ThisPhotoThat had the pleasure of hanging out with photographer Maxim Ryazansky over a few Cervezas at our favorite Mexican restaurant in Dumbo, Brooklyn to discuss his latest book project,Westboro Baptist Church. Maxim has followed this group of Topeka, Kansas based religious radicals through their daily life and their public protests, in order to document this group's crusade for their strict and often offensive view of religious purity.
TPT: Where did you come across this idea for a photo project ?
MR: At some point in 1990something I had first seen thegodshatesfags.com
site. The way that I describe my initial curiosity with the group is their antics and tactics are so over the top that at times it is hard to believe if they serious or just an elaborate performance art piece.
For me, they tend to have that car crash effect where you want to just keep going and pretend you never saw it, but there is a sick curiosity about it at the same time. This is before I was even thinking about photography in any sort of serious manner. Over the years I kept looking on their site and as I began shooting Pursuit of Happinessseries in college (Pratt), I knew that I needed a good example of the passing of extreme religious values from one generation to another. I shot them at the picket and asked if I could hang around and take more photos. One photo in particular of Grace wearing a Napoleon Dynamite shirt while standing on an American flag and texting got around pretty well. Tim Barber put it up on www.tinyvices.com
and it was in a bunch of his travelling shows.
TPT: How would you describe this family/congregation ?
MR: This is really hard to do and whenever I am asked about this I try to do it with as much respect to every possible person either involved with the WBC or those who they affected through picketing. While I do not agree with 99% of what they are saying or doing, I understand that they have the right to exist and I am a firm believer in full freedom of speech. I know that this could be taken the wrong way, but if you take away their fanatic religious beliefs and look at them just as a family, they really have an honest and interesting lifestyle that places high emphasis on family values, education, and an overall loving environment. I couldn't help but notice how sad it is to think that these kids have a happier upbringing than a lot of their peers who come from "normal" families. Now, I also understand that they are just kids having these extremely hateful ideals being pushed on them. The WBC are actually very well educated and masters of propaganda. They are convinced that they are preaching love and are only trying to warn people of their "hellbound" ways. They do not see this as being wrong. I am sure that the more the kids find out about the rest of the world, some might abandon the WBC, much like the other older ex-family members have. I have no intentions in making them look any better or worse than they are. They scariest thing about it all is how nice and friendly they are on a personal level. Take the signs away and they would be any parent's dream.
TPT: what was your style of shooting ? what moments in particular were you trying to capture ?
MR: When I was talking to a photographer friend of mine about going there he gave me this advice "Are you telling a story" So, I would find myself mumbling this over and over. I don' t know how to really describe what I was looking for. I wanted the everyday moments that showed the family just as normal as they are different.
TPT: What are the reactions from others that watched them doing this ? are they victimized, unaffected, etc ?
MR: It's really a case by case basis, but in general most people do not appreciate it, to say the least. Some people scream things at them and give them the finger or yell violent threats. Others believe that ignoring them is a better solution. Honestly, I feel really bad when I can tell that it hurts someone on a very emotional level. I have been with them when they picketed someone's funeral, and I really don't know how I feel about documenting that. There are usually counter protests, and sometimes those are pretty funny. I love it when gay couples get really close to them and start making out. There's something really great about that total in your face, right back at you, attitude.
TPT: Does the WBC receive any sort of successful feedback ? do they get any new members, or convert any homosexuals, etc ?
MR: The WBC believes that every picket is a success, regardless of how many people are there or what happens. To my knowledge, throughout the history of the church, there has only been one non- blood related family that has successfully become church members. Interestingly enough it was the family of a film-maker who came to document them. And, to fully answer your question, I think their homosexual conversion ratio is currently and most likely will forever remain at zero.
TPT: some of your other work seems to focus on America's odd hobbies and believes ( i.e. The Pursuit of Happiness). How do you see these people and what story are you trying to tell? Are they crazy, misunderstood, normal ?
MR: It might sound odd, but none of them are crazy. They are all just into whatever it is that they are into , and I love that. If you're going to own a corvette, take it to a corvette parade and be damn proud of it, you know what I'm saying? It's the same thing with the WBC, I am aiming to show how normal and how different they are at the same time.
TPT: What other photographers have inspired you ?
MR: Bill Owens, Mary Ellen Mark, Bruce Davidson, I love not just their work but the interaction they have with their subject, no matter who it is. Then there is Jeff Mermelstein, when I first saw his book I was like, "Holy Shit", my work is so similar to his but he was doing it 15-20 years before me. I dunno, I mean there's so many, Robert Frank, obviously. Jim Goldberg's Raised by Wolves blew my mind. That book is genius.
Maxim Ryazansky was born in Vilnius, Lithuania and moved to the U.S back in '89. He currently lives in Brooklyn with his girlfriend Tara, and teaches the history of photography at the Pratt Institute.