Mary Katzke began documenting the world around her early. In third grade, she became class photographer, preserving images of posing classmates with a little Brownie camera. Today, she can still look at old photos and recall everything about the moment — the cold air, the pants she wore under her dress for warmth, her new red-and-white Christmas jacket.
There’s something wonderful, Katzke said, about the way a camera can preserve those memories. Photography and videography are a form of “visual poetry” — a way to record vital histories and communicate important messages about communities, culture and moments in time.
“That’s why I think it’s so important to capture these things,” she said. “People say you’re living behind your camera, but I really don’t think so — I’m living through it, and with it.”
Decades after picking up her first camera, Katzke has produced and directed more than three dozen films, featuring everything from community changemakers to environmental catastrophes. Her work embraces the vulnerable. Cancer patients. People with Alzheimer’s or traumatic brain injuries. Those affected most by some of society’s most pressing challenges.
But a career spent sharing those stories happened through “a very random” yet intuitive decision, she said.
Issue-oriented from the beginning, she’d initially planned on becoming a social worker. She had never seen women working as videographers or producers or directors, and it didn’t seem like women had a professional chance behind the camera.
Then, while registering for classes at the University of Texas Austin in her junior year, students in a neighboring line caught her eye. It was the line for the radio, television and film majors.
“And I kept looking at them and they were laughing and they were dressed creatively; some were frat boys and some of them were hippie girls, and I just thought, ‘That is so much more interesting,’” Katzke said. “So I literally stepped over to the other line, scrambled through the catalogue and picked out my classes, and I’ve never really looked back.”
After a brief stint in law school, she moved to Alaska and made documentaries for eight years before receiving a scholarship to attend New York University’s graduate film school. She temporarily relocated to New York and began commuting back and forth between coasts.
Life changed when she received a cancer diagnosis the day after graduation, she said. She transformed the ensuing experience into a series of videos about the ongoing process of survival and recovery.
Video was a way to tell the story, and to help others.
Years later, after a loved-one’s son’s suicide, Katzke decided she wanted to spend more time with her then-10-year-old son, Corin, so she took him on a year-long trip around the world, and that, too, was shared in video.
When Corin graduated high school and left for college, she immersed feelings of empty nesting in a multimedia project, traveling the country for her Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Fellowship work, #Reset4Change.
Through it, she hoped to shine a spotlight on the young influencers and activists inspiring change in communities across the U.S. In some places, she met them by reading the newspaper, she said. In other places, she relied on word-of-mouth. In Albuquerque, she walked into a small, family-run Mexican restaurant during Sunday brunch, stood up, clinked her glass and said, “I’m from Alaska, I’m on fellowship, and I’m looking for young movers and shakers!”
“And everybody said, ‘Gus!’ all at once,” she recalled.
Albuquerque resident Gus Pedrotty ran for mayor in 2017 at age 22. While he didn’t win, he received nearly 7% of the vote in a field of eight candidates, “and showed the power of understanding how to reach young voters,” Katzke said.
The people she met while traveling across the country gave her hope.
Some gave her other things, too. She relied on a service that paired RV travelers with property owners who could offer a place to park, and nine times out of 10, she and her hosts fell on the opposite end of the political spectrum. “I had some very interesting conversations and experiences based on that,” she said.
During the day, she talked about climate change and activism with young people working to make a difference. In the evening, she sat in backyards sharing conversations with people who were ardent gun owners, conservative about immigration and whether or not a woman should travel the country alone.
With all her work, she said, she hopes to increase viewers’ humanity and sense of connections; to motivate people to take small steps toward larger changes, to act locally on global issues.
And her mind is filled with ideas about issues still to be addressed, like the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women in Alaska. To draw awareness to the issue, she said, she intends to collaborate on a comprehensive, statewide, precedent-setting, like-you’ve-never-before-seen campaign. Something to draw attention. Something to make a difference.
“I want people to really register that violence against women is a community problem. We all need to band together to change that.” Photos and videos, she said, can help tell the story. They always have.