Case Study: The White Rage Project

Case Study: The White Rage project

In 2015, I spent several months documenting the wave of refugees crossing into Europe from countries such as Syria and Afghanistan for the Norwegian newspaper VG. I followed four Syrian young men on their journey from Syria to Turkey, crossing the sea to Greece before traveling the Balkans to Germany. The journey took them two months. In the beginning, European countries opened their arms, agreeing to help the refugees. I saw how Europeans opened their homes to refugees and donated food, clothes, and their time.

But as the crises continued, there was a change of mood all over Europe. Public discourse was not about how to help but how to prevent more refugees from coming. Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary gained seats, and Marine Le Pen became a presidential candidate in France. Things that were previously seen as racist had become accepted among politicians and the public.

With this backdrop, I started to investigate what was happening in many European countries: A move from the left towards the right. And a rise in the extreme right.

In the spring of 2016, I started an almost two-year-long journey through some of the darkest places in Europe and the U.S. I met fascists, Nazis, Muslim haters, extreme nationalists, militia members, and right-wing populists.

Two questions constantly arose:

What drives them? Why do they hate?

Together with the reporters Ronny Berg and Stian Eisenträger, we applied for a grant in the newspaper VG. This allowed us to work for more than a year on this project. I wanted to get as close as possible to right wing groups and people, and I wanted to document their activities and also get as close as possible to them, meeting families, joining them in their daily lives and when they worked politically. I knew it would be challenge. Most of the right wing groups hated three things: Immigrants, politicians and the media.

So the first three – four months was used for research and to get an overview of the different right wing groups and political groups in Europe. Later in the project, I also began researching for a similar project in the US.

I send out hundreds of messages, using both official channels, and social media such as Messenger, Instagram and other platforms. Many reacted with a negative response in the beginning. They told us they hated us. But at the same time, some of them were eager to get a possibility to be interviewed and to explain. We contacted people and we wanted to be honest: Telling them that we wanted to document people and groups all over Europe. That we wanted to listen to them, to talk to them, to document them and also of course to ask critical questions.

In Ukraine, I meet a family man who cut a swastika in the forehead of a Muslim man with a knife before throwing him down in a well. In Russia I came across militant nationalists who practice shooting in a residential area and beat up Jews, Muslims and Roma ‘for fun’.

As I travelled around Europe, the continent was changing: terrorist attacks in France, Germany and Belgium; a coup attempt in Turkey; Brexit in the UK and at the end of the year, Donald Trump winning the election in the US. The political climate was getting colder and darker. Fear, desperation and alienation were spreading.

Every day in 2016 there were almost ten attacks on immigrants in Germany, according to the German Interior Ministry. It was like the old world was breaking apart. Everywhere I went, I found the same phenomenon – the extreme had become more ‘respectable’ and Nazism had evolved. From skinheads with bomber jackets and jack boots to something more ‘normal’.

According to political experts this so-called ‘new right’ is far more dangerous than the old skinheads. Many of them now are students, academics and business men who talks about family values, identity and culture. In the 1990s they were standing on street corners handing out flyers. Today, the propaganda is spreading through social media, podcasts, web portals and video productions. Every time Europe sees another terrorist attack, the suspicion immediately turns to the Islamic State. In reality, rightwing extremists have also carried out numerous attacks over the past decades, with 300 murders since 1990.

Many of the people I met, were men searching to belong somewhere. They were angry at the society, claiming that the political system and immigration was the reason for everything that was wrong, including in their own life. And many of them were nostalgic, missing the old times when people lived in «classic» families, where the men worked and the women were in the kitchen. They promoted training and a healthy life style, talking about the society as it used to be in the 1930’s to the 50’s.

Who are these people? What do they want? And are they dangerous?

During the project, I had to be systematic, organizing the images on a huge wall, to see what we were getting and what was missing. Working on several of the chapters in the project, I also filmed in addition to photography.

One of the biggest challenges was getting their trust: Meeting fascists in Italy, we needed to return three times before being allowed inside their group in Milan. In Russia, I needed to return twice, to also get to document a nazi wedding in Moscow. They told us that reporters did not bother to report the facts, and had a mistrust in us. They also often ended up in conspiracy theories, and it was important to challenge their extreme opinions and to present the stories based on facts.

In the newspaper in Oslo, we started to plan the launching of the project. The weekend magazine VG Helg would be the main focus, using every page in magazine on this project: 96 pages. The art director created a font and web developers made an online edition with 24 chapters, using images, videos text and graphics.

The were many editorial discussions:

Did we want to give these extreme people a place to talk and express their ideas? Could this publication lead to more people turning extreme? And how should we showcase the people, what photographic style and mood? How aggressive should we be as reporters when asking questions? How much should we allow these people to talk freely? And is it ok to combine neo- nazis, fascists and right wing political people in the same magazine under the same theme?

For us, and the editors of VG, it was important to show what is going on in Europe. We don’t believe in hiding something just because it is unpleasant. With the rise in the right wing movement, it is more important than ever to show it to the public. To be able to discuss it. Too many times, the media has decided not to showcase a theme, letting it grow stronger in the darkness and shadows. To avoid the rise of groups like this, and to create discussions, we need to show it and tell the stories.

The White Rage project was published widely, in magazines and websites, such as L’espresso in Italy, Aftonbladet in Sweden, New Republic in the US, Paris Match in France and Newsweek in Japan. It was exhibited at the Copenhagen Photo Festival, creating a lot of debate – one debate had to be cancelled due to threats from extreme left wing people.

The White Rage project also became the subject of a master’s thesis in Film and Media Studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology: «Personification and individualization in the presentation of right-wing extremism – The White Rage».

«In this thesis, I’m studying the role of the press photography in representing far-right extremism through VGs Det hvite raseriet (The White Rage). How the individual is portrayed is a central part of this study, and I am looking at how the interview objects are being personalized and individualized through the visual, as well as challenges connected to the theme of far-right extremism. By using different visual rhetorical tools, I am analyzing selected press photos inspired by semiotics, among other things, and examine the power of the press photography as the mediator of rhetorical messages. The analysis shows how the visual controls the message to a great extent, as well as challenge the traditional objective journalism. The photography is a reconstruction of reality, not reality itself, but it still has the power to affect the real world.» Anne Gjelsvik, 2019.

We travelled in Norway and Europe, presenting the work to wide variety of audiences.

For me, the most memorable, was when I presented the work to a group of old people outside Oslo, Norway, a year after the project was published. At the end of my presentation, an old man stood up and said:

«I lived through the second world war and the nazis. Now I have a small box. In it I put things that I think are important for my grandchildren to inherit from me. I put that magazine in that box».