By Mariame Kaba
Editor’s note: Praxis Center is thrilled to feature the photographs of Sarah Jane Rhee on our home page for the month of February.
If you are at a protest or action in Chicago, you can’t miss her. She’s the one with the camera in her hands wearing a t-shirt in the summer and bubble coat in winter. I first saw Sarah Jane Rhee at a protest. We weren’t yet friends but I watched her running ahead of the march and then saw her blending into the crowd. I was struck by her calm energy and efficient manner. Later, when I saw her photographs from that protest, I was struck by all that she had documented and even more by all that I had missed. I wanted to know this woman who had such a keen eye and seemed to use it to capture us at our best.
Years later, I consider Sarah to be one of my people, one of my most trusted comrades and friends. When Praxis asked me to write something to introduce their readers to Sarah and her work, I jumped at the chance. Sarah and I don’t usually talk about her photographs. We are more likely to exchange Facebook messages and calls about ordering pizza for a meeting or about exchanging keys to her car or about a problem facing one of our common friends.
Last week, I spoke to Sarah on the phone about her photography and social justice.
Sarah Jane Rhee moved to Chicago in 1978 with her family from Seoul, Korea. She explained that being an immigrant is one of the reasons that she turned to photography as a hobby:
I have a split in memory. I categorize life as before I came to the U.S. and after I came to the U.S. As a young person, I wanted very much to remember the life I had before I came to the U.S. Memories are super important to me. I was lazy and I didn’t want to write them down. But I wanted to remember so I took photographs.
For Sarah, nostalgia was one motivator for taking photographs as a young person, but so too was a desire to reconcile her own multiple identities. Both of these interests, keeping memories and reconciling her identities, still animate her photography as an adult. But to hear her tell it, a desire to be in solidarity with people and struggle is what most drives her photography today. Sarah explains:
My work is fundamentally a way for me to be in solidarity with struggle. It’s been a learning process for the past 4.5 years about what it means to be in solidarity as someone who holds a camera. Solidarity for me is a relational thing. A lot of the things I’ve chosen to document are struggles that are being spearheaded by people or groups that I have relationships with. It’s an important part of how I operate.
Over the past four and a half years, Sarah has taken thousands upon thousands of photos at protests and events across Chicago. What distinguishes Sarah’s photography for me is how it lovingly documents its subjects. Sarah’s work depicts collective resistance. To her, the struggle is always about love. And this can be seen in and through her work.
One of my very favorite photographs taken by Sarah depicts a young black boy no more than seven or eight years old at a protest against the Chicago police department that we both attended this summer on the Westside. I wrote about the protest and that photo at the time:
As I was looking at the beautiful photos taken by my friend Sarah after I got home, I was riveted by one image in particular. It’s a photograph of a boy, probably no older than 10 years old, standing with a look on his face that I can’t quite decipher. I didn’t see him at the protest because there were so many people there. I thought of what I’d like to say to him about the importance of protest and refusal. So I turned to Dr. King as I often do: “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
I hope this is an idea that the boy in the photo below comes to understand in his adulthood. And I hope that this understanding translates into a lifelong commitment to protest, refusal and most importantly to love as a verb.
When I asked Sarah about any favorite photos that she’s taken, she referenced the same one that I had singled out. She said that she is naturally drawn to children in her photography. She told me that it was the young boy’s demeanor at the summer protest that first got her attention. She added: “There was something about his face and the way he was standing there. I can still see him in my head. There were signs all around saying that Black lives matter and I thought that he embodied that in his presence.”
She had a similar reaction to a photograph of a young black boy that she took in October at a protest in St. Louis for the killing of Mike Brown. Sarah’s interest in photographing children is probably connected to her role as the mother of one of my favorite young people, Cadence, who was and continues to be a big influence on Sarah’s work and her activism:
Cadence is probably the reason I got into organizing in the first place. When she was going to be entering kindergarten, that’s when I started doing research about public education. I learned that things were fucked up. I stumbled on Teachers for Social Justice and other local groups’ websites and I ended up making connections to activists and organizers. The first people within the activist community in Chicago that I met were people from AREA Chicago. That’s how I learned about the La Casita struggle.
La Casita was Sarah’s entry point into local protests and organizing struggles. She often says that the fight to keep that community space open was how she “fell into activism.” It was the first local struggle that she documented. She says the photos that she later took of La Casita ultimately being demolished were very emotional. She added: “It made me think. What is the meaning of struggle? What does winning mean? What does it mean especially when we end up losing the fight in the short term?”
Look closely at some of the photos that Sarah took during that terrible time. They are heart-wrenching. They convey the grief and sense of loss of the parents who fought so hard and long to keep that space open for their children. Sarah remembers standing with one of the mothers who was part of the ongoing resistance against destroying the center as she was bearing witness to the demolition of a building that meant so much to her and her kids. “It was devastating,” she says.
On the other hand, photography helps to fuel Sarah’s hope too. She tells me that she takes photos: “To keep myself from giving up hope. When I am surrounded by all those people, it is hopeful. I feel hopeful.”
Sarah is not formally trained as a photographer. She doesn’t consider herself to be an artist. In her words, “it was just something I did on the side.” Above all, Sarah values the relationships that she cultivates more than the photos that she takes. Her photographs are intended to capture the story of the resistance happening in Chicago as it happens. They are, according to her, “a way of keeping a record of the fact that people are always resisting and so that we don’t forget.”
Recently, Sarah has realized that she’s not just or primarily a photographer but rather an organizer. She remembers her time at La Casita that served to politicize her: “At the time, I thought that I was just taking photos but I’ve been organizing all along and that’s how I’ve built relationships with people.”
Ultimately, people and relationships are what matter to Sarah in her photography and in her life. People have said that Sarah’s photos help them to feel connected to the struggle and resistance happening across Chicago. Sarah takes this very seriously as she knows that “not everyone can be in the streets.” She told me that:
Photos of what’s happening as it happens can provide people a way to connect to that struggle. Seeing an image can create an emotional connection whereas hearing about it may not have the same impact. Photos serve that function of helping people to make connections to struggles.
I asked Sarah if she senses a difference in the protests and organizing happening in Chicago from five years ago to today. She responded that “things feel more urgent on some level in the last 5 to 6 months.” I feel the same way. We’ve both noticed more new and younger faces at various #BlackLivesMatter protests and actions across the city. There has also been an increase in creative forms of protest alongside more traditional organizing. Sarah says that she is encouraged by these developments. She is quick to add however that organizing is a long-term proposition:
I was thinking today about the teacher’s strike of 2012 because their contracts are up again. In some ways, it feels cyclical. There are some struggles that are definitely ongoing. We haven’t closed schools since 2013 but you know that the struggle is still going on. The struggle for educational justice has been so hard. I don’t see things getting easier with a Mayor like Rahm and now [Governor] Rauner. People have to be in the fight for the long haul.
Sarah sees herself as one of the people who are in the middle of this long-term organizing. She isn’t simply documenting what’s happening, she is participating too. As she says, “doing the work is part of making these images. The main reason I do it is because I love the people who are involved, that I work with, and that’s what drives me to take photos.”
Sarah is incredibly generous with her work. I have used her photographs on my blog for years and people across the world have relied on her eye to tell various stories about struggle, resistance and organizing in Chicago. Her photographs remind us that even in the midst of potent forms of oppression, people aren’t discouraged. Communities across this city keep fighting for their survival and to build livable lives for themselves and for others.
Mariame Kaba is the founding director of Project NIA, a grassroots organization with a vision to end youth incarceration. She has been part of creating multiple organizations projects over the years including the Chicago Freedom School, the Chicago Taskforce on Violence against Girls and Young Women, and the Rogers Park Young Women’s Action Team among others. She runs the blog Prison Culture and her Twitter handle is @prisonculture.