Kenji Wardenclyffe’s photo is a knife in the hands of those that want to destroy Safe Schools.
Firstly, it’s important for Kenji and others to understand that the spaces anti-fascists create and occupy aren’t for just anyone. We consider anti-fascist activism as a form of community self-defense, so while our efforts are focused on rising neo-Nazi groups, we oppose anyone who endangers or vilifies people in our communities. We do what we do because we can’t stomach sitting back and watching police and the State facilitate pro-fascist and neo-Nazi rallies, then scratch their heads in wonderment when hate crimes continue to rise, often committed by the same bigots the police helped to embolden. We take preventative measures to keep our communities safe.
As well as organising and maintaining spaces based on principles opposed to fascism (anti-sexism, anti-racism, anti-homophobia, anti-transphobia, etc), anti-fascists organise a great deal more than what you might think when we facilitate rallies and campaigns and come together. For example, we have meetings to make collective decisions and organise, poster runs, community outreach and taking care of our environment. We uphold our principles in-spite-of overwhelming public, police and legal backlash. Was it 5 front page articles in the Herald Sun or 6 in a row? We have comrades going to court for defending their communities because laws that restrict and criminalise political dissent have been legislated across Australian States and Territories. The more effective we become the more they take away hard fought political, civil and human rights. New laws currently tabled will serve as a further impediment to our organising efforts.
And then there are people like Kenji Wardenclyffe who walk into spaces they have little understanding of and no hand in creating and use them for their own gain. Their own monetary gain, no less. Not only do these people move about without a thought or care regarding the energy activists expend in organising, they actively and purposefully undermine those efforts.
Kenji espouses values of impartiality while having clear monetary incentive in snapping photos the neo-liberal press will buy. Kenji knows what sells to the Australian and it isn’t truth or ethics. The biased press whose existence relies on the corporate dollar has no interest in reporting truth nor in articulating anything other than a demonised and violent narrative of contemporary anti-fascists. It’s a dishonest media template that is well recognised around the world. They want photos of ‘masked thugs’ and videos of the cumulative 5 seconds of violence only present at some anti-fascist rallies. You wouldn’t even know that a lot of antifascist activists are in fact non-men. We don’t see the media showing our two hours of downtime at rallies, when we’re sharing food and stories. Where’s the pictures and news stories about the important community work anti-fascists consistently take part in? Actions in solidarity with First Nations people. Support for victims of domestic abuse. There aren’t any because it doesn’t fit the narrative and template that the press have in regards to anti-fascists. There isn’t any doubt that the press and photographers have bias in not only what they report but also how they report it. Whether they acknowledge it or not, they are telling a story and that story doesn’t need to be the whole truth or even part thereof. The fact is the neo-liberal press want us to shut up and let the police deal with the hate crimes that spring up as a result of us not doing what anti-fascist action was initially created to do. People like Kenji facilitate this process.
It’s impossible to be impartial and totally neutral. When you sell a picture that provides less than a second snap shot of an incident and presents a single photograph as truth, you’ll find it’s left wide open for interpretation and can lead to unethical and harmful outcomes. The reality is that the photo of Roz tells us nothing about what happened or why. It certainly doesn’t tell us anything about Safe Schools or the homophobia seething in Australians who think social progress involves violence and the denial of the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community. Even if you believe someone can be impartial, the owner of the outlets that printed Roz’s photograph, and the viewer-base reading the articles are not. The photo was used to justify further homophobic attacks and to demonise Roz who has already endured a lot of homophobia due to being a part of the Safe Schools Program. People could look at that photo and see an important anti-fascist and LGBTQIA+ activist sticking it to a deserving Trump-supporter, or a lefty ratbag who should be stripped of their position in an evil organisation that’s attempting to indoctrinate school-age children into being gay. Frankly no impartiality is possible in this case. At best, Kenji is willfully ignorance of the consequences of his actions. At worst he’s completely callous and greedy.
When he took that photo of Roz Ward pulling off the Trump supporter’s hat, Kenji claimed he had no idea who Roz was or what their contributions have been to sex and gender-diverse children growing up in a hostile neo-liberal education system. Not to mention, in his ‘neutrality’ Kenji forgot that Safe Schools is under immense scrutiny from established powers and has been fought all the way since its conception. He claims in a statement on his photography page that he had ‘no options other than see it published in The Australian. Apparently believing that to be the case, he sold it for money and gave a statement about the ‘incident’. Kenji claimed that photos of his have been stolen and used in the media before. Even if there was no chance a photo could be stolen and published, the consent to publish pictures of people in precarious situations on Facebook is evidently crucial. Kenji should know this if it’s not the first time a picture has been stolen. This is especially true of someone who has claimed he’s an ally to these struggles in the past, and praised anti-fascists on their efforts combating fascism.
There are other photographers out there with career aspirations like Kenji. Most with no organising experience, and no clear political alignment that will still send anti-fascists photos asking ‘should I blur this face out?’ or ‘is this photo bad to post?’ This is all Kenji had to do. Approach the community he takes pictures of, who organise rallies so he can come along to earn his bread and butter, and ask; ‘Who is this? Should this photo be public? Does this picture actually represent the full context or does it misrepresent it? Do I have permission to post this picture publicly? What broader good would it serve to publish the picture?’ The answer in the case of Roz Ward is that there was nothing to be gained and no public good or benefit to come from publishing it.
If Kenji was anything but a biased, far-right, anti-queer bigot, he should never have let that photo see the light of day. Because, let’s face it, there’s none of Kenji’s beloved impartiality in the neo-liberal press about Roz Ward at the moment. It’s a reactionary attack on Safe Schools based on a hat that got yanked. Andrew Bolt even asked Kenji on to his show as a guest in the wake of this photograph surfacing. Now there’s a chance that LGBTQIA+ children in primary schools around Australia won’t be protected from outright bigoted discrimination and violence. Children have committed suicide because of this kind of bullying in the past. A recent case of the suicide of a 13 year-old queer boy due to homophobic bullying has surfaced only in the last few days.
In posts and videos, Kenji wants people to understand and respect his ethics and approaches to photo-journalism. He says he’ll never give up his ‘impartiality’. He continues to play the virtuous victim, without acknowledging the real victims of this; Roz Ward and potentially LGBTQIA+ children that could benefit from the Safe Schools program. He laps up comments of support, a lot of which come from the far-right. Neo-nazis talk about how they should pay Kenji to take photos of them at rallies. Kenji continues to build his brand, opportunistically leeching off yet another event, except this time it’s an event that he actually helped create, even if it’s been to the detriment of others. He’s thinking about releasing a series of videos on journalistic ethics and impartiality during his ‘hiatus’ from activist photography.
Kenji’s ‘impartiality’ in practice involves capturing both sides of fascist/anti-fascist rallies. This means that fascists receive unfiltered intelligence about anti-fascist activists. This intelligence has led to death threats and attacks on anti-fascist activists in the past. There’s one neo-nazi currently facing terrorism charges because he wanted to blow up known lefties in Melbourne. Kenji has mounted a 360 degree camera to a helmet that live-streams footage from the rallies to Facebook. He has been told that this piece of equipment is not welcome at our rallies. He hasn’t listened. On this basis alone Kenji shouldn’t be welcomed into spaces we organise in, with people we owe protection and security to. It would be negligent of us to continue to allow Kenji entry into our rallies. If our safety isn’t factored into his ethics, we should make sure he knows where he stands with us.
If Kenji is with us in our fight to maintain what little inclusive space in this world we can, his actions don’t show it. He doesn’t seem to care about how to operate in spaces based on ethics defined by the people that created those spaces. He takes from our movements for himself, to the detriment of our work. He puts his own career and ethics before the efforts, energy and fundamentally, the safety of hard-working activists. We have a right to act according to our ethics to keep ourselves safe, and that doesn’t come second to Kenji’s photojournalist ethics and purported ‘loyalty to the truth’.
The fundamental point is, Kenji has done whatever he pleases, but time has long past since activists began to feel uncomfortable with their non-consensual involvement in his career-building efforts. This is at heart what has happened here and this is something that has been going on for longer than just this incident. We know more than we’ve let on about Kenji, and this is only the latest in a string of serious misconduct. Yet, we exercise restraint because we can consider the potential repercussions for other victims of Kenji’s past actions and don’t want any backlash for those people. Had we failed as Kenji did to realise how media can be used to hurt the innocent, there might’ve been more to talk about regarding Kenji’s overstayed welcome on the Left.
There is a sizeable contingent of anti-fascists known to us who won’t be welcoming Kenji back to a space he’s made hostile for more reasons than just greed, disrespect and negligence. We invite other activists to join us in ensuring the continued defence of our activist communities and spaces from people who would make a career of disrespecting our work.
Kenji is not our comrade.