In the mid 1980’s, I was a professor at Colorado State University, running the creative photography program.  We were doing a self-portrait assignment.  In this assignment, students would try to shock me.  I often told them that no one has ever succeeded in that and I always dared them to try.  However, there was one student who succeeded, without intent, to shock me to the core.  

His name was Eric.  He was an extremely quiet, reserved, handsome, athletic young man from Greeley, Colorado.  On first impression, he came across as the all-American, wholesome boy next door.  

Eric presented his self-portrait contact sheets to me for review.  Most of the images were taken in a large, windowless conference room.  In the center of the meeting room was a huge mahogany table, large enough to seat 30 people.  The chairs were also heavy and dark.  On the wall, at the head of the table, hung a massive Nazi swastika banner.  The old fluorescent lighting in the room felt dark and sinister.  As I looked at the small images on the proof sheet with a magnifying loop, I could feel a chill go up my spine and my gut knot up.  I kept my professional exterior calm, talked technical, and avoided any acknowledgment of the content.

Haunted by what I had seen, I couldn’t sleep for weeks.  Part of my shock was that he was not the dysfunctional, acne faced stereotype neo-Nazi.  These private self-portrait explorations exposed me to a world I had not been privy to before.  My students held me in high respect as their teacher and Eric was no exception.  I was in conflict teaching expressive skills, wondering to what end they could be used for.  I did not confront him with his personal life that semester.  At the end of the semester, when our professional relationship had come to an end,  I approached him about allowing me to do a series of portraits of him with his Nazi paraphernalia. He was very interested and agreed without hesitation.

I had never experienced as much fear and horror as what I felt through my camera that day, but I was determined to not lose this rare opportunity to document this young man.  Eric was very proud and was in his private glory.  He was an easy subject to work with.  With his trust in me as his teacher, I was able to orchestrate and create without question.  I scouted out several locations to work in.  One of them being an abandoned mill that a friend of mine had just purchased.  It seemed a stark and lifeless place reminiscent of prison-like death rooms.  I had also been storing a large icicle in the freezer all summer.  The icicle seemed a good metaphor to use in a photo scenario; it was threatening, reminiscent of a sci-fi gun, and the cold ice did not melt when such a person held it.

I made a set of prints for him and when I presented them to him at his fraternity house, he was thrilled.  It was as if I had made his fantasies real.  He told me later that day, that he presented the images to his fraternity brothers.  They loved them and cheered him on.  

Eric’s father was the head of a large neo-Nazi group in Greeley.  Eric’s father had raised him in this white-supremacist ideology and he did it well.  Upon Eric’s 18th birthday, his father presented him with his own vintage SS uniform.  According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (an organization that monitors and tracks hate groups), Greeley is a hot spot with its own white-supremacist newspaper.  Denver also had clashes with a neo-Nazi parade marching through a black neighborhood around that time in the 1980’s.  

My intentions were to bring this phenomenon in the open for others to see and feel.  As I was putting this website together, some 35 years later, the rise of bigotry, racist massacres and the tide of hatred has continued to rise.  These ideologies will never cease to exist.  They just go underground or surface based on the social climate of the time.  It is not something we have evolved beyond with history. The fight against racism begins with awareness and is an ongoing, human struggle.

In retrospect, I look at this portfolio and see most of the images as having a judgmental quality to them – making Eric appear to be the dark, evil character that I felt.  It is the more objective photos that I feel to be the most successful.  In those, the viewer participates with their own conclusions.  The image presents a proposition for the viewer to interpret. They are, like most of my work, a passage from a story that is to be completed by the viewer ; like a page from a lost story inviting the viewer to imagine the story that it is a passage from.  

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    Copyright John Bonath 2019