Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Rip It Up and Start Over: Musing on a Summer Day.

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My son didn't realize he'd be asked to weed when he got home from the Peace Corps.

My son didn’t realize he’d be asked to weed when he got home from the Peace Corps.

As the summer simmers towards August I’ve gotten sick of seeing all the weeds in the landscaping around my house. I was gone for most of May and June’s prime growing season. This spring there was plenty of rain and everything, I mean everything was flourishing. My garden was a sea of green—green weeds that is. The plants were overwhelmed. I was also feeling the same about my life.

With only a little bribery, I got my adult children and my husband to help out. I was feeling the pressures of living in suburbia. Our block was about to have a street party. I didn’t want our home to be the only one to look abandon by its human occupants.

I was on a roll. I dumped buckets of weeds into lawn bags. Sweat poured down my face and soaked my T-shirt. I didn’t even mind the aroma of bug spray. The garden started looking good, reminding me of how it looked years earlier when I planted it.

Dog Leo likes to stand guard at the end of the garden.

Dog Leo likes to stand guard at the end of the garden.

I started the garden at a low point in my career. About that time, National Geographic’s leadership changed, my photography career took a drastic downturn. Suddenly all the ideas and work that I’d done for them for over two decades were unwelcome. I had to reinvent myself. The best way to manifest that reinvention was to create a garden. I moved plants, altered textures and brought in flowering bushes.

Working on my garden made me feel like my decisions had impact.

For a while everything looked lovely. I fertilized the beds, weeded religiously and was rewarded with a beautiful array of colors, textures and shapes. My career also blossomed again as well. I started getting assignments and traveling again. The cost of that was ignoring the garden. The weeds soon took over again. I would bribe my children, once more, to weed. The ups and down of freelancing can stress a garden. Assignments are unpredictable; often I’d have a lull and be home for months. My garden would benefit. Then I’d get another assignment and be gone again for weeks at a time. I could practically hear the weeds rallying their forces, ready to attack as soon as my plane left the ground.

This strange intertwining of my garden and my career continued. At one point, my parents, thrifty as always, gave me a small crepe myrtle. Mature crepes are lovely flowering trees found along many southern streets. The one they gave me was a thin sickly plant they got at Wal-Mart for $1.99, along with two small Japanese maples. I planted these three sad trees around a beautiful yellow maple. They struggled to survive.

I once read that monks do physical labor to force the mind into numbing nothingness. Labor supposedly calms the mind, moving it into a meditative state. Perhaps distraction is a better word. The more stressed I am the harder I work on my garden, replanting and reshaping the beds the same way I need to reshape my life.

A bright red crepe myrtle stand tall at the head of my driveway.  Flowers and azalea bushes line the other side.

A bright red crepe myrtle stand tall at the head of my driveway. Flowers and azalea bushes line the other side.

Now, years after that drastic career change, I look at my garden. The yellow maple was damaged in a storm. I took it down so my three young trees could thrive in the sun. Those once scrawny plantings have become lovely full size trees. The crepe myrtle with its gorgeous red flowers dominates the entrance to our driveway. The two tiny Japanese maples have grown to maturity and shelter small families of birds.

At one point I thought I‘d surround that wonderful crepe myrtle with a low-lying carpet of ornamental grass. I had vision of a soft green lawn, a brilliant red flowering tree at the center. But weeding became a chore and soon I couldn’t tell what was weed and what was grass. So two weeks ago, I ripped out every last blade of that grass and said farewell to my fantasy of a lovely green grass carpet. I needed to clear that space and maybe at the same time clear my head.

Took out every bunch of ornamental grass.

Took out every bunch of ornamental grass.

Weeding gave me a sense of control, perhaps misplaced, but so be it.

This is an uncertain time in media and disruptive for many. Newspapers and magazines decline in circulations, some have folded up completely. The proliferation of cell phone and smart digital cameras makes photography seem less of a craft. A recent cell phone ad declared everyone with a phone camera a photojournalist. Has my profession been reduced to a skill that anyone with a cell phone can do? I hope not.

But the truth is that what doesn’t work needs to be pulled out. Something that thrives in the newly created environment will replace it.

Gardens only need a bit of tender loving care. A little sun, some planning, a little watering and things thrive. So, like my garden, maybe its time to start my career over once more.

Written by kasmauski

July 29, 2015 at 7:46 pm

Ecological Sin: Musings on the Pope’s Most Recent Encyclical

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At the height of the dry season in Mali, lakes evaporate.  A village nurse  lifts slabs of mud to look for moisture as the reminants of a sand storm whip across the lake bed.

At the height of the dry season in Mali, lakes evaporate. A village nurse lifts slabs of mud to look for moisture as the reminants of a sand storm whip across the lake bed.

When I first heard about Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si”—the long form translation seen in many media sources—“Praise Be to You: On the Care of Our Common Home” my first reaction was “Huh?” That was followed by confusion, then excitement. “You go Pope Francis!” I thought.

The document has been interpreted in several ways. Many see it as a treatise on global warming concerns. We need to shape up or Mother Earth will ship us out. If predictions about global warming prove accurate, then coastlines will alter, cities will flood, and storms will increase in strength and number. Food supplies may be threatened, straining the planet’s ability to handle the ever-growing human population.

(So, okay I’ll say it. Why isn’t the Pope also talking about limiting population? I suppose he is taking things one at a time, given the conservative elements of the Church.)

I am thankful for Pope Francis’ encyclical. Will it be effective? Who knows? A Washington Post columnist pointed out that the Pope is talking not only about global warming but also about the consumption culture that treats our Earth like an open credit card where overspending has no consequences.

People living and working on a garbage dump outside of Danang. Hundreds of people depend on finding stuff thrown away by others to recycle or sell.

People living and working on a garbage dump outside of Danang. Hundreds of people depend on finding stuff thrown away by others to recycle or sell.

Too many of our political leaders push growth and consumption as the savior of our democracy. The consequences are rarely discussed with the same enthusiasm. I’m as guilty as the next person, writing this on a computer with parts made from toxic materials mined by underpaid developing world workers. When my computer is replaced I recycle it, but I really don’t know if the parts are just dumped in another developing world country. Fossilized plants and animals power all my car, home and professional gear.

So, having now confessed my sins, I’m going to ignore them and return to global warming. This is something we can’t ignore. During my National Geographic career I saw examples of weather patterns changing in major ways

Mali farmer walks across  the devastated soil that use to be his garden during  the height of a drought.

Mali farmer walks across the devastated soil that use to be his garden during the height of a drought.

Viruses, my first Geographic health story, took me to areas where epidemics were raging. I wondered why each place I visited was also stressed environmentally or socially. I began to realize how environment contributed to disease—that epidemics didn’t just appear out of nowhere.

I don’t pretend to be a scientist, but I’ve seen a lot of changes over the past two decades, especially with weather. In the 1990’s I worked in remote areas of Africa and was often stranded by heavy rains and flooding during the so-called dry season. Yet in other locations, rains didn’t come for years. Crops failed, soil eroded and people went hungry.

A young boy walks atop a brick wall surrounding a health clinic in Niger.  Due to continually shifting sands and other environmental factors, the clinic has never been able to officially open.

A young boy walks atop a brick wall surrounding a health clinic in Niger. Due to continually shifting sands and other environmental factors, the clinic has never been able to officially open.

In Niger I photographed a partially built health clinic in a once fertile area. It sat unfinished because weather changes brought severe drought to the region. Sand swept through millet fields and water sources dried up, leaving a wasteland of cracked mud.

Once, in eastern Kenya, I came upon a town. From the distance it looked like pale flowers covered the fences lining the road, but drawing closer, I was stunned to see they were thousands upon thousands of plastic bags, blowing about, trapped in fences or caught in tree branches. My first thought was why didn’t anyone pick them up? My second thought was how did they get here and why here? Why were they drifting on this particular road? Since they’re made from petroleum, it was like watching precious oil flying in the wind.

I began looking at ways environments were stressed, from overusing agricultural chemicals and polluting water to political corruption and changing weather. As I gathered threads from my observations I began thinking about a project I called “Ecology of Disease.” It looked at the connections between the rise of disease with environment and poverty. Eventually that became a National Geographic story and later formed the foundation of my first book “IMPACT: From the Front Lines of Global Health.”

I didn’t consider the role of religion in that project, but perhaps faith can persuade in ways that books and videos and websites can’t. We don’t have a lot of time left and I can’t visualize a world where safe water is no longer easy to find, where the ice caps have melted and useable land is as rare as gold. The Pope has called on us to stop the destruction of ecosystems or else face terrible consequences. Those may not affect us older folks, but they will affect our children and all the children that follow. What sort of legacy are we leaving them?

Mali boy in shallow lake in the Tessit area takes water to drink at twilight. This lake is shrinking due to drought.

Mali boy in shallow lake in the Tessit area takes water to drink at twilight. This lake is shrinking due to drought.

Pope Frances writes (I am quoting from other media articles who have summarized the encyclical): “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, and political. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

He adds: Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures…the proper relationship between humanity and earth has been broken by the fall, both outwardly and within us. This rupture constitutes what we call sin…the church must introduce in its teaching the sin against the environment. The ecological sin.”

I can’t say it any clearer.

Written by kasmauski

June 29, 2015 at 3:44 am

Global Health Photo Exhibit

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The IMPACT exhibit on display at the Keck Center in the National Academies building.

The IMPACT exhibit on display at the Keck Center in the National Academies building.

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

NGM_2002_02-WAR_ON_DISEASE-01

The opening spread from my National Geographic story on emerging infectious diseases.

Cover of the IMPACT book

Cover of the IMPACT book

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 cpnas@nas.edu or call the Keck Center at 202.334.2000.

Images on My Mother’s Day

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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.

Left my father Steve on a street corner in Tokyo's Ginza district.  Right, the same area today.

Left my father Steve on a street corner in Tokyo’s Ginza district. Right, the same area today.

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.

Left, my father, Steve Kasmauski with three brothers in law, by the beach in Sajima. Right, the same scene today.

Left, my father, Steve Kasmauski with three brothers in law, by the beach in Sajima. Right, the same scene today.

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.

Left, the beach at Sajima, right, the same area today.

Left, the beach at Sajima, right, the same area today.

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.

Left, Yokosuka Naval Base in the early 1950s where I was born. Right, me in front of the Naval hospital today.

Left, Yokosuka Naval Base in the early 1950s where I was born. Right, me in front of the Naval hospital today.

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.

Left, my mother overlooking her family home in the early 1950s.  Right, the same location today, blocked by a huge concrete wall

Left, my mother overlooking her family home in the early 1950s. Right, the same location today, blocked by a huge concrete wall

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.

Written by kasmauski

May 11, 2015 at 2:36 am

When Assignments Disappear, Do a Film

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My mother being filmed for the documentary "Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight."

My mother being filmed for the documentary “Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight.”

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.

My mother looking over photographs of the time when she met my father.

My mother looking over photographs of the time when she met my father.

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.

From the 1990, National Geographic story,  Japanese  Woman, a young bride is on  display to her neighbors before she marries.

From the 1990, National Geographic story, Japanese Woman, a young bride is on display to her neighbors before she marries.

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.

A housewife carries her children to a tutoring class, from the 1990, National Geographic story on Japanese Women.

A housewife carries her children to a tutoring class, from the 1990, National Geographic story on Japanese Women.

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.

Lucy, Kathryn and myself (far left) being interviewed for the Kickstarter campaign. (Screen grab from the film)

Lucy, Kathryn and myself (far left) being interviewed for the Kickstarter campaign. (Screen grab from the film)

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 shooting for the War Bride short film began on the day of a partial solar eclipse in Norfolk, Virginia

The shooting for the War Bride short film began on the day of a partial solar eclipse in Norfolk, Virginia

 

 

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.

 

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