These Photos Capture the Power of Political Resistance
Photographer Alex Matzke has been on the front lines of some of America's most exciting political movements.
Welcome back to Doin' Work: Flash Interviews with Contemporary Photographers. Here, I celebrate the photographers who inspire me every day and offer an easily digestible bite of their personalities and work.
This week, we have Alex Matzke. She was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1985. She grew up in rural agricultural communities, though she's moved around a bit. She received an MFA in photography from Virginia Commonwealth University and a BA in art therapy from the College of Santa Fe.
She's been documenting the protests against the Keystone XL pipeline since 2011. And she takes photos to help local organizations, like Bold Nebraska, foster support and strengthen their ties with the community.
VICE: How does where you live impact your work?
Alex Matzke: After graduate school, I moved to Omaha to help care for my elderly grandparents. We lost my maternal grandfather just before the new year (fuck you, 2016). As someone in my early 30s, I don't know many other people who still have all four grandparents. I am so grateful for our time together last year.
You can draw a direct line between the places I've lived and the focus of my work. A project starts with an observation and an understanding of the current political climate of wherever I am. When I got home, I knew there would be things happening in my own backyard that would be important to me.
When and how did you get your start in photography?
My mother is a writer and an artist. When I was young, her practice was centered on Polaroid emulsion manipulation. Watching her use a Daylab to create Polaroid images from slides, I became fascinated with photographic processes. In high school, my art teacher rigged a darkroom out of the janitor's closet for me.
During undergrad, a beloved professor, Robert Denison, looked at the collage work I was making in Photoshop and asked me if I could make a picture like Margaret Bourke-White's Louisville Flood. The power of that image is that the juxtaposition existed in real life. It completely changed the way I thought about making pictures.
What compels you to pick up your camera?
We're living in an overwhelming time. The only thing to do is keep showing up and keep making work. This practice of showing up with my camera is what motivates me right now. It will be someone else's alternative facts unless you've got a picture of it.
What are you working on now?
I started documenting the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline in 2011, when Nebraska first held State Department hearings about eminent domain and environmental concerns. I've continued to work with Bold Nebraska to document its support of the water protectors at Oceti Sakowin. This month, groups have been lobbying the offices of the Army Corps of Engineers in Omaha, and if you follow me on Instagram, you already know the phone number to their comment line. If you don't, it is 202-761-8700.
The last six years, I've volunteered as a photographer for Omaha Girls Rock summer camp. And this year, I had the opportunity to continue documenting their after-school program. I always try to be conscious of how I represent these young people, because images have the power to help human beings see themselves as capable, strong, and beautiful.
There are a number of organizations in Omaha working to support refugee resettlement, but most support comes within relatively limited timelines. I work in tandem with these organizations and a small group of collaborators to build community and entrepreneurial support. But there are still pieces missing. Without new Americans telling their own stories, much is lost. Making room in the conversation about resettlement has been especially important to me because I know the power of storytelling. Giving away donated cameras and offering support and mentoring are how I'm making room.
If you had to explain your work to a child, how would you describe it?
I try to use my powers for good.
Do you make a living as a photographer?
Yes and no. Nebraska definitely cannot boast the opportunities New York offers, but you can get by on a lot less. So yes, because I am able to pull it together between freelance, assisting, and teaching opportunities. But I am actively looking for more teaching work. I say no, though, because rarely does my personal work make me any money.
Is there an image you feel you're best known for?
New Hope. When I first found the New Hope cemetery, I took a photo on my iPhone and posted about Star Wars jokes. ("This place feels like a graveyard at times.") But before I drove away, I stopped and took the time to make another picture and think more about how this place and its abandoned church and parsonage represented so much hope to this community. The change from family farming to more automated, conglomerate practices is evident in the loss of this hope.
What's the approach you take when establishing a relationship with a subject?
For me, it's all about building mutual trust and respect.
What do you think of the vast sea of online photography?
I think the vast sea of online photography will only create more opportunity. We will see so many more Mozarts come out, because we live in a time where you don't have to be tethered to difficult and arduous processes. I try, especially in instances like posting from Standing Rock, to give productive information, so viewers can get involved if they feel empowered to do so.
What are you doing when you're not making pictures?
Editing pictures, writing invoices, running, drinking coffee, working in the garden, or taking the dog for a walk
What do you think the future of photography might look like?
I'm not sure, but these "live" iPhone photos aren't cutting it. Where are our magic Harry Potter photos and actual hoverboards?
The most important question of all: dogs or cats?
I currently have both and grew up with both. But you can't take your cat running.
See more of Alex's work on her website.