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Activist Ethan Halpern Is Putting [Real] Bodies on Display

Although he’s only just graduated high school, Ethan Halpern is earning himself quite the reputation. After forming Rise Up Initiative, an organization that promotes political awareness, with friends, he was shot by Ryan McGinley for the latest issue of Dazed Magazine alongside a host of impressive young activists. He also spends quite a bit of time behind the camera, including taking over the Milk Instagram for Pride weekend, and today he is out with a new photo series titled “Claiming Our Bodies”, which captures the personalities of his diverse array of friends. Check it out above, and read on to learn about Rise Up and where Halpern is going next.

How did you develop your style of photography? Where did you start?

I’m from Westchester, so I’m in the city quite often. I went to a public high school that was known for the arts. It wasn’t an art school or anything, but our department happened to be really good. In 11th grade, only about two years ago I guess, I took a photography class that was half digital and half dark room. Other than that everything I do in terms of photography is self taught. The dark room class that I took was all black and white, which is really different film from color. Color I don’t develop myself, that’s so much work. I go to a place on Canal Street [laughs]. I really learned a lot from that class, but I think I learned more just by exploring the city and exploring Instagram and all that. New York City has definitely influenced me because you just have to be here. I’m really into film and I started off with digital, then black and white film, then I graduated into color and I wanted to explore it. My school didn’t have anything color, so I had to learn how to do it on my own, which I was totally fine with and I just explored. I’ve been doing color film since September. It’s just all experimental, that’s a lot of my work in general. In a nutshell I’m very experimental.

Who inspires you? What photographers do you look up to?

I follow a bunch of other artists that are similar to my age on IG, and I am always in awe of what they can do. And I figured that if they’re just around my age or older, there’s no reason why I can’t be doing it. That said, I think that now in 2018 nothing is original, unfortunately, as an artist, and I obviously take inspiration and stuff from other artists. I take a lot of inspiration from Ryan McGinley, who I actually had the pleasure to shoot with for Dazed. He shot me for Dazed Mag and it was literally crazy. I also take a lot of inspiration from Ashley Armitage. Her instagram is @ladyist. Her work is incredible. And of course I feel compelled to say Annie Lebowitz and Cindy Sherman.

Can you tell me about your new series, “Claiming Our Bodies”?

For this “Claiming Our Bodies” shoot I wanted to do something sort of showcasing people differently. I consider myself somewhat of an activist. I think that we are living right now in a country where the administration is only caring for people who are exactly one way, and I think that people are all different shapes, sizes, colors, hair styles and personalities, and so I sort of wanted to capture that aspect. The majority of people that I shoot are my friends. I live in New York, so I meet people through Instagram, or through school or whatever, so some of the people that I shot are sophomores at Parsons that I met through, you know, life, and then some of the people are my own friends from school and home.

Tell me about how you got involved with activism. What do you see your role as?

I remember watching Obama get elected when I was 8, and that was very exciting. My parents were super excited. You could tell it was a big deal. Then when Hilary campaigned in 2015, that got me thinking wow, I can be alive when we have the first woman president. Not only first woman, but also first black person, with Obama. So then I followed along her campaign and was very interested in the election. I was always for Hillary, never for Bernie. Obviously she didn’t win, and it was like…oh my god. So then I really got interested in all this type of thing. I don’t really know exactly what provoked me to do it, because there are so many things wrong with Trump.

How did your project Rise Up Initiative form?

Last summer I did a Parson’s precollege program, and we had a poster prompt. We could create a poster about literally anything, and I was like hm what do I like? Politics. So I created a poster called Rise Up and Resist. Our final project was to create a brand. Some kids in the class made a coffee shop and some kids made a movie, and that type of thing. At first I was going to do a hotel [laughing] and I wasn’t really having it. I didn’t have any inspiration, so I was talking to my teacher and she was like why don’t you create something off of Rise Up and Resist? And I was like wow, that’s a good idea. I didn’t really create anything at the time other than stickers, but part of the project was to make a mockup, so I made a mockup of subway posters and t-shirts and this and that. I bought the stickers online—the whole deal. I gave them out to friends and put them on street posts and whatever. Obviously everything Trump has been doing since he got into politics has been terrible, so later in April I gathered my friends and created an organization called Rise Up Initiative using my poster and a lot of the same ideas.

What does Rise Up Initiative do?

We are an organization for Gen Z, which are people born between 96 and 2004—I was born in 2000, so I fit right in the middle of it. It’s made to get people that age informed and aware, which is so important. We are sort of are taking it one day at a time based on whatever he [Trump] does next. The big thing right now is getting people registered to vote. Getting people to vote, not only registered. There are a lot of people registered in the country, but it doesn’t mean that that person is going to vote. We’re doing this project called the Summer of Change, where everybody on our Instagram gets two people to register to vote. We have over a thousand people registered, and that’s a work in progress. Some of my friends disagree, but I don’t want to endorse candidates. I live in New York, so I am personally for Cynthia Nixon, but I don’t want people to get turned off because an organization says that they are endorsing one person. We try to make it as nonpartisan as we can, but at the same time the organization was created as something against Trump.

You were photographed with a group of other activists for the cover of Dazed. How did you get involved in the shoot?

I got a credit in Dazed from my friend Harriet, who is actually in the “Claiming Our Bodies” photos. She is really beautiful, and a writer who is my age. After the Parkland shooting Dazed was looking for some student activists, and Harriet saw this Dazed writer Tweet about it. Harriet DM’ed her, and we took over their IG for the student walk-out, we did a whole video with them in March, unrelated to Ryan’s shoot, and we performed a poem Harriet wrote. So that was really fun. And then we got this whole cover shoot thing! It’s crazy. I was just with Harriet picking up the physical copies of Dazed.

Who do you look up to in the activism community?

I have to say that even though I was really into Hillary, looking back I do look up to Bernie. He had a lot of energy that she just didn’t have. I look up to Ilana Glazer from Broad City [laughing]. She is an actress and artist doing her own thing and I’m an artist trying to do my own thing. She is so passionate. I have to say Emma Gonzalez and the kids from Parkland, because they are so ruthless. New York is a city of possibility, so I’m not afraid to reach out and get something going. I worked on the Shelley Meyer campaign for state senate. I am so excited to work on the Cynthia Nixon campaign.

Images courtesy of Ethan Halpern

Stay tuned to Milk to discover more artists.

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