Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Myanmar Memories

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Sunrise at the Shwe San Daw pagoda in Bagan begins  with balloon flights over the temples.

Sunrise at the Shwe San Daw pagoda in Bagan begins with balloon flights over the temples.

The last time I visited Myanmar most people still called it Burma. I was there in May 2008, not long after Cyclone Nargis hit the country, killing over 200,000 people. I’m on the board of a small NGO called Global Community Service Foundation. We supported two orphanages that were right in the path of Nargis and we were anxious to see if our staff and the children were OK.

Fortunately they were.

It was a tough job. The government was checking people at the airport and I would have been stopped if I brought my professional equipment. Instead, I carried my Canon G9, a small but powerful point and shoot camera that a tourist might use. I was able to document the damage to our projects, which helped raise money for repairs.

Tourist photographs the famous Reclining Buddha in Yangon, Myanmar.

Tourist photographs the famous Reclining Buddha in Yangon, Myanmar.

This past winter, National Geographic Expeditions sent me back to Myanmar to lead a photo tour. The decaying colonial structures were still there, recalling the time when the British controlled what they called Burma. But the place was bustling. Energy and opportunity were in the air. Where in 2008 there were few hotels, now new luxury hotels had sprung up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. On the streets, everyone seemed in constant motion, trying to take advantage of their government’s 2012 decision to relax restrictions and open the country to foreigners.

This new Myanmar reminded me of Vietnam in the 1990s. In 1994 I did a story on Ho Chi Minh City for National Geographic. At the time the city was rundown, still damaged from years of war. Yet when I returned 10 years later, the city glittered with the chrome and glass towers characteristic of many prosperous Asian cities.

With all of this change, the group I led was eager to see the historic side of the country. Fortunately, many of Myanmar’s important sites like Bagan have been made into reserves, with development restricted.

Of course, tourism like Myanmar is experiencing brings economic opportunities but also the risk of overdevelopment and loss of historical culture. However I was pleased to see that many of the areas we visited still conveyed the feel of what I remembered from 2004 when I visited the country for the first time.

Young Burmese dancer at Bagan

Young Burmese dancer at Bagan

The Burmese are very welcoming. Whether photographing people or temples its a photographers paradise. At one point after we saw several temples and monasteries, I took my group off the bus and we started walking through a village. The residents must have found this very amusing, but they greeted us warmly. We left with lovely pictures of people working the fields, making bricks and feeding their cattle along with memories of wonderful interactions. On a walk through another village my group got invited to an initiation. Several young children were going to enter the monastery for a month or two and the village came out to support them. We were asked to attend and enthusiastically agreed. We got memorable pictures of the ceremony as well as children dressed in ceremonial garb being led on horseback to the monastery.

Fisherman collects his net on Myanmar's Inle Lake.

Fisherman collects his net on Myanmar’s Inle Lake.

Timing is the foundation of many successful photographs. I arranged our group’s schedule to improve our chances for making the best possible pictures. I made sure people had the option to arrive early in the morning or later in the day to capture the warm directional light that coats the world just after sunrise and just before sunset. Getting on site early also meant that we didn’t have to compete with too many other visitors wandering into our carefully composed pictures. Not everyone wanted to sacrifice their sleep, but those that did were rewarded with wonderful images.

Myanmar is filled with stunning scenery and warm friendly people. Each time I visit, I discover new places and learn new things about this amazing country. I hope people will join me and make their own discoveries about Myanmar when I lead a photo expedition there from November 11 to 23, 2014. You can learn more at: http://www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com/expeditions/myanmar-photo-tour/experts

Back in time for Thanksgiving!!

Written by kasmauski

June 30, 2014 at 11:45 pm

People of Honduras’ Mesoamerican Reef

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Fisherman Rigo Soliz checks his nets for holes. Fishing has been slow so he spends his days, checking his fishing gear.

Fisherman Rigo Soliz checks his nets for holes. Fishing has been slow so he spends his days, checking his fishing gear.

This year I’ve worked in Mexico and Myanmar. I’m currently on assignment in Ghana and Nigeria. However one of my favorite trips this year has been to the Bay Islands of Honduras. I journeyed there this spring for the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP)—for whom I am a senior fellow—and their partner, Centro de Estudios Marinos Honduras (CEM). The region is part of the Mesoamerican Reef, a key marine region extending along the coast of Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico.

Population pressure, overfishing, pollution and global warming all affect the Reef. Their consequences stress fishing communities all along the coast of these Central American countries. Fishermen must stay out longer and travel farther to match the number of fish caught in previous years.

Many conservation organizations focus on the Reef system but a few groups like ILCP and CEMS also support projects that investigate connections between the health of the seas and the health of the coastal communities.

A fisherman’s daily catch, caught by line and hook. Barra is a line and hook fishing community but it is surrounded by communities that illegally drag nets.

A fisherman’s daily catch, caught by line and hook. Barra is a line and hook fishing community but it is surrounded by communities that illegally drag nets.

This project involved two underwater and two dry land shooters. I was one of the latter. I focused on the social impact of diminishing sea life around the reefs. This is one of my skills, as I specialize in photographing global health concerns, especially those linked to the degradation of the environment and social structures.   I was thrilled to have a story about which I was passionate.

However…I had not worked in this area before had never worked around reefs and didn’t speak Spanish.

A nurse gives a student a tetanus vaccine. They hold a clinic in Salada Barra, usually outside, once a month. Children can get vaccines and treatment for other health issues.

A nurse gives a student a tetanus vaccine. They hold a clinic in Salada Barra, usually outside, once a month. Children can get vaccines and treatment for other health issues.

There was another way that this seemed like an odd assignment for me.

I can barely swim.

I learned when my uncle threw me into Spring Lake, Michigan and said, “swim.” I managed like a dog, paddling with my front paws and kicking with my back ones. I never really improved on that technique. Needless to say, underwater photography isn’t one of my skills.

Yet despite my poor swimming skills, I’m very comfortable around water. I come from a fishing family. My younger years were spent in Norfolk, Virginia, a city located where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. We ate fish and crab we caught ourselves. We used chicken necks to catch a bushel or two of crabs right from shore.

My father was a career sailor who served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. He met my mother in Japan during the occupation. If he wasn’t in a war zone he was on a ship at sea. He could see first hand the thin line between life and death—men lost overboard and rogue waves nearly capsizing ships.

Fishing was important to the survival of both sides of my family. My father’s father drowned while fishing for supper in rural Michigan. My grandmother was never the same afterwards. My father’s family was poor. Catching their own food was vital to their survival. My mother was born in a small Japanese fishing village called Sajima, south of Yokohama. At the time it was so insignificant, the Americans forces flew over it on the way to bombing Yokohama and Tokyo without even giving the village a second thought. My mother’s uncles all fished for a living. They survived the war eating fish and other foods from the sea and didn’t starve like so many of their countryman living in bombed out urban areas.

Like the Mesoamerican Reef, the Chesapeake Bay faces similar overpopulation, overfishing and industrial development issues. In 2008 the Chesapeake Bay crab fishing industry was declared a federal disaster. The crab population has yet to recover.

But there is a big difference between my life on the Bay and the life of those living along the Mesoamerican Reef. My entire livelihood does not depend on the sea. I have options. Yet for many in the communities our team visited, fishing is the only way to make a living.

Dunia Hernan, 17, 2nd student from the right, kids her friends during class. She is part of the first ever high school program held in this village. Her father is a fisherman.

Dunia Hernan, 17, 2nd student from the right, kids her friends during class. She is part of the first ever high school program held in this village. Her father is a fisherman.

I looked at the efforts to help communities and diversify their livelihood. One of the first communities I visited with the CEM team was Salada Barra, a small fishing community inside the Parque Nacional Cuero y Salado Marine Reserve, through which the Rio San Juan flows. The reserve is west of the coastal city of La Ceba. Our mission was to show the diversity of marine life among the mangroves and the interdependency of the marine area and the community of Salada Barra. I hoped to photograph life in the village. Not all went as planned. Fishing was problematic as many fish were too far from shore for the men to easily harvest.

There were plenty of environmental organizations present in this community. In this case, they seem to help the overall health of this particular community. Conservational projects including preserving the reefs, replenishing the mangroves, and protecting the manatees found in these waters employ locals to implement these plans. These efforts paved the way for other groups to provide social improvements. A high school class was added for the first time. Older students didn’t have to go away from home if they wanted to continue their education after elementary school. Visiting doctors and nurses came once a month to provide maternal and childcare, vaccinate school kids and look at other health concerns. We ran into a team of veterinarian technicians looking for dogs and cats to vaccinate for rabies. This especially impressed me since rabid dogs are fairly common in underdeveloped areas. These services are remarkable considering how remote this village is.

There is no easy way to access Salada Barra. The only way to get in and out of the village is aboard an old produce train that used to carry coconuts, pineapples and bananas out of the area to market. The ride is 35 minutes each way. Although this was once a large plantation region, agricultural is in decline and few coconuts are shipped out these days. They are developing a small tourist industry with a visitor center built by USAID. The hope is to bring people in via the train to tour the marine reserve, see manatees and eat fried fish cooked in local homes.

A group of fishermen illegally drag nets in an area too close to shore to catch undersized fish and conches.

A group of fishermen illegally drag nets in an area too close to shore to catch undersized fish and conches.

Fishing is still central to this community. But they feel pressures from illegal drag fishing that catch all sizes of fish and other sea life. Although good laws are in place, enforcing them remains a continual challenge.

Salada Barra was one of many communities along the Bay Island region we visited. Some are more developed than others but all face the same pressures coming from a declining fishery industry and a threatened reef system. Though I didn’t know Spanish, I did know these people’s concerns, because those of us raised by the sea speak the same language.

You can read more on this at National Geographic.

 

To my Polish Grandmother (I knew I’d turn out just like her.)

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Genevieve as a young woman in 1926 with my year-old father Steve.

Genevieve as a young woman in 1926 with my year-old father Steve.

I’ve worked in some exotic areas this past year, including Myanmar, Mexico, Honduras and Jerusalem. Soon I’m leaving for Ghana and Nigeria. But recently I took a hiatus from my blog.

The reason is that I found myself obsessing about something quite personal—the shape of my Polish grandmother Genevieve! I was in my 30’s when she died, after a long coma resulting from a fall.

We weren’t friends.

When my family would visit her, she would often get drunk. When I was little, she tried to beat me with a belt if she thought I had done something wrong. I always outran her. Not the grandmother Norman Rockwell might have painted.

My father was a sailor. A good son, he often visited her when he wasn’t at sea. Our family had to come along–my brothers, my sister and my mother, a Japanese war bride. These stressful visits often ended with my grandmother crying into her beer  about the misery of her life and the hardships of her daughters, one of whom seemed to collect abusive boyfriends the way some women collect shoes.

Genevieve had seven children. My father was the oldest. Her husband—my grandfather—drowned in a boating accident in Michigan before my father had even met my mother. The details of the accident were vague and mysterious. He was fishing with his son-in-law, my uncle Einer. Somehow the boat turned over. Einer, who wasn’t a swimmer, survived. My grandfather, who was a swimmer, drowned.

After that my grandmother started to fall apart. To relieve her pain she began frequenting a local tavern for beer and conversation. She met George, who eventually became my step-granddad. George left his wife and five children for her. But his inability to control his drinking eventually damaged his business and their marriage. They separated and he later died in a poor house.

In time I came to like her, though I always wished for a more traditional grandmother. I don’t know if it is vanity or narcissism that now leads my thoughts to dwell on her body shape rather than on the hardships that she endured. But her body is the one that I am growing into.

I have a clear picture of my grandmother as my father drove us away from her home after another strained visit. I was sitting in the front seat of our Chrysler station wagon. I looked back to see her standing on the crumbling porch of her small white wooden house. She waved goodbye. Her strong hand was connected to her unexpectedly delicate wrist and muscular arm. Her sturdy wide body was wrapped in a cheap cotton print dress. She wore stretch stockings to help with the varicose veins bulging on her legs. Her feet were secured in sensible thrift store slippers. Her only income was Social Security.

I still remember the chill that ran down my back that moment as I looked at her. Somehow I knew that I was seeing myself in 30 or 40 years. I was quite thin in my twenties. Yet as I age, I appear to be turning into my grandmother—at least in appearance. She had the wide peasant face and the sturdy middle of many older eastern European women of a certain age. Hers was a body built to work. Now, when I look in the mirror, I can glimpse echoes of my grandmother.

My grandmother Genevieve   at a hunting trailer in Michigan in 1954.

My grandmother Genevieve at a hunting trailer in Michigan in 1954.

Like her, I have a body built to work. Oddly, we both ended up in jobs involving heavy lifting. As a photographer I lug cases of camera gear around the planet. My grandmother’s final job was bussing tables at the country club in Spring Lake, Michigan. She lugged piles of dirty dishes back to the kitchen. She was amazed at how much food was wasted and left on plates. Fried shrimp was one of the more expensive items on the menu. “How could they leave the shrimp?” she would ask to no one in particular. Then in an almost smug tone, she confided that she would eat the fried shrimps left on the customer’s plates. “They hadn’t even touched those shrimps,” she would say to my frowning 15-year-old face. In fact, her bold move fascinated me. I wanted to eat some that shrimp. Even today, whenever I think of that story I crave fried shrimp.

Now, other ancestors seem to be passing on their traits to me. My joints are starting to creak like my father’s and my night vision is deteriorating just as his did. Driving at night has become terrifying, unless I wear glasses that give me better than 20/20 vision. Like my father, I also turned gray at a young age. If I’m lucky to live as long as he did, my hair will doubtless be the same snow white as his was. And though my face reflects the Asian heritage of my Japanese mother, my body belongs to the eastern European stock of my father.

My girlfriends who, like me, are half Asian all inherited the thin delicate bodies of their mothers. I have the study structure of my grandmother. A woman born to work. And to this day, no matter what else is on the menu, I always chose shrimp.

Written by kasmauski

June 7, 2014 at 10:02 pm

When in Doubt, Improvise

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Cold branding involves using dry ice to cool and then freeze brands on the cattle. I used four speed lights to focus attention on this activity, particularly with the glaring daylight from the open barn door.

Cold branding involves using dry ice to cool and then freeze brands on the cattle. I used four speed lights to focus attention on this activity, particularly with the glaring daylight from the open barn door.

I’m in Myanmar most of this month, leading a National Geographic Photo Expedition and photographing for an NGO. It’s fascinating—I’ve been coming here since 2007 and the country is rapidly changing. I’ll write more about that about in a future post. One thing that hasn’t changed is that in Myanmar, just as in other places, you must often improvise to make good pictures.

Actually, you could make the case that photojournalism is largely about improvising and problem solving. At least, that’s what we photojournalists seem to spend most of our days doing. We find the stories, secure access to people and places, work out logistics; only then do we make pictures. When shooting an assignment, the problems we face depend on the needs of the client for whom we’re making the pictures.

With documentary photography, often the biggest problem is to deliver a publishable memorial picture without influencing the situation. When I began my newspaper career the documentary approach was very influential. You couldn’t move the furniture; you couldn’t tell the subject what to do or where to stand. Artificial lighting was suspect. The idea was to make pictures was with minimal intrusion.

I didn’t quite buy that approach. I always carried a small flash and I’d bounce the light from any available surface to add a bit more needed illumination. I liked what the eminent photojournalist, Eugene Smith said: “My attitude towards available light is that I use whatever light is available.”

These days, much of my work is for magazines and nonprofit organizations. Whether the need is a documentary-style image or something more illustrative, I have to produce the best possible picture that accurately tells the story and I’ll use whatever lighting I can to solve problems.

I had a Smithsonian magazine assignment on breeding cattle for the consumer meat market that was all about improvision. I was told that much of the work would take place in a barn. I anticipated I would have to light the situation to get the necessary pictures

I am not what you’d call a heavy lighter. I prefer to work with whatever ambient sources available— daylight, florescent, incandescent, sodium vapor–and use Speed lights placed strategically around the subject to create emphasis. My lighting kit is four SB-800s, a couple of softboxes and umbrellas, Omini-Bounce domes and a few light stands.

For the Smithsonian job, I flew to Dallas, then drove four hours northwest to a small cattle ranching community. After a quick scout of the ranch, I realized that four Speedlights wouldn’t be enough. I’d imagined the barn to be a wooden structure with light filtering in through doors and windows. In reality it was a huge construction shed, with high ceilings, metal walls and no windows.

Here I again used four Speedlights to brighten the scene, along with a small handheld strobe on the shadowed face of the hat-wearing cowboy in the foreground.

Here I again used four Speedlights to brighten the scene, along with a small handheld strobe on the shadowed face of the hat-wearing cowboy in the foreground.

Maybe daylight would help. The barn had two large double doors opening to the outside and an overcast sky would give me some nice soft light.  Unfortunately the day was bright and sunny, and the open doors admitted a glaring shaft of daylight that cut right across the work area, creating a situation that was impossible to balance with the dark interior.

I ran tests for my original plan to mix Speedlights with the barn’s dim sodium vapor lights, but I wasn’t getting results that I liked and my four Speedlights didn’t have the power to replace the sodium vapor lights.

Well, if the lights won’t suit the original plan, I’d change the plan and work on a smaller scale to get the photos I needed. The cattle would be herded through a series of pens and gates, ending up in a chute that closed like a large clamp around the animals and immobilized them while they were branded and ultrasounds were performed on inseminated females to check the health of their fetuses. I’d photograph the animals while they were in the chutes; that way I’d limit the area I had to light.

I hung two speed lights upside down over the chute to backlight the animals.  The branding irons were cooled with dry ice and the lights emphasized bursts of steam released by the irons as they touched the animals. Away from the scene I set a third light with an OmniBounce on top, on a stand to light up the area where the branding equipment was placed.  I held the fourth SB-800 in my hand, off camera, to light up the cowboy doing the work. This Speedlight triggered the other three SB-800s, as all were set for wireless remote. The situation was a bit tricky since the cowboys naturally wore cowboy hats that shadowed their faces, and I had to continually move my handheld strobe to illuminate them.

This setup gave me a good picture of the activity, but the background remained dark. I wanted more of a sense of the place, and providing that required more light than I had with me. I asked the ranch manager, “You wouldn’t happen to have any floodlights?”

Luck was with me. The ranch had a couple of large commercial flood, the kind often used for night road construction. I placed one of them behind the chute area, bounced one of its heads off the ceiling to light the background and aimed its other head at the back of the chute to provide just enough rim lighting to make the images interesting. It wasn’t the slickest lighting job, but I liked the drama the floods gave the scene.

Of course, not every photo required an improvised lighting setup.  Here cowboys round up the cattle on the breeding stock ranch.

Of course, not every photo required an improvised lighting setup. Here cowboys round up the cattle on the breeding stock ranch.

I had to guess at my exposures for the floods, but with digital I was able to see the scene immediately and make necessary adjustments to exposure and white balances to handle the mix of flash, glaring daylight, overhead sodium vapor and halogen floodlights that comprised my improvised “available” light

Teamwork

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Fuergo and Atitlan volcanoes in Guatemala.

Fuergo and Atitlan volcanoes in Guatemala.

For most of my career I’ve been a free-lance editorial shooter. I photographed for National Geographic magazine for 20 years, 12 of those as a contract photographer. During my time there I did many of the large picture stories that used to be the signature of the magazine. For most of those assignments I worked alone. I’ve never covered breaking news, press conferences or the kinds of social events where I’d likely encounter other photographers and my schedule rarely matched that of the stories’ writers.

 Most of the stories I cover concern the consequences of events or conditions. I photograph people carrying on with their daily lives in the face of tragedy; fathers living with AIDS, mothers hauling water during a drought, children seeking education under the burden of extreme poverty.

Many of my stories take big themes—migration, aging, radiation— and narrow them down to make them accessible and understandable. Often the people I meet on these stories are poor and live in remote areas. It’s hard to contact them ahead of time and as a result I often find my stories as I travel through them.  I began my career as a newspaper photographer and I’m grateful for the lessons I learned from that job; act like a journalist as well as an image maker, seek out stories, think on your feet, work quickly.

A woman at noon prayer in a Catholic church in Santiago Atitlan Guatemala

A woman at noon prayer in a Catholic church in Santiago Atitlan Guatemala

An earlier assignment tested my journalistic skills and challenged my solitary working style. A former student of mine who I’d taught at the Maine Media Workshops made me an offer I couldn’t refuse; she asked me to be the chief photographer on a project that would take me to Guatemala and Nicaragua to cover the impact of certain environmental conditions on peoples’ health and culture.  With three of my major interests in play—environment, health and culture—I accepted the assignment. Then my former student asked me to find a videographer.  Slowly I began to realize that the project was actually centered on making a video. My former student would be the producer and my role was to shoot still pictures for promotion and an accompanying exhibit.

I had to check my ego at the door.  For the first time in my freelance career I was going to work as part of a time, which represented a pretty big adjustment for me.  When I’m working, even if I’m present for only a day, even just an hour, I try to photograph the people I encounter with an in the moment intimacy. I find the best pictures come from intense, focused interactions.  Now I would have to share those interactions and those relationships with a producer and a videographer.  I had mixed feelings about that. I had heard from other photographers who had worked with videographers that tensions between the needs of still and video seemed to be a given.  So I needed to find someone who would complement my reportage style of shooting and—this was critical—have a sense of humor.

This farmer's child works in the shadow of the Masaya volcano in Nicaragua.

This farmer’s child works in the shadow of the Masaya volcano in Nicaragua.

I turned to a friend, the only person I knew who shot video in a style that I was certain the producer would like, a style best described as journalism mixed with lush dreamy landscapes. We had both worked for National Geographic. He knew my shooting style and I was confident he could contribute to the fast paced reporting we were going to have to do.

The shoot was three-weeks of frenzied travel.  The videographer and I quickly developed a way of working that we called “Navy Seal” journalism.” It was brutally simple: We arrived without warning and with few preliminaries began shooting stills and video; we got the job done quickly and moved on to the next location.

Despite our pace, we kept looking for stories.  When we found them, both the videographer and I presented a united front to the producer, convincing her to change her logistical schedule. Months later, when I saw the finished video and the exhibit, I was gratified to see that our insistence was not just egos on overdrive.  Most of the more evocative pictures came from situations we found on the run and for which we’d lobbied for more shooting time. I found that working with a team was more fun than I could have anticipated. Being able to review the day’s work and then talk about the next day’s plans and hopes helped me sort out what I was doing and helped me determine that my pictures were going in a direction that was appropriate to the storytelling mission of the project.

Horse drawn carriages are a popular means of transport in the town of Antiqua Guatemala.

Horse drawn carriages are a popular means of transport in the town of Antiqua Guatemala.

I found that the key to working successfully as part of a team is to set up ground rules before anyone gets onto the plane.  Time in the field needs to be parceled out and a hierarchy of need has to be determined. When I’m alone, I’m in charge; everything is according to my agenda.  As part of a team I have to consider the needs of others—and still get the story.

Ultimately this assignment reinforced how much the landscape is changing for photojournalists. Now it’s a web and mobile driven world, a world of images in motion with accompanying soundtracks, and our success as journalists lies in learning to work in that world.

Photo Expeditions

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Vietnamese woman working on a golf course outside of Ho Chi Minh city.

Vietnamese woman working on a golf course outside of Ho Chi Minh city.

I’m on my way to lead an amazing Photo Expedition to Myanmar for National Geographic. With a major snow and ice storm coming up from the south, I feel lucky to be escaping to a warm and beautiful location. While I’m traveling I’ll be uploading a few historical columns I wrote for Nikon Magazine before that publication folded a few months ago.

Here are my other expeditions and classes for this this year:

An additional Photo Expedition to Myanmar for National Geographic on November 11-13, 2014. If you’re interested in improving your photography, this amazing country provides a great place to hone your skills. http://www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com/expeditions/myanmar-photo-tour/experts

Over the Christmas and New Years holidays I will be leading a photo expedition to Antarctica, again for National Geographic.  I’ll do two expeditions back to back: Dec. 18-Dec. 31, 2014 and Dec. 28. 2014 to Jan. 10, 2015.  This will fulfill my dream of visiting Antarctica. I can’t believe that I will be able to spend the holidays in such an amazing place. We will celebrate on ice!! http://www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com/expeditions/antarctica-cruise/experts

Young Vietnamese girl in the Gio Linh district

Young Vietnamese girl in the Gio Linh district

If you’re a college student interested in going to Vietnam and Myanmar and get six college credits at the same time, you should sign up for a travel abroad course that I am teaching for George Mason University called “Visualizing the Post Conflict World, Vietnam and Myanmar.” As a student you’ll participate through experiential learning, interacting with families and communities while traveling through a post war environment. You’ll do a multi-media project for your final grade. I am the academic director for this four-week program, which is sponsored by George Mason University. It’ll be an amazing experience. Travel is May 22 to June 18, 2014. GMU Center For Global Education:  Visualizing a Post Conflict World http://globaled.gmu.edu/programs/facultyled/summerstudy/south-east-asia.html

George Washington University will again offer my two-week photojournalism class for high schoolers as a key feature of their pre-college summer program. I created this program nine years ago and have had a great time teaching it, learning as much from my students as I hope they learn from me. Photojournalism:  Media in Focus introduces students to photojournalism in the DC area, giving them the opportunity to sharpen their photography skills while producing an exhibit and a class photo booklet. The class is scheduled from July 13 to July 25, 2014. https://precollege.gwu.edu/photojournalism-media-focus

Complexities of a Simple Weapon

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I was arrested in Zaire moments after taking this picture of a woman helping her grandson. Both were refugees, returning to their home country of Zaire after fleeing to Tanzania.

I was arrested in Zaire moments after taking this picture of a woman helping her grandson. Both were refugees, returning to their home country of Zaire after fleeing to Tanzania.

The death this week of Mikhail Kalashnikov, creator of the AK-47, which the Washington Post calls “the world’s most omnipresent weapon, used by national armies, terrorists, drug gangs, bank robbers, revolutionaries and Jihadists” made me think about my own three encounters with this gun.

The last time I saw an AK-47 it was pointed at me.

It was the late 1990s. I was in Zaire for National Geographic and I was getting arrested. I was accompanying a group of Zairian refugees who were being repatriated to their homeland (Zaire is now called Congo). The writer, his wife and I were on a UN ship traveling from Tanzania. We carried papers signed by the proper authorities. But as white journalists we stood out like sore thumbs. The ship docked, we walked ashore and Zairian soldiers, all carrying AK-47s, surrounded us.

The soldier performing the arrest was not a large person. But he suffered from what I call the “small man with big gun” syndrome. I see that affliction not only in Africa but also here in the United States. It affects people who feel insecure. They use guns to show the world how big they are. In some situations this behavior might seem pitiful or even ridiculous. This wasn’t that kind of situation—I was facing a small and agitated man who was yelling at me in a language I didn’t understand and waving what looked like a well-used automatic weapon in my face.

Actually, that was the second time I’d had an AK-47 pointed at me. A few years earlier, in 1993, I was working in Sierra Leone on a story about Lassa Fever. I was traveling with a medical team when our vehicle reached a checkpoint. This one happened to be in a beautiful location offering an incredible view of nearby mountains. One of the staffers suggested that I take a picture. I’m not sure why I agreed. At checkpoints, it’s always a bad idea to take pictures. But moving in a kind of idiotic trance I raised my camera. Within seconds, I had the barrel of a gun in my face and I was arrested, along with the two medical staffers. We drove to police headquarters with the solider arresting us—another small man—sitting in the back seat. I stole occasional glances behind me and could see him alternately pointing his AK-47 at the back of my head or the back of the driver’s head. Thankfully as we bounced along the rough dirt road he kept his finger off the trigger. At the police station he marched us before his commander, eager to show off his prize. Luckily for my two African colleagues and me his commander was not interested in us. As in Zaire, we were eventually released, grateful that we had literally dodged the bullet.

In Vietnam I fired one shot from an AK-47 at a tourist attraction operated by the Vietnamese Army.

In Vietnam I fired one shot from an AK-47 at a tourist attraction operated by the Vietnamese Army.

My third AK-47 encounter fell between the two frightening African episodes. In 1994 I was in Saigon, photographing a story on the Vietnamese economy, which at the time was just opening up to foreign investment. The Vietnamese Army held a fundraiser. For $1.00 per bullet, foreigners could fire an AK-47. I bought one bullet. Under the watchful of a soldier I shouldered the weapon aiming at the target. I lightly squeezed the trigger. There was a loud bang and a slight kick to my shoulder. I missed the target.

Of course, most AK-47s aren’t used for fundraisers. More that 100 million of these automatic weapons have been built in countries around the world since Mikhail Kalashnikov first developed it in the 1940s for the Russian Army.  With only eight moving parts, the Kalashnikov earned a reputation for simplicity and effectiveness, offering the fully automatic fire of a machine gun and requiring minimal care. The North Vietnamese used AK-47s like the one I fired when they fought US troops in the Vietnam War. It was considered a more reliable weapon than the M-16s issued to Americans.

Yet while it is an impressive feat of military engineering, I have to believe that easy access to cheap, reliable and extremely deadly weapons like the AK-47 is a big contributor to the decades-long conflicts plaguing the developing world.  It’s ironic that Mr. Kalashnikov made a sturdy easy to use weapon to help the soldiers of his Russian homeland, but in the end, that became the weapon of choice for warring parties in underdeveloped countries. Would post-Cold War conflicts scattered around the globe continue as long, with casualties as high if efficient killing devices like the AK-47 were complex, unreliable and expensive?

In the South Sudan village of Palotaka, Jonas James who is a nurse, hopes for peace, so that a priest might return to the village church.

In the South Sudan village of Palotaka, Mr. Jade, the church caretaker, hopes for peace, so that a priest might return to the village church.

Sadly, another developing world conflict is unfolding right now in South Sudan. Almost three years ago, shortly before the vote that established South Sudan as a country, Catholic Relief Services sent me there to photograph peace. The assignment was both simple and complicated. Could I show “What does peace look like in South Sudan?”

Kindergardeners happily greet visitors to their school in Magwi, a village in South Sudan.

Kindergardeners happily greet visitors to their school in Magwi, a village in South Sudan.

It was one of the best assignments I ever had, not because it produced award-winning photos (though several did win awards), but because I had the opportunity to capture the lives of people who hoped they could finally live in peace once the new country of South Sudan was created. It was a wonderful and exciting time to be there. People felt that fear of conflict was finally behind them. Refugees were returning to reclaim their lands and restart their lives. I met some of the nicest people I have ever photographed, warm and open to my camera. Being there seemed like a gift from God. I felt transformed.

So during this holiday season of peace and good will, to hear that South Sudan is again falling into conflict and bloodshed is highly distressing. What will happen to the many wonderful people I met?  The young boy helping his mother wash clothes in a roadside ditch. Little Sandy whose mother is learning how to sew so she can support the family. The female community leader helping her village recover from the last conflict. The laughing girls getting water from the village pump without fear of being brutalized. The kindergarten children who warmly greet visitors while drinking their morning tea.

Sandy and her mother at day care in Avumadrici village.  Sandy's mother had hoped that peace would allow her to continue classes at a technical school where she was learning to sew.

Sandy and her mother at day care in Avumadrici village. Sandy’s mother had hoped that peace would allow her to continue classes at a technical school where she was learning to sew.

Of course, the causes of conflicts are complex and rooted in many issues, but again I can’t help but think that if Mr. Kalashnikov had not invented that sturdy, cheap and reliable weapon of choice of poor armies and rogue groups, these types of conflicts would be slower to start and harder to carry out. Mr. Kalashnikov once said if there had not been a war at the time he invented his legendary gun, he might have gone on to improve farm equipment. I wonder how the world might be different had he done that. At the end of the Washington Post article he says, “I created a weapon…it’s not my fault that it was sometimes used where it should have not have been. That is the fault of politicians.” That same tired old line that “guns don’t kill—people do.” Humans have always found ways to kill each other. But can you imagine how the dynamics of warfare in places like South Sudan would be if people only had hoes or clubs rather than a weapon that reliably fires and kills multiple times within seconds.

Written by kasmauski

December 27, 2013 at 5:51 pm

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