For over a decade, Katie Jett Walls focused her work on families. The portfolio for her company, Red Turtle Photography, is chock full of cuteness: newborns nestling into their mothers, swaddled babies taking naps, and parents playing with their kids.
But since Trump took office, she has also been documenting a new set of subjects: protesters. They aren’t necessarily aww-worthy, but they’re still rich with emotion in their own way. At least once a week, the Brightwood-based photographer has been attending events throughout D.C. to catch ‘the Resistance’ in action.
Currently, she just posts her stirring black and white street photography on her website, though she would love to do an exhibition of her work (hint, hint gallery owners). We sat down with her to find out how she caught the shutterbug bug and how she went from photographing toddlers to snapping activists.
What first inspired your interest in photography?
“My dad did hobby photography when I was a little kid. He had a darkroom set up in the bathroom. I didn’t get into it myself until I was 26, when my grandfather passed away. My grandmother found his old camera and gave it to me.”
When did you pick up your first camera and what was it?
“It was a Minolta SRT 201. The battery was dead, so it didn’t even have a functioning light meter. I took it home to southwest Virginia where I was living and spent the whole fall and winter figuring out how to use it. I would sneak out of work a little early – so I could get good light – and drive through the mountains taking pictures of anything that inspired me. I learned the ins and outs of depth of field and shutter speed and ISO. Ultimately, I decided to quit my job and run away to the Oklahoma School of Photography to enroll in their year long program.”
What is your camera of choice today?
“I have two cameras. The first is a Canon 5D Mark III, which I use for my family and children photography. When I started shooting street photography in fall 2016, I realized that camera was big and noticeable, and I didn’t want to stand out. So I bought a little used Olympus OM-D E-M10. It’s very discreet.”
How did you get into photographing D.C.’s protest scene?
“The election was kind of a shock. I told my husband the day after, ‘This means something different to me. It means my work will be changing, because we live where all of this is going to unfold.’ I felt pretty confident that things were going to go down in D.C. So we talked about what it would mean for me to just jump up and go every time I found out there was a protest and needed to be there. I started with the inauguration parade and the Women’s March on Washington. This work has made me feel like I have a voice and a role in making change”
What’s your favorite type of photography?
“I really jive with street photography. It’s my happy place.”
What photo are you most proud of?
“The one I’m currently in love with the most was from the day all the local high schools did a walkout. It was within a week after the election. One of the pictures I got was this lovely high school girl carrying an American flag stretched between her two arms, so it was hanging behind her like a cape. The sun is coming through the flag and there’s a really determined look on her face. To me, the energy of that moment – the potential of her youth and what this means to her – really stuck with me.”
What's the coolest or most memorable experience you’ve had while shooting?
“There was a moment during the inauguration parade. There were very long lines backed up to get on the parade route, so I was trying to get through them, while trying to photograph the protesters who were also trying to enter. There was a 10-year-old mixed race boy standing on the sidewalk holding a sign that said ‘Stop Bigotry.’ He’s just standing there holding his sign and minding his own business when this older white man walks by, looks at the kid’s sign and gets in the child’s face. He said, ‘You know the Democrats are the party of the KKK, don’t you?’ I had just taken the boy’s photo, so I turned to the guy – I was no more than a foot from him – and took three or four shots in face really rapidly. He said, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘I just need a picture of you to go with the caption you just provided.’ He told me I didn’t have the right to take his picture and I explained that I absolutely did. There’s a part of me when I’m photographing that’s just fearless. A couple of times, I’ve seen people reacting to children like that – there was another guy watching the high schoolers protestors just giving them the finger – and I want to make them own their actions by taking their picture.”
What’s at the top of your photography bucket list?
“I would love to do some street photography in Vietnam. People live out in public and don’t have the same privacy and space feelings that we do here.”
Where are your favorite places to photograph in the DMV area?
“I like Georgia Avenue – from Piney Branch down into Petworth. There’s a grittiness there that’s disappearing from parts of our city and it’s close to my home, so it feels special to me. Dupont Circle has an interesting mix of people; there’s a lot of energy and a lot of color. For protest photography, the space between the Supreme Court and the Capitol is fantastic, because you can capture the energy of the protest while tying it to a place.”
Do you have any advice for aspiring photographers?
“Step out of the box to try something else. See the ways it can open your mind and your way of looking at the world. It will help you overcome fears and inhibitions. For me, doing street photography has opened up an interest in a lot of other fine art photography that I might have otherwise never been affected by.”
What’s one of your hobbies outside of photography?
“I love curling up and checking out 99 cents documentaries on iTunes.”
What’s your life motto?
“I never lose. I either win or I learn.” - Nelson Mandela