Three years ago I traveled through southern Sudan. I arrived in July, five months before an election that would establish the new country of South Sudan.
Catholic Relief Services, who maintained a steady presence in the region during a half century of violent engagements, sent me to Sudan. The last Sudanese civil war lasted from 1983 to 2005. Nearly 2.5 million people were killed and over 4 million were displaced. With this violent history it took great faith to believe that peace could be achieved.
My photographic mission was both simple and complicated. I was to photograph peace.
On the surface this seemed straightforward. In my opinion, peace meant living without fear. Women could go to wells for water without fear of being brutalized, children could go to school with confidence and farmers could work their fields without being attacked or killed. In other words I was to photograph normal life.
But in a region shadowed by years of warfare, tribal distrust and hatred, life was not so easy.
As a journalist who has photographed post-conflict situations for many years, my view of situations like southern Sudan was a bit jaded. Societies emerging from conflicts often do so by taking baby steps, only to often stumble backward when larger steps are attempted.
But towards the end of my journey through southern Sudan, I met a man whose overwhelming sense of hope helped me to see that so long as there is hope there is also opportunity for goodness to prevail.
Meeting Paulstino Jada was a chance encounter.
Accompanied by CRS members I had navigated through a swamp of muddy roads before reaching the village of Palotaka to document a health program. On the way I stopped at a church run decades ago by Italian priests. I was intrigued to encounter what had once been an elegant building—now badly deteriorated—in this remote corner of the country. I had to go iA visitor looked inside the Palotaka Church. Damage from years of conflict had scarred the building.
Soon the church’s manager—the catechist—a thin man in worn clothes, arrived with the key. This was Paulstino Jada. There are probably many people like Jada—unsung individuals who keep communities together and live their lives as best they can under unbearable circumstances. Known only to their families and neighbors, they will never win a peace prize, appear on Oprah Winfrey or be interviewed by the New York Times. Yet what they do defines our humanity.
As Jada showed me through the church, I could feel a powerful energy surrounding this man. I asked him about his life.
He had grown up in the village and attended the church when it was still grand. Then the conflict started. During Sudan’s civil war the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan terrorist group taking advantage of the conflict’s chaos captured him. He was tortured but remained prayerful. Jada said the LRA eventually asked him to be their spiritual leader but he refused. Finally escaping, Jada returned to his village, where he served the church and tried to keep the congregation together.
I’m not sure how much of Jada’s account was fact and how much was fiction, but at least he believed it and that belief sustained him as the church began deteriorating around him. Jada said that other enemies had tried to drop bombs on the church six different times, but all of them missed. When the bombings started Jada told the congregation to stay inside the church and God would protect them. Later, villagers showed me nearby depressions where the bombs supposedly landed.
Jada said that when the Italian priests left a priest from Magwi, a town four to five hours away, was assigned to the congregation. Yet with nearly impassable roads and travel limited by continual conflicts, his visits were few. Years would pass, Jada said, without seeing the priest from Magwi.
I asked Jada why he continued to manage the church without any financial support. His response was simple. As the church’s catechist he felt it was his responsibility to keep the congregation going, preserving hope that the Church leaders in Juba would eventually send a full time priest to them. Jada hoped that the forthcoming elections would accelerate their decision.
I was impressed with his perseverance in this difficult situation but I think it was his hope that moved me the most. Even as we spoke a part of the church’s ceiling fell to the floor about forty feet from us. If it had fallen on us or on the people around the church kneeling in prayer we could have been badly hurt. Perhaps there is some truth about the power of hope.
As a journalist my own profession is in decline. Many of my friends have lost their jobs. Freelance work is decreasing. Sometimes I lose hope and fall into a dark well of despair. But meeting someone like Mr. Jada brings perspective to such concerns. Jada thinks that keeping hope alive will make change happen. Is that naive? Perhaps, but then, what’s wrong with naiveté? That doesn’t make his story any less powerful, at least to me.
My life is not comparable to Jada’s. He lives on the edge. Each day he struggles to feed his family, to collect clean water for them to drink, to keep them safe from the political unrest all around them.
I won’t starve if I don’t get another assignment. I may need to change my profession or rethink my strategy, but my situation is not life threatening. As a privileged individual who can move freely and live without constant fear of physical harm, I feel it is my duty to pass on the sense of hope and perseverance that Jada conveyed to me. Telling his story is a small way to repay his gift of inspiration.
As a journalist it’s easy to get wrapped up in chaos—the big pictures of conflict, poverty and despair. Yet within those big pictures, individual dramas of great power and meaning can be witnessed. One has only to be still for a moment to see people like Mr. Jada.
South Sudan did become a country. People optimistically celebrated the birth of this newly formed nation. Sadly conflict continues there. I often wonder if we humans are hard wired to solve our differences with violence. It takes great faith and courage to meet an adversary face to face without a weapon in hand. Most people are not that brave.
Three years after my time in south Sudan I wonder if Mr. Jada and his small congregation still wait for a priest to arrive. Has he kept the bright flame of hope alive during this long time of darkness? I hope that his light will never burn out.
I’ve watched as the recent antics of our endlessly bickering Congress nearly drove the country over a cliff. Putting aside the political differences—which will always be there—this whole sad business made we wonder what has happened to qualities like friendship and loyalty, but especially for concern about those who are outside of one’s immediate group.
If the behavior of our government is any guide, we seem to be having a lot of trouble seeing another person’s point of view. We don’t seem to be able to connect very well.
We’re bombarded with messages about how networks and gadgets will help us better connect and communicate—as long as we do so in less than 140 characters. Yet most of what is touted as communication in this manner seems to me like noise—brief and banal distractions, that perhaps erode the time needed to make deep and meaningful connections with other people.
This matters to me because connecting seems to be part of my DNA.
As a photographer I’ve spent most of my life traveling around the world, meeting strangers and establishing connections with them to tell a story. As a wife and mom, when I return home, I plunge back into the lives of my family. I meet my friends for lunch or coffee. As a freelancer, I try to touch base with colleagues and editors (who increasingly seem to be reachable only by text, email, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever new platform two kids in a Silicon Valley garage are still dreaming about—anything to avoid talking on the phone.)
Yet for me, connecting is all about talking—really listening to what someone has to say over a period of time. That seems to me that catalyst that can move a relationship from “connection” to “friend.” I take my friends seriously. As I get older, I realized that I’ve had friends for as long as I’ve been alive, whether from my childhood, college years, post-college volunteer work, or my newspaper days at the Virginian Pilot Newspaper.
This year I visited Scotland and reconnected with old friends who I had met on an archeology dig years ago when I was still in college. I now measure my friendships in decades, not years.
My great regret is not keeping in touch with more of the many wonderful folks I’ve met along the way. Whether or not I’ve felt an assignment succeeded has to do with the quality of the pictures I bring back of course. But mostly I’ve felt that success has to do with whom I’ve met and whether or not I was able to make connections with anyone. My biggest thrill is being invited to someone’s home for dinner. When that happens I feel like I’ve hit the social jackpot.
Over the past decade, the editorial photography business that I once imagined that I’d retire from from has been changing rapidly. Editors are being downsized or seeing the handwriting on the wall and departing on their own. Media companies no longer find value in maintaining staff photographers or experienced photo editors. Everyone is a contractor now. Few editors with whom I worked over the past two decades are still employed where I first met them.
So I wasn’t really surprised when Nikon World editor Barry Tannenbaum called me last week to let me know that I had written my last column for him. Nikon was shutting down their premier trade magazine. Phone cameras were eating up their small camera market and the company had to make cuts.
What did surprise me my reaction.
It didn’t trouble me too much that I lost my regular column-writing gig due to downsizing. Instead, I was filled with sadness that I had lost a friend. This may sound strange, since I’ve never actually met Barry. I don’t even know what he looks like.
Yet whenever a column was due, we’d chat on the phone, talking through what I could write about. Then the call would evolve into our thoughts on world events, observations about the photography industry, life in general and even my concerns of trying to raise good children in this crazy world. Stuff that friends talk about. Barry, an editor from the old school, knew that talking often leads to new ideas. Our conversations about one column frequently gave birth to another. Conversation is a creative and productive tool. Sadly, not many editors make time for that anymore.
Once my conversation with Barry ended I wouldn’t hear from him again until the next column was due. Twice each year I could count on him calling and telling me, “Karen, it’s time for the next column.”
Our professional relationship may have ended, but I hope to keep those wonderful chats with Barry going—that we stay connected. As a way to remind me of that, I’m reprinting one of my (now historical) Nikon columns called “Diplomatic Relations” from winter 2013. I’ll reprint others from time to time.
The first time I visited Sierra Leone I got arrested. If I’d been covering conflict or a corrupt government, I might have expected that result, but I was there to document the work of a Centers for Disease Control medical team. My coverage was part of a National Geographic assignment on viruses, and the CDC team was combating an outbreak of Lassa fever, the close cousin of the Ebola virus.
Sierra Leone’s civil war had already begun, but the CDC team was confident of their safety. I covered them treating patients and analyzing disease carriers, like mice, but I also needed scenic pictures to set the story’s location. Accompanied by two team members, I boarded one of the team’s trucks, which featured the Lassa fever logo, a large outline of a mouse, and we headed into the countryside so I could photograph the surrounding land and villages. There were checkpoints on the road every mile or two, but they were no problem—the guards saw the logo and waved us through. Then at one checkpoint I saw a lovely mountain, and one of the staff members said I should photograph it. My instincts, which I’ve since learned to listen to very carefully, told me that taking pictures near a checkpoint was not a good idea, but being young and inexperienced, I thought that being a photographer meant never being afraid to take a picture.
So I raised my camera, and within moments I was looking down the surprisingly large barrel of an AK-47 pointed at me by a very young soldier who was yelling at me and my CDC companions. He herded us into the front seat of our truck, then climbed into the back, still pointing his weapon at us. We drove to a police compound. I knew this was a very unstable situation; people, including Americans, had already been randomly shot and killed. The soldier ordered the CDC staffers inside; I was told to stay in the truck. For two hours I could hear periodic shouting from inside the building. Finally the police commander arrived and we were allowed to leave.
We drove back to the CDC compound in silence, aware of how lucky we had been. Last year, 20 years after that incident, I returned to Sierra Leone when Catholic Relief Services (CRS) offered an assignment to photograph their maternal health, food and education programs. CRS had operated in Sierra Leone for 50 years and was one of the few nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that didn’t abandon the country when it deteriorated into war.
The war ended in 2002, leaving 50,000 dead and thousands more maimed. I was happy to take the assignment; I wanted to see how the country had changed. Twenty years ago, well-armed men inspected my bags at the airport. One suggested I might share some money with him. I said, indignantly, “Bribery is illegal in Sierra Leone.” He laughed, but waved me through. On the 2012 trip, I had CRS’s photo editor with me, and when we landed, the customs people immediately started hustling him for money. Well, I thought, some things can be slow to change.
The country was on a massive roadbuilding spree, yet few of the roads were finished. We drove mainly on dirt roads in various stages of construction. We traveled east to Kenema, the town where I’d worked on my first visit. I saw Chinese and Korean crews, grading and paving roads to connect the larger towns and the mines that dotted the countryside. There was an air of chaos around the projects. Traffic often swarmed alongside the road machinery, carving deep ruts in the carefully graded roadbeds, delaying paving efforts. Runoff from the roadwork spilled into ponds and wetlands, turning water to red mud. The new roads and power lines rarely reached the many small villages we visited.
The people in those villages live on very little. They grow rice that’s eaten with green leaf vegetables cooked in palm oil. If they’re lucky they’ll have fish; sometimes a chicken is killed. If electricity is available, it’s a luxury that few can afford. Almost no one has running water. Some villages have pumps to draw water from wells, but most villagers walk miles to get a bucket of water that probably is not safe to drink by western standards.
Yet despite their tragic past and intense poverty, most Sierra Leoneans are amazingly friendly to strangers. In each village I felt welcome. Of course, I was working with a respected NGO that had proven itself to the people by not leaving the country when the political situation became dangerous, but I remembered that same warmth from 20 years earlier. While friendliness is a gift for a photographer, gifts often come at a price.
When the villagers learned of the CRS team arriving to photograph a program, everyone wanted to be part of the scene, and at almost every location I encountered friendly chaos. Groups of people moved towards me, seeking my camera’s attention.
If I shifted to the right, the group shifted with me. Without intervention, every photo I shot would have shown 20 people or more crowded in front of my lens. My job was to get good pictures, but I didn’t want to insult anyone. Whether to a village, a clinic or a project, access depends on good relationships developed by the hosting organization with the community leaders. It’s extremely important to keep that relationship going.
I photographed an innovative program bringing in traditional birth attendants to assist and take the pressure off the nurse, who was juggling multiple responsibilities.
The program provides income to the attendants, who in turn encourage women in their communities to visit the clinic. I envisioned warm, loving pictures of a kindly birth attendant working with the nurse and helping women who had just given birth. When I arrived, the nurse was there—and so were all 12 of the birth attendants in the program. They all wanted to participate, trying to crowd into every situation that I photographed.
At one point four of them converged on a woman who was having labor pains. Surrounding her, they stayed focused on my camera, smiling at me as they walked her to the birthing room. To manage the situation, I divided the dozen into smaller groups and asked each to do different tasks in different parts of the clinic. Eventually, with patience, smiles and an enormous number of group shots, I got my work done.
This kind of experience is not unusual when working with NGOs. The challenge is to deal with a chaotic situation while preserving good relations and staying focused on making the good pictures that will show off the programs to donors and others interested in the good work being done; to be not only a photographer, but something of a diplomat as well.
I just got back from a trip to Palestine
I visited the West Bank once before in the late 1990’s while covering a story about genetics. I worked with both Israelis and Palestinians, photographing a school for the deaf. Of course I knew of the conflicts between the two groups, but the school was a rare example of cooperation and I wasn’t there long enough to absorb the complexity of the issues.
This trip was different.
I am still trying to comprehend the politics driving tensions between two groups of people with long histories who believe in God.
The main expression of this tension that I encountered was the restrictions on movement. As an American I take freedom of movement in our huge country for granted, knowing that I can drive thousands of miles without visas or border checks.
But in the close confined space of the West Bank and Gaza, movement is another story. I spent a full week going in and out of the multiple checkpoints strung around the area. Standing in what seemed like never-ending lines and undergoing scrutiny at each crossing, I began to see how stressful the situation is for many of the people living in the area.
Yet within those restrictions, the signs of faith were everywhere. In the old city of Jerusalem, I walked through streets jammed with churches, mosques and synagogues, each of them holy to believers of the three major faiths that are expressed in this remarkable city. The beauty of the ancient buildings and the sincerity of the faithful who visited shrines, lit candles and offered prayers was moving. Even a non-believer would have been touched by these many examples of faith.
Still, there is perhaps no other place on earth where tensions between different religious groups are more strongly encountered, whether as restrictions on movement, like those I encountered, or in a host of other ways.
I returned home wondering about this contrast between tension and faith.
As a journalist I’ve been privileged to visit many societies and witness a wide range of cultural behaviors. Most peoples have a belief in something larger than themselves—a spiritual being or god, with those beliefs often expressed as a religion. Yet nearly every religious group has had its ugly moment, persecuting people who don’t believe as they do.
I’m troubled by the idea of people being oppressed, hurt or even killed because of their beliefs might not agree with the beliefs of another group. So what is the point in being faithful, if too often, the result leads to tensions like those I encountered on my trip—or worse? However despite these doubts, I try to remain faithful.
I blame it on the nuns.
Back in the 1990’s while working in south western Uganda, I came across small communities of European nuns helping people who were not of their cultural, racial or religious background. They were providing the best care they could for the sick and afflicted. The AIDS epidemic was building steam, with death rates rising into the millions. Women and children were especially susceptible. At the time there were no drugs. All the nuns could do was keep their patients comfortable, letting them die with dignity. Despite having no money, the nuns provided a comfortable cot and clean white sheets for each patient. The nuns were sustained by their faith that all human beings were loved by their god and should be treated with dignity in life as well as death.
On that same trip, I met another group of nuns working in rural Sierra Leone. They were nurses at a hospital treating victims of Lasso Fever, a close cousin to Ebola.
In addition to the health risks these women faced in dealing with such a deadly disease, Sierra Leone was about to explode. Just over the border in Liberia, five nuns had been murdered. The nuns I had met in Sierra Leone only had a short wave radio with which to contact the outside world. If trouble came, help would be a long time coming. Despite living under this cloud of potential violence, they kept the hospital immaculate. Their guesthouse where we stayed was one of the cleanest I’ve ever encountered while traveling through Africa.
The nuns could sense the violence that was coming closer and closer to their hospital. One evening during dinner I asked a sister if she was afraid. Her only response was “We cannot live our lives in fear. We must do the work that God would want us to do.” I will never forget the way she said it with patience and conviction.
Several months later rebels overtook the hospital, killing a priest, a visiting doctor from the Netherlands, his wife and their two-year old daughter. A volunteer traveling in the doctor’s vehicle was captured and brutalized until she was rescued.
Miraculously, the nuns escaped. Their vehicle was shot up but not a single nun was hit.
These women lived their lives faithfully and courageously.
And because of these nuns, I try as a journalist to live up to their convictions and report the best I can about the injustices of the world. It’s becoming harder to cover these sorts of stories. It’s expensive to travel to devastated areas. Many media companies don’t see the point especially if the issue is in a region that most Americans know little about. They want to quantify results; yet attaching metrics to images isn’t a nice tidy process. Does one specific image change anything? Perhaps not, but over time, it’s much more likely that a continual flow of images may eventually create connections and foster understanding. With understanding, change can begin.
In that, I do have faith.
Two years ago I decided to take a leave of absence from my life and my business. I applied for a Knight Fellowship to study Visual Communications at Ohio University. The fellowship, an intense one-year immersion in the latest digital and video techniques, also awarded a masters degree on completion
When my friends and colleagues heard that I had been selected for this amazing opportunity, some gave me warm congratulations but many offered quizzical looks and questions.
Why was I getting a masters degree in a profession that is dying—or, at the least, experiencing some serious shifts in direction?
Most photographers who have been in the profession for a while have experienced disruption. Skills that took decades to hone and perfect—storytelling, visualizing concepts, producing long form essays, crafting a perfect image—now seem barely appreciated by many editors. Media industry demand has shifted to spontaneously created photographs or video still frames—images that can quickly be moved across many mediums, and provided for less the day rate I was making over 20 years ago.
Of course, change is inevitable. You adapt or get run over. So certainly part of the reason I took the fellowship was to learn new tools and techniques like motion, audio, editing software and web architecture that could further my career.
I took pride in learning these tools, but the major thing I gained from my technical skill classes wasn’t becoming comfortable with Premiere or Final Cut. It was the enlightening experience of sitting next to my fellow students who were literally my children’s age. These young adults were funny, kind and generous individuals, who didn’t mind having a middle age woman join their work teams. I still feel warm and fuzzy when I think of one particular 22-year-old student who looked at me standing by myself as other students who all knew each gathered into work teams. He came over and asked me to join him and his other two colleagues. I could have been his mother! That moment renewed my positive outlook on humanity.
Beyond learning new skills and experiencing new perspectives, accepting the Knight fellowship served as a reconfirmation of the profession to me. Visual journalism, if done well, still provides a major service to our communities by reporting on the events affecting us as clearly and as honestly as we can. In doing so, we show the commonality that bonds us together regardless of our nationalities, religion or ethnic makeup.
While working with on a story about Saigon for National Geographic, my wonderful editor David Arnold looked at a photo I shot of a young man looking directly and solemnly at the camera. “This kid looks like my neighbor,” David commented. Then he added, “ If we could have seen images like this before we entered the Vietnam conflict, I doubt we would have. How can we kill people who look like our neighbors?”
I think what he meant was if we recognize the commonality of our lives, it’s harder to make enemies.
Another colleague of mine, Ron Short, an amazing musician, actor, storyteller and Vietnam veteran, told me a story about his tour of duty in Vietnam. He once looked over a hill at an enemy village. He saw a simple house with chickens, goats and kids running around. “That could be a farm from home,” he recalled, and then wondered, “Why are we fighting them?”
Yet conflicts show no sign of stopping, and in today’s world, where we’re assaulted with increasingly graphic images of war, death and dying, it’s harder than ever for photographers to survive doing stories that look deeply at our commonality and humanity.
Such stories aren’t entertaining enough, at least according to the marketing people that seem to run the media these days. Newsroom resources are shrinking and harried staffs rarely have the freedom to probe below the surface of what they encounter. Deeper stories take time. Uncovering the root causes of an issue is a slow moving process, requiring patient observation and listening, waiting for those revealing moments that can touch a heart and invite attention.
In the often-manic immediacy of today’s media environment, we should see that sort of storytelling as our duty. In an increasingly divisive world, finding and telling stories that illuminated our human commonality may inspire people to begin looking at the world in kinder and more generous ways.
So I will recommitment myself to this turbulent, frustrating, but ultimately rewarding profession. I’ll do this as long as I can. It’s my little bit to help spread the understanding that we just aren’t that different from one other.
This Labor Day weekend I’m thinking a lot about the meaning of labor—and by extension, the meaning of service. The events in Syria and a phone call with my son have focused my attention on the way that we honor some kinds of service in this country, but not others.
When I travel and walk behind those in military uniform, I often hear people thanking them for their service. I want to offer my thanks as well. I come from a long line of military people. My father served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. My younger brother served in the first Gulf War. My niece served in Bosnia as an army medic. Some of my cousins or their children serve in the present day conflicts. I’m grateful for what each of them has done.
Yet despite my family history, I feel bothered by our recent show of military deification, constantly thanking soldiers and sailors for their service.
In my cynical moments I imagine some of this constant thanking is overcompensation for the horrible way that troops returning from Vietnam were treated. It may also be guilt, since so few people actually serve in the military these days. Or could people think that by thanking soldiers for their service, they are somehow contributing to the security of the country?
The fact is that making our nation a better and safer place for everyone requires service in countless ways. Its everything from paying taxes honestly to making sure our homes and streets are cleaned, our water systems work, our government runs smoothly (sometimes), our cars are repaired and we and our children are fed, educated and healthy.
Yet how often is a police officer thanked for his or her service? In our heavily armed nation, they risk their safety every time they pull a car over for a traffic offense. What about public health nurses who work long hours and days to combat disease outbreaks? Who thanks the teachers who try to pass on knowledge and skills, often without enough resources or funding? How about the people who maintain electrical lines and water pipes or collect trash? All those who provide the services that makes our country safe, relatively efficient and a place of opportunity and hope. How often are those people thanked for their service?
It is true that we value service that can be quantified—how many fires were put out? How many battles were fought? How many students made it to college?
But often service is something that cannot be quantified. The results can’t be put into a spreadsheet. For example, my son is in a very remote area of Uganda serving in the Peace Corps. There is no electricity in his village. Water has to be hauled some distance from a well and boiled before drinking. The program conducted by the non-profit to which he was assigned turns out not to exist—he’s had to rethink the purpose of his role in the small community where he will live for the next couple of years.
Most of what he does is teach the non-profit he works with how to quantify—how to keep records of their finances and program spending, how to write better grant applications, or improve the website publicizing their efforts.
Perhaps ironically those efforts and his presence are hard to quantify. His friendly and flexible personality makes him a good role model of an American citizen to the villagers. He is teaching the young people how to be computer literate. If one of them eventually becomes a leader in their village or even their country, they will have pleasant memories of that kind and funny American who helped them understand how to work a laptop, build a spreadsheet and connect to the internet. They may not remember his name, but they will remember he was an American. That cannot be quantified.
What he does is without the resources or prestige of other kinds of government service like the military or the Foreign Service. Peace Corps volunteers don’t get paid, receive discounted travel or shopping privileges at government commissaries. They serve alone in highly stressed areas, often without clean water, electricity or the other comforts we take for granted. Its anonymous—no one besides his parents will thank him for his service.
My son will return a better man having lived and worked in this village. He will learn as much about living and perseverance from the villagers as they will learn about computers and quantifying data from him.
So on this day honoring labor and service, I can’t help but think how if more Americans took up service, and, whether at home or in another country, shared experiences like the ones he is having—how to cope with strange conditions, how to solve problems without resources, how to stand in the shoes of a stranger, then we might have a world with more connections and fewer conflicts.
But I can’t quantify that.