The Virginia Holocaust Museum opened an exhibit documenting the Unite the Right Rally and counter protest in Charlottesville last year. The museum and curator hope the exhibit, There’s Just Us, sparks conversations on standing up to bigotry and racism. WCVE’s Evie King has more.
Alec Hosterman says initially, he decided to go to the Charlottesville rally because he liked capturing pictures of protest signs.
“Friday night changed all of that. I switched my view. I'm like, 'ok. This is important. This is a story.'"
Hosterman is a photo-documentarian and professor at Longwood University. His goal is to take photographs that tell stories.
"And that story has to be something that's worth telling in a sense."
"We thought, maybe 100 people would show up, and it was close to 300 marchers."
Holding lit tiki torches, they circled UVA grounds, chanting loudly into the night,
"Blood and soil, blood and soil, now it's not just me, saying blood and soil, its them as a group, all at the top of their lungs yelling."
The phrase is widely circulated in white supremacist groups. Its history is deeply rooted in extreme nationalism and racism.
"You get a group of people together, that feeling, that sense of comradery, unification, 'I believe this,' even though unite the right was about bringing 15-20 different white supremacist groups together KKK was a small little portion of it, Vanguard America, a variety of other ones, they were all coming together, when they all start yelling these chants and getting into that moment, emotions take over. They were there to create havoc, to disrupt."
After the experience Friday night, Hosterman didn’t know if he wanted to go back.
"And then I realized, you know-at the time I said, 'no it can't get any worse than that.' Again, little did we know, you know there would be, what happened."
When he arrived at the park Saturday morning he saw a growing crowd of counter protestors, including local religious leaders who lined the perimeter.
"So in order to enter the park, these white supremacists had to walk through a line of these local religious leaders, chanting 'love has already won.'"
The feature photo of the exhibit was taken at this moment. It's a cropped image of two people, linked arm and arm. It's called Solidarity. Hosterman says the image's general anonymity spoke to the exhibit's theme of standing up together against hate.
"You don't know who the people are, you don't know if they're male or female, you don't know what political orientation they are, but they're arm and arm and that to me kind of coincided with 'There's Just Us.' 'There's Just Us' kind of says yeah, we're all people and so we all share something in common, and so we may be divided politically, we may be divided by religion, but we all know that we can stand up against hate."
Hosterman says the animosity between the groups started escalating around 10:30.
"The people were fighting one another, they were throwing urine balloons, paint balloons, water balloons, water bottles, smoke bombs, tear gas, pepper spray, that's where a lot of that happened."
Hosterman says in the midst of the chaos that day, the most challenging part was to stay behind the camera.
"I came right next to people who believe something, diametrically opposed to what I believe, and I had to remind myself, I'm there to photograph, so photograph, what you think is that protest. You know, channel it through what my images are."
Hosterman photographed tense exchanges and later made his way to a safe zone. There he and others head the news of a car ramming into a crowd a few blocks away, and that someone had been killed.
"The tensions were heightened at that stage. It was a heightened moment."
Hosterman describes Saturday evening as a surreal blur, piecing together information that was coming out on the news and looking over the 1500 plus pictures he had taken.
"We were kind of all decompressing and trying to make sense of what we saw. It was tough, I mean it really was. It was tough knowing what happened."
Hosterman’s exhibit There’s Just Us features ten photos, the last is a black and white image of a smoke bomb going off. It captures people running away and covering their faces. The title is Chaos. Hosterman says he intentionally resisted ending the collection on a note of closure.
"This isn't an event that should have a happy ending. A woman died, people were hurt, I can't wrap this up so you can forget about it. You're gonna walk away, and you're gonna think about it, and its gonna be on your brains, and that's good. In my opinion that's really good. It's hard, but its worth doing."
Hosterman is working on a book covering his experience at the rally. He says it's hard to write, and it's going to take him some time, but overall, he's proud of the work he produced.
"If I can help people understand it, and know it, and realize where they see it, they can do their part to combat it. So my part is taking photographs, and if I can do my part by taking photographs, and telling the story of what I saw, then I think I've done something. I mean, at 22/23 years of photography, I think this is this is my most important stuff I've ever created."
"We need to combat the hate.”
At the exhibit, Holocaust survivor and museum board member Dr. Roger Loria says acknowledging this hurtful reality helps society to recognize bigotry and fight against it.
"We should stand our ground and make sure to resist the hate, across the board. Because if you allow that, society becomes mayhem"
The Virginia Museum Holocaust museum considers itself a beacon of hope against intolerance. Angela Rueda is assistant curator.
”Our hope in showing the exhibition is that people are gonna leave inspired to fight hate, bigotry, anti-semitism, all of these bigger issues, in their day to day life."
Rueda says the museum is focusing on the issue of white supremacy and bigotry in a current context, heading into the fall with upcoming programs and exhibits. The museum is also looking to add online resources to facilitate difficult conversations on the issue.
"And so really again, just trying to educate people on the issue, that it is prevalent, that there is a connection with the history that we tell, and providing resources and a space for people to discuss that, to know how to combat it."
The exhibit There's Just Us can be viewed at the Virginia Holocaust Museum through October. It will be followed by the exhibit Break Glass, centering on the importance of civil rights and equality. Evie King, WCVE News.