Several weeks ago, when I was climbing laboriously up the trails of Mt Kilimanjaro, each step bringing intense pain and dizziness, I told my fellow trekking companion that if we were at sea level in Virginia, it would just be a hike through the park.
Last week, on a cool and sunny spring day, I took that hike through the park. My husband and I took on the two-mile-long Billy Goat Trail, which winds along the Potomac River, in Great Falls National Park.
The trail led over rough and rocky terrain, including a steep climb up a cliff face. We scrambled over and around huge boulders, finishing in 75 minutes. While the trail was technically more challenging than the path on Kilimanjaro, I wasn’t a bit tired at the end.
The difference was 14,000 feet.
It’s all relative. I find that the older I become the more I let the relative happen. I can’t judge myself against my younger self or even my peers. It took me a while to come to that conclusion. As photographers we always compare ourselves to each other. Who won what award? How did they get that job? Why was their work selected for that exhibition?
It’s exhausting and with social media the need to brag about our lives and accomplishments seems to have intensified.
Being on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro took me away from all that. There is something wonderful about being able to say “I won’t have email for a few weeks.”
I decided to join the climb because the organizers, The Ladies Trekking Virtual Club, had an admirable mission. They were raising money for books to be distributed in schools near the base of the mountain and to pay education fees for ten Maasai high school girls. The project was called Dreamers and Doers. My assignment was to create photographs of the climb and the schoolbook distribution.
The climbers were a diverse group and each had their own reason to participate. For some it was something to cross off their bucket list. For others it climbing this mountain was fulfilling a dream. A few wanted to change their lives and this climb was their first step in that direction. For Janika Vaikjarv, who organized the climb, it was a way to give back to the community. She invited a Maasai woman named Theresia to join us. Her daughters’ secondary school fees were being paid for by this trek. Theresia may have been the first Maasai woman to climb Kilimanjaro. When Theresia later visited her daughters’ school and the principal announced her accomplishment to the students, she was greeted like a rock star.
For me the climb was a job—but one of the better ones I’ve had in a long time. I made it to 14,000 feet and stayed there for two days before realizing that for an inexperienced climber like myself, trying to work and trek at the same time was not possible. The lack of oxygen was making me sick.
I had a decision to make. Should I try to continue working? I might be able to, but I was also risking getting sick enough that I would have to be hauled down the mountain. Reaching the summit wasn’t an important goal for me—I was there to take pictures. But sick as I was, photographing was no longer possible. I decided to descend on my own power.
Once off the mountain, I spoke with an experienced climber who told me that working like a photographer—using short intense bursts of energy—was absolutely the wrong thing to do, especially when mountain sickness began to set in. No wonder I was getting sicker the harder I tried to work!
Each time I maneuvered to take a picture, I would feel dizzy and nauseated. Normally I can ignore physical discomfort by focusing on taking pictures. In the past I have photographed while seasick and vomiting. But this seemed different.
At this point I’m experienced enough to know that sticking through something like this is not always wise. I rarely come back with a memorable picture when I try to work through a painful situation.
To my delight, the journey down Kilimanjaro was wonderful. The weather was clear and since we were not holding to a schedule I could travel at a relaxed pace. Deogratus, my guide, took his time explaining the geology, flora and fauna found on the mountain.
A friend of mine who lives in Hawaii and believes in the spirit of the land said the mountain had given me a gift. Often in my life I get so focused on reaching a goal that I overlook the beauty along the way. Our slow descent brought Kilimanjaro’s stark scenery into sharp focus. I was happy to be there. With the fog of my painful ascent clearing away, I realized how fortunate I was to be standing in the middle of this high altitude moonscape. Deogratus took great pleasure in sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of the mountain. I was amazed at the everlasting flowers that grew under all conditions. I photographed the hoof print of a water buffalo looking for salt. We stopped to absorb the view of “Ol Doinyo Lengai, ” or “Mountain of God” in the Maasai language. It last erupted in 2008 and is one of those rare volcanoes producing nitrocarbonatite lava. This downward trek became the highlight of my four days on the mountain. The closer I got to the bottom, the better I felt.
Did I make it to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro? No. But again, it’s all relative. I didn’t need to reach the summit. Over time, I’ve learned that knowing when to change direction can often open doors to new and better experiences and opportunities.
My blog, like my life, doesn’t always travel in a straight line.
I started to write about my recent trip to Africa. But then I read a column by Petula Dvorak of the Washington Post about movie theater security people evicting a disabled man from the theater in Frederick Maryland—an action that resulted in the man’s death. This event happened in the greater Washington DC area, but it could have occurred anywhere.
That tragedy—over a ten-dollar movie ticket—was just one one of several events in the past month where unnecessary force resulted in death. During this Easter Sunday—the most important Christian holiday—I’m wondering about what seems like a shift in our society towards such violence.
According to current United Nations data, the gun murder rate in the United States is 20 times the average for all other countries in the world.
These tragedies—whether using violence on a disabled man for a trivial issue, shooting and killing a neighborhood teenage that drunkenly wanders into the wrong house or the far too familiar mass killings of school children—leave me wondering how we got to this point. Why is there an increased use of force when problems are encountered? Why do we seem to think it okay to “stand your ground,” shoot first and talk later?
Our films, television, music and especially our games are saturated with violence. Much of it is delivered without consequence—someone gets shot and the shooter just walks away. Has this glut of graphic imagery and action contributed to making us a more violent culture?
Are we training a generation to be so overworked and overstressed that they don’t think their actions through, “using common sense” as my father use to say? Did that movie theater clerk fear that he or she would be fired for allowing a handicapped person to stay on for a second sitting? Did he or she think through the consequences of calling security?
More disturbingly the security team—all of them off-duty sheriff deputies—showed a similar lack of common sense. Could they not assess the situation and realize this was a disabled man who was not acting logically? Why did they need to move immediately to physical force?
I’m no pacifist and no stranger to conflict. I know that force is sometimes required. I come from a military family. My father served for 35 years in WW II, Korea and Vietnam. My husband’s father was a career military office, a Green Beret who served in Korea and Vietnam. My brother served in the first Gulf War and my niece served in Bosnia. I have looked down a barrel of a gun three times in my life–once when a gas station where I worked and got robbed and twice when rogue soldiers arrested me in Africa. There is nothing more life altering than looking down a barrel of a loaded AK-47. It makes you aware of just how final the use of force can be.
But for my father, or my father in law, both combat veterans, force was always the position of last resort. Today as a nation, we seem to forget that lesson. There is a fierce determination among many to be armed with weapons that would have astounded the Second Amendment authors with their power. Yet the determination to educate our children—and adults—away from violence and force seems far less fierce in our culture.
You can find other ways of coping with stressful situations. Years ago, I photographed a story on the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. I spent time with the Port security force. I was surprised that the guards had no weapons. I asked one guard what he would do if he caught someone stealing cargo. “We would try to arrest them,” he replied, “but is it really worth taking the life of a person over stolen goods? A life can never be replaced, but the property can.” I’m not sure how much of that I could live by but it’s a useful perspective to think about the role of force in our country.
A few years after Rotterdam I covered the 1995 Kobe Earthquake in Japan. Over 5500 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were homeless. Many found shelter in large school gymnasiums, sleeping side by side next to strangers. Yet the Japanese persevered, knowing they were all in it together and also that whatever was left of their homes would not be vandalized. I saw jewelry stores with rings still displayed in broken windows and liquor stores that placed all their bottles on the street, ringed with yellow police tape. As far as I know, nothing was stolen. Theft was unthinkable.
But what I remember most from that earthquake was a situation similar in some ways to the theater in Frederick, but with a very different outcome. A food truck arrived at one of the shelters. People lined up. Everyone was hungry and on edge. When the kettle of hot soup arrived, an older man began yelling and pushing to the front of the line. Not speaking Japanese I had no idea what he was saying, but I could see everyone around him becoming alarmed and agitated. Then a shelter worker came up to the man. He spoke softly to him, not raising his voice. The worker hugged the older man, keeping his arms around him and calming him down. Finally the shelter worker walked him to the front of the line and gave him soup. I could feel the tension in the shelter fade away. Although it seemed like the episode lasted a long time, it was probably over in two minutes.
That simple act of kindness affected everyone, including me. The shelter worker recognized that anger from one man could infect a whole crowd. He had the training and common sense to properly defuse it. With the young man in the movie theater, if the security officers had taken the time to find his caregiver and talk, they would have learned that he didn’t like to be touched and might have altered their response.
Common sense can be found closer to home. In Dvorak’s column, she mentions another security guard who responded to a mentally ill woman at a CVS. The woman had eaten food for which she had no money and was yelling loudly about it in the checkout line. Unlike those officers in the movie theater, this security officer diffused the potential violence by speaking calmly to the woman and leading her outside. She made the decision that the well-being and security of the other customers was more important than the few dollars worth of food the woman had eaten.
Isn’t the safety and well being of individuals more important than the price of food—or a movie ticket? That seems like common sense.
I’m leaving to join a group of women in Tanzania and climb Mt. Kilimanjaro for a book project called “Dreamers and Doers.” The sponsoring group, Ladies Trekking Virtual Club, will use proceeds from sale of this book to supply textbooks and other educational materials for school children living around the base of the mountain.
It took me a while to agree to photograph this project. I’m not a devoted athlete. I walk when I have the time, but the last thing I climbed with any height was Mt. Fuji over 11 years ago. Back then I was in a different place, both physically and emotionally. I was working regularly and in good shape from hauling my gear in what seemed like at the time like nonstop travel. When I watched the sunrise from the top of Fuji in August 2001, the world seemed wide open and full of hope for a peaceful future.
Twelve days later, two planes hit the twin towers in New York, one hit the Pentagon near Washington, D.C and another plunged a group of Americans to their deaths in Pennsylvania. I watched this horrible destruction play over and over on TV. I held my eight-year-old daughter tight and told her that the world would never be the same again.
In so many ways that has been true for my peers and me. Technology and market changes caused many newspapers and magazines to shrink or disappear. Hundreds of my fellow photographers became unemployed, leaving those of us in the free-lance world with less and less work to count on. My day rate hasn’t changed since the 1990s. Few editorial jobs—once my mainstay—now pay for assistants. Business class, once a given for international travel, is a thing of the past. What once was fun is now an exercise in non-stop stress.
In response, I started moving away from my first love—journalism—and towards my avocation—non-profits. Working for groups like Catholic Relief, the Ladies Trekking Virtual Club or many others has become my main focus.
Like all of us, I’m aging. So when the offer to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro came up, I hesitated, thinking “how can I do something like that?” I would be the oldest person on the group by over a decade. But as the saying goes, “you’re not getting any younger.” So why not? And if not now, when? (Luckily the writer I suggested to them accepted the job, so now I’m merely the second oldest person on the climb.)
Hearing about this newest adventure, my friends looked at me with expressions ranging from shock to curiosity. No one said, “Wow I’d love to do that!” Most comments were “I really admire you for that.” In other words “You’re a fool—I’d never do that in a million years!!”
As the world changes, I hope that I’m maturing along the way. I’ve learned to grab opportunities that come my way–like climbing Kilimanjaro. I don’t want to regret that I passed up a chance to experience something different. “Just do it,” a phase that Nike has run into the ground, is actually how I try to live my life.
If I had listened to my mother I’d probably be an unhappy housewife trying to carve out a living while selling cosmetics at the Little Creek Naval Base Exchange in Norfolk, Virginia. My parents had no aspirations for me. All they wanted me to do was get married, have a family and not commit any crimes. They never thought of college as an option for me. So I plowed ahead without their support, earning money for college application fees with summer jobs. I worked at a fish and chip joint, a self-serve gas station (I was held up. It was the first time I had a gun pointed at me) and finally that Naval Base cosmetic counter.
Luckily I got a full academic scholarship from the University of Michigan, so I went there. I paid the rest by working three jobs. One of them, photographing for the “Michigan Daily” student paper, laid the foundation for my professional career.
I won’t accept words like “no” or “can’t.” I’ve always risen to the occasion even if what I do ends in failure. I cannot complain unless I’ve tried. Life is too short and wonderful not to try new experiences even if I can’t complete them. So that is why I decided in the end to accept the challenge to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. If I complete the climb, I’ll be ecstatic with bragging rights. If I don’t, at least I tried and trying is all I ask of my children and myself.
It’s been a while.
My blog has been on hiatus for over a year. During that time I studied for a Masters in Newsroom Management and Photography. This was possible because I was fortunate enough to be awarded a Knight Fellowship at Ohio University’s premier Visual Communications school.
I decided not to blog during my Fellowship because I wanted to focus on learning. I loved interacting with my fellow grad students, some of whom were younger than my son. One instructor, Brandon, an amazingly smart and kind person was only two years older than my oldest child.
The Fellowship was an amazing experience. I recommend it for any mid- to even late career visual journalist who needs their enthusiasm jump-started. I will write more about my Fellowship later.
Restarting my blog makes me think about why I continue in my profession. Many of my friends and colleagues were impressed that I was going back to school but wondered why I wasn’t taking courses that might guarantee me a job; the health profession, or IT, or something other than photography. Was I training for a profession that might not exist in ten years—or sooner?
I decided to improve my visual communication skills because I love what the field allows me to do—connect with people and tell wonderful stories about them. Just before I left for college, I had an amazing experience that reconfirmed my commitment to visual communications. It happened on a shoot for a national nursing group at the neonatal ward of Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.
I mentioned to the PR person with me that the last time I had been at Children’s was to follow a 16 year old who had Cystic Fibrosis. He was one of five children, three of whom had CF. The PR person looked at me and said, “I know exactly who you are talking about, the. …family. Kathy’s the mom.”
I had many conversations with Kathy about her decision to continue to have children even when they knew the gene was present in the family line. Her heartfelt belief in the goodness of life and in God’s mystery touched me deeply and I thought often of our talks.
“I think they are here today,” the PR said and went off to check. CF patients were the only adults allowed to come back to Children’s. In the past, CF people didn’t live long enough to be long term adult patients. Their pediatric doctors continued to care for them as long as they lived. Yet with better treatments CF patients are now living longer.
The PR person returned. “They’d be happy to see you,” he said. Kathy’s middle boy Jimmy was in for a follow up. Jimmy was now in his mid-20’s and was living life as fully as he could. He’d been living in Australia and had just returned for the checkup where we now met. Kathy and I picked up as if we’d seen each other yesterday, not 15 years ago. Her warmth and honesty about her life with three CF children amazed me as much at the timing of our encounter.
Sadly, this was also the birthday of John, another of Kathy’s sons. John would have been happy that I visited them on his birthday, she said. I remembered Kathy telling me that her goal was to allow John to live the life of a normal teenager and make it to graduation. Unfortunately, John’s weakened body didn’t let that happen. John’s struggle with CF affected me greatly. He wanted to live so badly.
I thought of my own brother who self destructed and wondered why he wanted to die when people like John so desperately wanted to live. Thinking about John and sharing memories with Kathy brought tears to my eyes.
Jimmy said he got an A in his communications class when he wrote about being in the National Geographic story on genetics for which I had photographed him.
Walking out of that room, I thought about why I have stayed in photography for so long—perhaps longer than I should have considering how badly the editorial world is crashing and burning. But it’s these moments that fuel my love of the profession and why I decided to continue, despite all of the warning signs. What other profession would give me the gift to reconnect with a subject after 15 years? What other profession would have brought me into contact with such wonderful, brave and inspirational people? That is why I stay in the profession and why I gladly accepted the Knight Fellowship to get my masters in photography and visual communications.
You may have noticed I haven’t posted anything in some time. That’s because over the last year I’ve been at Ohio University studying media management at the School of Visual Communication. I received a Knight Fellowship to support this wonderful experience. I’ll write more about the Fellowship later–I’m in the midst of finishing my Masters Project this month. But in the meantime, the City of Falls Church is mounting an exhibit of my global health photographs this week at the ArtSpace, 410 South Maple Avenue, Falls Church. Please come by–the exhibit opens with a reception at 7PM on October 11 and is up through October 14.
Last year I had a wonderful assignment to photograph life in Southern Sudan. I spent several weeks in that country, working to capture the warm spirit of the people. So I felt honored when I learned that Communication Arts magazine would feature some of my Sudan pictures in their Photography Annual. The pictures are in the July/August issue. You can seem more of the Sudan pictures on my website.
From July 31 to August 6 I’ll be teaching a class at the Maine Media Workshop on Developing the Narrative Project. This will be the seventh year my husband and I will teach at the Workshops. I’m always excited by the talent, energy and enthusiasm of my students and the excellence of the Workshop staff. You can learn more about my class here. Rockport is wonderful at this time of year. Hope to see you in Maine!