Mark Ludak ’81, an accomplished fine art and documentary photographer, has covered a slew of topics and events including natural disasters, the September 11 attacks, the Iraq War, and social issues such as homelessness and the AIDS epidemic.
Following the 2015 mass shooting of nine people attending a church prayer service in Charleston, South Carolina, Ludak was inspired to begin documenting events related to white supremacy, the Ku Klux Klan, and neo-confederacy. On August 12, that work brought him to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Ludak captured a host of images from the volatile rally and counter-protests, including several showing James Alex Fields Jr., who was there marching alongside the white-supremacist groups and was later charged with second-degree murder after allegedly driving his car into a crowd of people, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer in the process.
I sat down with Ludak as he reflected on the events that unfolded that day.
After 9/11 you took a hiatus from covering breaking news. What was it about the Charleston shooting that inspired you to cover news again?
I was shocked by what happened—that someone would go into a church and shoot nine people. That made me see that there was really something going on in the United States right now, and it’s really ugly and it’s as horrible as anything that I have seen in any social conflict and that is white supremacy and the rise of it. That’s what the shooter was all about. So, I began to cover that—white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan, white nationalists. And it’s been one thing after the other.
What was it like being in Charlottesville?
You know people were screaming and yelling. They were really angry and they started throwing things and chanting, “Blood and Soil”—that was a big one. There were a lot of anti-Semitic remarks. The N-word. Otherwise, you know, they’re saying all of the “right things” like free speech, we’re here for our free speech rights. Which is really not all that believable.
One of your images captures a group of white supremacists beating a female counter-protestor. What led up to that moment?
That was the first thing. Those people are a white nationalist group from Florida. They’re hard core white nationalists. The person who was being protected by that group, he was an older man, they were sort of protecting him, and they just went after that woman and punched her in the face really hard. She was just standing there and these guys wanted to get through. It’s not like she’s provoking… I was standing there too. That part was pretty intense; it was in the very beginning and then it just got crazier after that. Tear gas started to get thrown back and forth—water bottles filled with urine.
What’s going on in your mind during moments like that?
These people (white supremacists), they’re angry and you know the goal, in this situation, is not to react. You don’t engage with them and you don’t feed into it and you stay professional. It’s a shame. People when they’re like that—they’re not in their right mind. And you have to have some level of compassion for them as individuals, you know, they have to be suffering tremendously to go to those lengths, to victimize other people.
Two weeks ago you documented MOAR (the Mother of All Rallies) in D.C. What was that like?
That was quite strange because it was very small—it was 2,000 people maximum. But it was definitely the diehards—people who believe that this administration is working and that Donald Trump is really affecting change in their lives. I think this administration has enabled white supremacy—whether Donald Trump himself is or not, that’s debatable—but I think he’s very aware that white supremacy and people thinking along those lines accounts for a large percentage of his base. And there’s no doubt that people have come out of the woodwork as a result of this.
You know, I would never have expected that someone would have driven into a crowd of people. That’s on the level of somebody flying into the World Trade Center—I would have never imagined that this would have happened in the United States. Never. It’s really, it’s crazy and it will be interesting to see how this pans out. I don’t think it’s over yet.