Photos by Charles Meacham
Interview by Yashas Mitta
Title designed by Ache Rodriguez
It really does help to show that all of our struggles are connected.
Jenna Pope is an American activist and an award-winning photographer. By telling the story through pictures on the ground and participating actively in the protests, she has successfully created a large body of outstanding work and a community that cares for change.
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Tell us a bit about yourself?
My name is Jenna Pope, I am an activist and an award-winning photographer. I remember saving up all my allowance money to buy a really cheap film camera when I was like 12 or 13. Once I turned 17 or 18, I started to get more serious about it. I purchased my first professional camera, I started doing photo-shoots like senior portraits, family portraits, kids and weddings. I did that for a while and I finally got in the professional world of photography. I was born and raised in Wisconsin.
How did you decide to take up such a specific genre of photography?
In February 2011, our governor tried to push through a 144-page bill, which he didn’t give the legislators or the public much time to read and figure out what was actually in it and he said he had to fix the budget.
Basically what had ended up happening was that he actually got the state into a deficit by giving a bunch of tax breaks to the rich and decided to make this bill that put the burden on the backs of the working class people. So he went after public sector unions, including teachers, city employees, people who don't make a lot of money and definitely could not deal with any sort of salary cut. He basically took away the collective bargaining right and so the people responded.
I was going to school in Milwaukee at the time, which is about an hour and a half from our capitol in Madison. Luckily, I had a car and drove back and forth every day. We took over the capital for three whole weeks. We were sleeping there - that was my first taste of activism and I haven’t looked back since. I didn’t take nearly as many photos as I wish I would have while I was there because I was kind of caught up in the moment. I was holding signs, chanting and organising people at the capitol and stuff like that. But I did take some photos and after all that kind of died down I looked at the photos I was like, “Wow. This is something I need to focus on more.” So, I took it from there. Now I find myself in NYC photographing protests and being involved in activism more than ever.
Photos by Jenna Pope
What about protests really catches your interest? Why is it that you feel so deeply about them?
Can I swear?
The world is a fucked up place. I knew it before I got in to activism but I pretty much was just aware but I never got involved. So when I saw literally hundreds of thousands of people who came out to the capitol in a month, just seeing that response to our legislators - specifically to Scott Walker who was trying to take away the worker’s rights - seeing the injustice and the inequality, I couldn’t really avoid getting involved anymore. So for me, a lot of the biggest issues is the inequality and the wealth gap. The fact that few people have so much while the majority of people have so little. People are just scraping by and there are people who are literally starving because they don’t have enough. It’s the few wealthy elites who are hoarding all of it. That’s just unfair! I think it needs to change and that is what keeps me going.
The stuff that is going on in ferguson right now is connected to the stuff that is going on all over the world.
Photo by Jenna Pope
The very nature of your work is controversial. What kind of criticism have you faced?
Well I receive criticism from two different types of people.
One - Those people who do not agree with me politically; who are on the very other end of the spectrum. The Republicans, conservatives, people who don’t agree with the protests I am documenting. That part makes sense and I have learned to handle that and it does not get to me.
But, the criticisms that are bit harder are from the people who I thought were my comrades. People who do agree with me politically but basically think that I am only in this for my benefit. I have had a couple of people use the word ‘exploiting.’ They think when I travel to different locations I am basically exploiting the people who are struggling. I can see why people who don’t know me might look at it that way but when it comes down to it, a lot of people don’t understand the struggle I go through with my work. If I was looking to just make a quick buck that wasn’t probably the best way to do it. It was/is a struggle. There were times where I didn’t have enough money for food.
It took me a while to get to the point where I could travel to different locations and do the work that I was doing. I was looking to make a connection between different movements, people, and cities. I was meeting activists from different cities and countries who had all these different types of views and were going through their own struggles and I actually got to know them, hear their stories, and document their resistance. It really does help to show that all of our struggles are connected. The stuff that is going on in Ferguson right now is connected to the stuff that is going on all over the world. It is all connected to injustice and inequality.
So although the main focus of the protest could be significantly different, what it comes down to is the injustice and inequality. At the very root of it, all these struggles are connected and when I travel to these different locations, that is exactly what I strive to document. I wanted to connect the dots to what was going on elsewhere in the world.
Photos by Jenna Pope
Some of the fundamentalists tag our generation as “rebels without a cause.” What is your take on that?
You can’t deny that there are people who thrive off fear and intense situations. But, that is definitely not the majority of people. You’re going to have that in any situation. Where someone just thinks, “Oh this looks interesting and I am just gonna do it cause it seems fun.”
Most activists I know personally are very passionate and know exactly what they are talking about. Throughout my travels, I have met and kept in touch with a lot of people who are the same exact way.
People were literally dying but to see them continue despite all of that was truly intense.
What are the most influential moments that you can recall that have fuelled your journey?
I’ll focus on two. First Wisconsin - that’s what got me from “Oh! The world is fucked up” to “Oh! The world is fucked up and I need to do something about it.” I wanted to inspire other people to do something about it, too. It has played a huge role in my life. Specifically because the protest was focused around unions, labour movements and workers’ justice. We got over 1 million signatures to force a recall of our governor. That was huge! But we lost the elections; Scott Walker won for various reasons.
It showed the force of people but also showed that the fight can’t stop anytime soon. I don’t believe in the electoral process. I think it is fictitious and the votes are bought by the wealthy elite.
Second - Istanbul, Turkey to cover the Gezi Park protests. This was the first time I was documenting protests outside of the United States. I did two different trips to Istanbul for about two weeks each. It was very interesting and revealing to not only see how the activists behave but also how the government and the system reacted to their activism. That was the most intense protest I’ve ever been involved in.
We were being tear gassed for hours, I was hit with water cannons, sometimes with chemical water in it that burns your skin. That kind of stuff does not happen often at all in the USA. Few cities do bring out tear gas and plastic bullets but not on this scale. In NYC, they don’t use tear gas - Probably because most of the protests are based around where the wealthy live. It was great to see Istanbul taking it up a step and facing the governmental violence head on. People were literally dying but to see them continue despite all of that was truly intense.
They had realised that the protest was so important that they couldn’t afford to be afraid anymore.
Photos by Jenna Pope
Most of us were younger people who could take an arrest. We stood up for the people who couldn’t.
Have you ever questioned your choice of doing this?
Nope! (Laughs) - I’ve never questioned. I have very firm beliefs and I don’t think anything can change my mind about them.
Have you ever been arrested?
Yes. In Wisconsin, we did a lot of “civil disobedience” as a part of the protests. Most of the time it was planned - there was a specific action we were doing which we knew would probably result in arrest. I was detained most of the time. I would be taken to jail or held at the basement of the state capitol building for a while.
The summer after the major protests in 2011, they were trying to push through a bunch of new legislation which was also horrible. Along with other people, I stood up and interrupted the public hearings that were going on. We would shout at the legislators below and tell them what we thought. There were three times I was carried out of hearing - All those tickets were dismissed on the grounds of first amendment.
We called the day the bill went into action as “The Day Of Impact” - 1000s marched in to the capitol building, and when the police came in and threatened arrest, most of them left because they feared/could not risk losing their jobs etc.13 of us stayed. Most of us were younger people who could take an arrest - we stood up for the people who couldn’t. We forced the cops to carry us out and that was the one time I was convicted of a crime - Resisting arrest. 6 of us were convicted.
Photos by Jenna Pope
How do you happen to fund yourself and your projects?
For about a year and a half, I was fully crowd funded. I was coming in as a fellow activist who happened to be a photographer, and not a journalist who wishes to just document. I didn’t have a big corporation telling me to spin stories in a certain way.
I’ve always utilised social media and that’s how my photographs have reached people. So those who have been following me, my work, and what was going on in Wisconsin, supported me. When the recall efforts came along, I was working a part time job and hardly making it through, so multiple people came forward to fund me. I was 20 years old and they saw that if I didn’t have the burdens, I could do some interesting work. I took the jump, quit my job and for the 3 months after, I was fully supported while I was out collecting recall signatures every day in the middle of winter. I had enough money to pay bills and put gas in the car.
That summer, I had $800 to my name, and I decided to move to NYC. I crashed at friends' apartments for the first three months. I grew into the full-time activist photographer role and started crowdfunding long term. It took about 5 months to really get things off the ground. The first 3 were really difficult but was worth it. I think after 6 months, it really took off.
No donations would come in if I wasn’t putting in my best. So even when I was struggling, I had to do what it really takes to keep the work going. For about another year after that, it was just a constant hustle - doing as much work as my body could handle.
It was an exciting and once in the lifetime experience to be able to touch people’s lives so much that they actually reach out and help you to keep doing what you do.
Some people call me a photojournalist but by their own strict standards, I’m not.
Jenna Pope by Charles Meacham
When are you most satisfied with your work?
The process is what is most satisfying. I kind of get into the groove when am at the protest and get in on the streets with all the other activists trying to get the important shots, staying from beginning to the end.
The hardest part of what I do is choosing the photos that I’m going to use and post. It needs to be judged based on impact, truthfulness and how well it documents what really happened.
Some people call me a photojournalist but by their own strict standards, I’m not. Because I edit my images a lot - colour, contrast and stuff like that. It’s part of it. I don’t ever change the image in the sense of moving stuff around or anything. I want my work to stand out and inspire people to do something.
If you had one piece of advice for budding photographers, what would it be?
There’s so much. Specifically addressing activist photographers - If you’re not passionate about the protests, please don’t do it. So many who document the protests don’t really care about it.
Other than that, don’t look back. Dive in and realize that this is going to be a lot of hard work.
Photographed by Charles Meacham
Why don’t you vote?
I don’t vote because it’s all a scam. There shouldn’t just be wealthy white men running the country - but workers’ collectives. Not the ones who buy their way into power. People really hate me for it and call me ignorant, but I’m completely against voting.
If I were in charge of the system, I'd tear it down.
If you were in charge, how would you change the system?
I’d tear it down. The system is not broken but is fixed - where we are realizing that it was always exclusive and never collective.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I’m constantly climbing anything I can find and going up buildings to get the powerful crowd shots. It would be pretty cool to be able to fly instead of doing all that. Haha!
What does success mean to you?
Sure as hell doesn’t mean money. If it were my choice though, I’d abolish it. But, in the world we live in, money is needed to survive. So, I would say if someone has managed to create work that they are passionate about and it pays well enough for them to continue doing it, they are successful.