where people are coming from, to try to have a sense of them, and see their humanity and try to repair this discourse that is so fundamental to making any sort of progress together.”

Even with such a broad cast, what unites the activists in this collection is their sense of agency and belief that if they acted in response to a perceived injustice, they could make a difference. Many shared how this sense of efficacy began with childhood experiences, often with small acts of activism they attempted in their early years. 

Those experiences and others in these activists’ career led them to identify a keen sense of integrity with their efforts. Ottesen’s collection illustrates that when you take action, “you are in harmony with yourself, because you are acting in a way that is fundamentally right to you.” 

Watch the full Conversation with Friends between KK Ottesen ’89 and Hayes Davis here.

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