IMPACT, my photography of global health issues spanning 15 years of work on five continents, is now exhibited at the at the Keck Center of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington D.C.
This exhibition is a journey through critical forces shaping 21st century life–rising populations, emergence of new diseases, relentless effects of global economics, increasing environmental concerns, and soaring technological advances. It seeks to connect the dots between events that may seem unrelated, but considered collectively can lead to a new understanding of the complex health issues now confronting us.
The exhibit is built around more than a decade of work and features 50 photographs chronicling my odyssey through issues of global change and public health.
It has its roots in my “Ecology of Disease” story published in the February 2002 issue of National Geographic magazine, and later in my book: IMPACT: From the Front Lines of Global Health. The book is available on Amazon
The exhibit runs until September 21, 2015. The Keck Center is located at 500 5th Street, Washington DC. 202.334.2000. Click here for more information. Note: You must contact in advance to view the exhibit. For permission email email@example.com or call the Keck Center at 202.334.2000.
At 17 my father Steven Kasmauski was far from his home on a Michigan farm. As World War II began, he joined the Navy, became a Seabee and worked in the jungles of the Philippines building runways and camps for our troops.
During this time, he bought a small camera and began photographing his life. He continued photographing throughout his 35 year-long Navy career.
In the early1950’s when Japan was still recovering from the devastation of war Steve was assigned to Yokosuka Naval Base. He was in his mid-20’s. Not long after arriving, he met a young Japanese woman named Emiko. They eventually married and became my parents.
By this time my father had upgraded to a professional camera—a Nikon S rangefinder. He recorded the exotic life around the coastal city of Yokosuka and in the small fishing village of Saijima—my mother’s home.
I grew up looking at those images. I often wondered what it was like for a Michigan farm boy to have arrived in such a place. Sometimes, I think he might have said it was quite familiar, perhaps like Spring Lake, the small fishing town where he grew up.
Nikon no longer makes a rangefinder camera like the one my father used. The locations he photographed have changed so radically that trying to find a few of them this past spring proved extraordinarily difficult.
In April I led a photography expedition in Japan for National Geographic. After the trip ended, I spent two days with my cousin Kazuo. His mother was the oldest of six sisters. My mother was the youngest. Kazuo drove me around Tokyo, Yokosuka and Saijima, trying to find the locations my father photographed 60 years ago.
Hardest to find was the place where my father did a “selfie” (with the help of a buddy) under a Ginza road sign.
It was a melancholy journey for me. The locations were beyond recognition. The hill where my mother stood looking over the roof tops of her family home was replaced by a concrete wall.
Since I started working on the War Bride film, I’ve journeyed though that world my mother lived in as a young girl. My road map has been the still images my father created. They speak to me across half a century, connecting me to my roots, my mother and my father.
This year is an odd blend of short adrenaline-driven adventure and long periods of inactivity. (Future blogs on those adventurous moments to follow!) But my roller coaster career anxieties are overshadowed by the tragedies of this sad year including the disappearance of one Malaysian airliner and the downing of another, continual fighting in Syria, murder of Palestinian and Israel teenagers, bombing of Gaza, kidnapping of Nigerian girls, the Ebola outbreak and the barbaric beheading of journalists. So far, 2014 seems like one of those years where evil dominates. I could barely think about anything. Feeling overwhelmed by the unceasing flow of information through web, television and even print, I felt at times like becoming one of those “end-of-the-roaders,” not caring about anything as long as I’m not bothered.
I can’t do that.
I have skin in this game. My son, a wonderful kind-hearted young man, is serving in Africa in the Peace Corps. He’s far from the Ebola epidemic but closer to some of the terrorist activities than I’m comfortable with. I have a sense of how dangerous things have gotten. Covering global health issues, I’ve been arrested twice by rouge elements who saw a light skinned person with a camera as a good catch to bring back to their leaders. In those situations reasonable minds prevailed and I was released. Kidnapping journalists for public beheadings had not yet become a terrorists tactic when I was working in those regions.
With all this tragedy the need to understand the underlying causes is greater than ever, but it seems that news organizations and non-government organizations are cutting back on hiring visual reporters, relying instead on overworked staff or even, (OMG!) poverty-tourists—those who want to experience the developing world and take a few snaps with that fancy new camera they bought. As a result, I—and many of my colleagues who won’t work for free—find paid work declining.
Assignments allowing the photographer to develop a story and a style seem to be ever fewer and further between. Editorial photography is one of those professions where the day rate hasn’t changed in nearly 20 years. I was paid more per day back in the 1990’s than I am now. This might be generational. Young photographers willing to work for less to pump up their portfolio may be getting more assignments. But I suspect that most photographers struggle for every paid assignment.
So where does that leave those of us who built our careers on long-form storytelling and editorial assignments? I’m still trying to figure that out, but in the meanwhile I started working with two colleagues on a film about Japanese War Brides. Our film explores the seldom-told stories of these women through our relations with our mothers.
To say that my mother and I have a complex relationship is about as big an understatement as I can make. Motherhood was a duty to her. I guess many women saw it that way back in the 1950’s since so few had control over their reproductive system. I’m convinced my mother was born several decades too early. She would have been amazing as a businesswoman. I think she would have bypassed parenthood completely if she had the choice.
But she didn’t and her children paid for that.
I spent all of my life wondering who this woman was. To help find out, I pitched a story on Japanese Women to National Geographic in the early 1990’s. I hoped to uncover a truth or two that could help explain her. The story was accepted and my search for understanding began. Along the way I met Lucy Craft, presently a CBS producer and National Public Radio reporter from Tokyo and Kathryn Tolbert, a senior editor at the Washington Post. These brilliant women share one important element with me. We are all the eldest daughters of Japanese War Brides. Our relationships with our mothers had similarities but our individual stories are very different.
Jump forward two decades.
Lucy suggested we work on a film about Japanese War Brides—a very under-reported segment of American history. I agreed to help her, as did Kathryn. For the next two years, we collected information, interviewed our mothers and acquired B-roll and archival materials. We did frequent video chats on Skype, but we all were busy with paying projects and really needed a full time producer to get the film underway. With children still in college I needed income and couldn’t afford to spend too much time on this. Hunting work in the shrinking world of journalism took most of my time.
Things sped up when several colleagues of mine in the video world formed a new production company called Blue Chalk. I had worked with their Director of Photography, Rob Finch at a multi-media workshop. After talking to him about our project Blue Chalk agreed to create a trailer for us to use for a Kickstarter campaign. If that were successful, we’d use the proceeds to hire Blue Chalk to do a 10 to 15 minute film. We’d then shop that film around as the basis to fund a full-length documentary.
To our surprise, the Kickstarter campaign was highly successful. Along with the amazing financial support we connected with a community of people who were either children or grandchildren of Japanese war brides who wanted to share their stories. We reached our Kickstarter goal within the first four days of the campaign, but vowed we’d keep going to make connections with the other War Bride children. The campaign has been over for almost a month and we’re still getting emails from those wanting to share their stories with us. The most exciting part of this Kickstarter campaign is this realization that we three are part of a larger community of kindred souls.
Two weeks ago, on the eve of a partial solar eclipse, shooting began for the short film version of “Fall Down Seven, Get Up Eight: The Japanese War Brides.” The Blue Chalk film crew spent the next week interviewing our mothers and us and collecting massive amounts of B-roll. Looking over the shoulder of Jamie Francis, the new director of Photography for Blue Chalk, I was thrilled to see the beautifully crafted scenes he was recording.
Over the next couple of months, I will post updates on this effort. Eventually we will have a finished long form documentary suitable for broadcast. This exciting project is keeping me engaged and inspired in the breaks between those adventures that are part of the now too-infrequent traditional assignments.
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.
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.
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.
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!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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