Toronto-based photographer Brett Gundlock‘s The “Movement” captures an intimate look inside the lives of underground neo-Nazi skinheads living in Canada. The access Gundlock acquired is fascinating, and the work unveils the complex existence of an extremist group living among, yet completely apart from the rest of society. We recently talked to him about the powerful experience.
Describe this project. How did it come about?
“This project explores the lives of neo-Nazi skinheads in Canada. While working for a newspaper in Calgary, Alberta, I stumbled upon a very vocal skinhead group called the Aryan Guard. My assignment was to cover this group’s first annual march through the streets of Calgary. I think I was naive, but the fact that these guys—and guys like them—still existed really surprised me. I had to know more.”
How did you gain access? How did you make connections?
“I approached this group directly through their website. It took a fair bit of time and a lot of interesting interrogations by the skinheads, but they eventually let me into their world. After a while, I blended into the background, allowing me to photograph the group and their activities candidly.
“Through this group, I made contact with other groups. My relationship with the Aryan Guard worked as a reference to gain access to and photograph other groups. The social web of these groups is really intricate and widespread, thanks to the Internet. They are remarkably easy to find once you’re looking for them.”
Many of the images during this project were taken in low-light scenarios. Was this a conscious, stylistic decision or a practical one?
“Most of the intense stuff happened at night, usually under the influence of alcohol. I had some images I liked from the daylight, but they broke the aesthetic flow of the edit, so I focused instead on what happened when the sun set. The dark aesthetic reflects my impressions of the community that I was photographing. There is something tangibly dark about this confused world that exists on the outskirts of what we think of as ‘normal’ Canadian culture.”
How did you handle the radical, or hateful, viewpoints of the skinheads you photographed? Did you find ways to connect?
“The easiest and strongest way to connect with a subject is to sit and listen to their stories. With this group in particular, they’re not used to having open discussions with people who don’t think like they do, people who aren’t racist. They are usually cut off from dialogue—and it’s easy to understand why—as opposed to actually being listened to.
“My opinions and views on race were never a secret, and I never lied about not being racist. But I didn’t necessarily force the issue or my perspective on these guys. Even so, I would frequently have to step outside or leave the house to clear my head. The anger, hostility, and violence were so much that I could only stand it so long before I had to go and hang out with regular people.
“It was really interesting to read the literature they have and listen to some of the more established people in the movement talk. There are reasons that they have moved away from regular society, why they have alienated themselves from the mainstream. If anyone really wants a shake-up, read the book The Turner Diaries written by William Luther Pierce (under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald) in 1978. It’s a fictional story that outlines how a white power movement takes over the United States. It’s actually banned in Canada, and has been since 1996.
“I was one of the guys while shooting this group, which gave me an in with them. We were younger guys, sharing common interests, such as beer and girls. If these guys had different politics, I would quite likely have been friends with them.”
In what ways is this project about community?
“This project represents their community, and it’s a community that most of us know almost nothing about. Their relationships are built and based on common belief, and this belief in turn creates a subculture that exists outside the rest of society. Their sense of community is really strong, and it explains how this ideology continues to exist in Canada, in the 21st century. This idea is transferable to many other extremist groups we see today.”
There are very few images that include women. Why?
“Women were fairly scarce; when they hang out, it’s mainly groups of guys. A lot of the women who were around did not want to be photographed, in fear of retribution from anti-racist protesters.”
What emotions did you feel while documenting the skinhead community? Were you ever scared?
“Basically every emotion possible, I guess: fear, anger, confusion, and surprisingly at times, even friendship.”
What do you hope the impact of these images might have?
“I hope these images open dialogue and increase education. What’s really challenging is that the very charter that white pride, neo-Nazi groups resist so vehemently—The Charter of Rights and Freedoms—is precisely the loophole that gives these guys and groups like them, the space to exist and freedom to continue.
“I also think it’s really important to understand their origins and motivations. People aren’t born with an intense hatred of another group of people; it’s indoctrinated, encouraged, fed. And the reason it can take hold has a lot to do with feelings of exclusion, disenfranchisement, and frustration at very real social problems. It’s not enough to say that these groups shouldn’t exist, although that would be the idea; we have to understand how and why they came, and continue to come, into existence.”
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