Katie Forbes set out to photograph a movement and instead found a community

Andy Downing
Katie Forbes

Katie Forbes has always had an interest in photography, but a pivotal moment arrived during her sophomore year of high school, when, as part of a class project, she was introduced to the work of Margaret Bourke-White, a Cleveland-based photojournalist who was the first female of her profession employed byLife magazine. 

Among the numerous images that captured Forbes’ imagination were a rare photograph of a smiling Joseph Stalin (Forbes explained that Bourke-White dropped and broke a box of flash bulbs just prior to taking the picture, which elicited a muted, Mona Lisa-esque smile from the Soviet dictator) and “World’s Highest Standard of Living,” first published in the February 1937 issue ofLife, which depicts Black citizens standing in line beneath an advertisement featuring an idealized white American family. “There’s no way like the American way,” the tagline on the billboard reads, its message cutting against the real-life scene unfolding beneath it.

“And the juxtaposition of that, which [Bourke-White] came across naturally, I thought that was the most striking example of the discrepancy between what life is like in the U.S. if you’re Black and if you’re white, and that really stuck with me,” said Forbes, who was born in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and raised by a lesbian, Jewish mother in an upbringing that she half-jokingly explained left her with little choice but to become a liberal. “I’ve always had that social justice brain, or in my mind I was always aware of the differences with which people are treated and how things are perceived.”

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Initially, Forbes thought these interests would propel her into a career as a U.S. ambassador. She graduated from Ohio State with a degree in anthropology, international relations and diplomacy, but soon soured on the career path owing to the more toxic, political aspects of the job.

Following graduation, Forbes returned to Cleveland and flirted with the idea of joining the Peace Corps, eventually opting not to deploy because she felt the program was too heavily geared toward introducing Western ways to Indigenous populations (“You’re offering assistance for what you think they need help with rather than asking them what they need help with,” she said). Instead she took a job with a foster care agency, moving to Columbus around 2010 when she had the opportunity to head a YWCA program assisting the homeless in applying for city and county benefits. After leaving the YWCA, Forbes briefly landed a job with the pro-choice adoption agency Choice Network.

Through all of these career shifts, Forbes maintained an interest in photography, eventually deciding to give the hobby a go as a full-time career in 2014, leaving her job with Choice Network andlaunching a photography website. While the self-taught Forbes enjoyed taking pictures of families, largely working with the birth parents she met previously through her agency job, the act of posing people for photographs has never felt entirely natural, with Forbes preferring to capture more spontaneous images as events unfold. “There is such beauty in those moments where people aren’t really paying attention,” she said.

So Forbes set out to find these spontaneous moments of beauty among the protesters whom she viewed as fighting for a better world, first photographing a local Black Lives Matter action in 2016. During the protest, Forbes captured one image, later posted to Facebook, that depicted a woman with her back to the camera standing to face a crowd of protesters. The woman in the picture turned out to be a photographer with Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). Struck by the image, the woman, who was moving out of state, put Forbes in touch with SURJ’s leadership, which soon started inviting Forbes to photograph its demonstrations, leading to similar arrangements with organizations such as People’s Justice Project (PJP) and turning Forbes into one of the preeminent photojournalists documenting the social justice movement that has unfolded in Columbus over the last four years.

Forbes said the invite came at a welcome time when she was depressed by how ugly everything felt both socially and politically within the country. “I needed to see for myself that there are good people in the world … who will help in whatever way they can,” Forbes wrote in a text message a few days after our initial phone interview. “And I found that and so much more.”

Forbes' growing portfolio includes images that are both heartbreaking and hopeful, and she’s photographed a majority of the key local figures at the forefront of the modern social justice movement, including late activists Amber Evans andRubén Castilla Herrera. She also captured the first images of the right wing protesters who stationed themselves outside of former Ohio health director Dr. Amy Acton's Bexley home; those photos soon went viral, Forbes' pictures making their way into The Washington Post and on-air with "The Today Show."

Early on, Forbes struggled to balance a desire to accurately document events with a respect for the physical and emotional space of those she was photographing, many of whom were in the midst of deeply personal, often traumatic experiences. 

“I knew I was documenting some really personal things and I didn’t want to be intrusive, and one time Aramis [Sundiata of PJP] kind of nudged me with his elbow, like, ‘Get in there. This is what we want you to capture,’ even though it was Ty’re King’s mother crying right after she learned that her son’s killer wouldn’t be indicted,” Forbes said. “That was a time for me when I realized it’s important to capture these hard moments. … People need to see it. They need to see what the effect of that pain is, and how it doesn’t stop at a trial, and it doesn’t stop at a grand jury failing to indict. That trauma lasts and is spread throughout a family, and I don’t think we as a society acknowledge that enough, or even realize it.”

The work of documenting these sometimes traumatic events can take a physical and emotional toll — Forbes was pepper sprayed by police during the Downtown protests that erupted in late May — but the photographer said she’s driven to carry on by a sense of responsibility to those who have entrusted her with the work, as well as what it has meant for her greater sense of belonging.

“I definitely feel a duty, and I feel indebted to them for helping me to grow as a photographer, but also the education I’m getting from them,” Forbes said of groups like PJP, SURJ, BQIC and more. “Those community leaders on the whole are just so supportive. … It no longer feels like it's just their story that I’m documenting. It feels like our story as a community.”

Katie Forbes Photography