I still dream of Antarctica.
Antarctica may be as close to pure nature as I will ever get. Yet when my thoughts stray to the strange white beauty of that vast otherworldly landscape, I am usually stressing about transition. Though Antarctica looks solid and permanent the ice moves continually. Change is constant. That’s true both for Antarctica and for the profession that brought me there.
Almost a year ago, National Geographic sent me to the northwestern peninsula of that continent, representing the company on a Lindblad expedition.
It amazed me to see the incredible life thriving in that frozen wilderness, from large sea mammals to flightless birds to colorful lichen. Yet Antarctica can be one of the harshest environments on earth. During the cruise, we learned about Sir Ernest Shackleton and the struggle he faced when his ship, the Endurance, became trapped and crushed by fast moving ice. He and his crew of 27 survived under unbearably difficult conditions.
By contrast, the Lindblad ship was safe and luxurious. When we traveled around the western Antarctic Peninsula we were hit by katabatic winds—air flowing down from distant mountains and smacking into us as we entered the Weddell Sea. Those winds were so fierce that we who braved the outside deck were slammed against the railings and could barely stand straight. I’d quickly retreat inside for a warm cup of tea. When I went ashore I was clad in thick polar gear and hiked with other passengers under the guidance of the skilled crew. It seemed effortless, but we were traveling in a carefully tended bubble of comfort.
Most of us live our lives in similar bubbles, happily insulated from the sources of our food, water, energy and other resources. We tear down century old trees to build huge homes with huge energy bills, ignoring that the uprooted trees could have cooled the house. Staying shielded in such bubbles may not a good tactic. Change is afoot. Our world is warming.
As that happens, Antarctica’s vast ice shelves are being compromised. This February NASA captured a picture of a 17-mile long iceberg breaking off the continent into the Amundsen Sea. These enormous masses of ice move from land to water contributing uncounted trillions of gallons to rising sea levels. What the oceans gain, we humans lose, since, as much as 90% of Earth’s fresh water is Antarctic ice.
The ice shelves, of only passing permanence, make me realize how much I live my life in a similarly deceptive state, oblivious to changing patterns and imagining that today will last forever. Yet suddenly there is a crack. Then, a break. Part of my life floats away, never to be recovered. A job ends, a parent dies, and a sibling is estranged. Friends move away and children become adults, beginning their own lives. Sometimes I feel like a piece of ice, broken off and floating to oblivion.
That same sudden shattering of what once seemed solid is transforming my world. I and my colleagues who still survive as photojournalists wonder when our business became what it is today. Sadly it is less about content and more about speed, marketing and easy visuals. In today’s business, staying employed long enough to retire seems laughably outdated. Many of my colleagues are leaving the field to teach or try another profession.
Yet, really, did we actually think that our business would sit still? Like the ice, it has always been moving. We just didn’t notice.
Maybe that is why I think of Antarctica when I am stressed. Instead of imagining I am floating away to oblivion I have to remember I am part of a family of people. Together we are stronger than when we are apart, just like the molecules that make up the magnificent Antarctic ice. And that is where I need to focus.
Four years ago I began working with two other women on a wonderful project that has finally come to life. In partnership with Lucy Craft, a Tokyo based reporter for National Public Radio, and Kathryn Tolbert, an editor for the Washington Post, we set out to tell our shared story. Our mothers were Japanese War Brides. After World War II, each of them met and married an American serviceman. All were part of a movement of almost 50,000 Japanese women who followed their husbands to the United States to live and raise families.
Their story has rarely been told, so we set out to make a documentary about their journey. To fund the project, we ran a Kickstarter campaign, allowing us to hire Blue Chalk Media, a wonderful Brooklyn based production company to shoot the film. The result, combining interviews, historical film and family photographs, is a 26 minute documentary, titled “Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight: The Japanese War Brides,” airing between August 14 and 20 on BBC World News. Blue Chalk also created a great War Bride trailer for the film. This is a little known piece of American history. Its a story of tolerance, forgiveness and perseverance, about making piece with one’s former enemy. An elegantly packaged DVD will be available later this year on the War Bride Project Website website. I hope you are able to see it.
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 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.
I started the garden at a low point in my career. About that time, National Geographic’s leadership changed and 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 blossomed as well. I started getting assignments and traveling again. The cost of that was ignoring the garden. The weeds soon took over. I would bribe my children once more to weed. The ups and down of my freelancing stressed my garden. My assignments were 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. 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.
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 now 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. Maybe at the same time I needed to clear my head.
Weeding gave me a sense of control. Perhaps that was misplaced, but so be it.
This is an uncertain time in media and disruptive for many. Newspapers and magazines have declined in circulation. Some have completely folded up. The proliferation of cell phone and digital cameras has automated the craft of photography. A recent ad for one of the most popular smart phones declared that everyone with a phone camera was a photojournalist. Has my profession really been reduced to something 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 a newly created environment will replace it.
Gardens only need a bit of tender loving care. A little sun, planning, watering and everything thrives. So like my garden, maybe its time to start my career over once more.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.