I’m disturbed by the divisive language being thrown around in the presidential primaries. We’re hearing that Mexicans are murderers and rapists, or that Muslims should be banned from our country.
As a photojournalist I have the privilege of meeting people that many Americans might not encounter. In my last blog I wrote about visiting Syrian refugee girls who studied at schools underwritten by UNICEF, International Relief and the Malala Fund.
Two weeks ago an NGO sent me to Mexico to photograph community economic project. I worked in a small village outside of Matehuala, an area in the province of St. Luis. Although this region is dry and desert-like, a rich underground aquifer allows large agribusinesses to thrive.
The people living in Matehuala are poor. I spent three intense days in a small village photographing hard working women who provided for their families. They had no medical or dental care. Nearly all the women over a certain age were missing their front teeth. Accidents and injuries are common. I met four sisters who had all lost adult children. The eldest, a 75-year-old woman of great inner strength, lost five of her ten children, including her oldest son when he fell and hit his head on a rock the previous year. Uncontrollable tears rolled down her checks as she told this story.
Every family I worked with in the small village had sons, husbands or daughters who had migrated to the US to make money. Wives and children left behind lived with parents or grandparents until those in the US sent home enough money to build a house. Throughout the village, half built homes were testimony to this slow transfer of money.
In recent years, large agribusiness moved into this region, building massive greenhouses so Americans can have their strawberries and tomatoes all winter. But agribusiness can tip the delicate balance of nature in this desert region. Drawing from the local aquifers causes water closer to the surface—the ones the smaller farmers draw on—to become highly salty. As a result, the government had to provide desalination plants for drinking water.
Agribusiness provides a few seasonal jobs. The locals have become migrant farm workers in their own country. On the main highway connecting this region to Mexico City to the south and Monterrey to the north, it is common to pass cars overloaded with entire families, farming tools and household items.
Children here grow up without their fathers because the men fear they couldn’t return to the States again. One family I met had two sons in the US. Their wives live with the sons’ mother. Grandma was going to throw her granddaughter a big party to honor her third birthday. With the money her son sent back from the States, she bought a large pig to roast for the community, along with balloons and a clown hired to entertain the guests. It seemed poignant to me that the money earned by her son would be used for party for a three-year-old whose memory of it will come from the few photos that might be taken. But this party seemed important to this family, the entire village was going to be invited.
The group of women I photographed called themselves, las rosas del ejido. They are trying to start a saving club in addition to a business of growing and selling cacti. A university student group managed to secure a one-time sale of these plants to a large chain store in Mexico City. It’s a start. Most importantly the women have confidence they can start a business. If the cacti sale doesn’t work, they have other ideas.
So, sorry Donald Trump, I did not see any murderers or rapists in this village.
Bill Foege, a wonderful doctor, the former head of The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, once said if only we can make eye contact with people, then we would start to care for them. I feel there is great truth in that. If only people can get to know their perceived enemies, perhaps they’ll see there is nothing to fear.
Last month I was sent to two Syrian refugee camps to photograph school girls.
I didn’t know what to expect.
I knew what school girls in the United States like to do. They play sports, laugh, gossip, create alliances and join clubs. But these girls are refugees. In my mind, I see images of highly traumatized people, crying, pleading and fleeing—people risking their lives and those of their children on frail rubber rafts.
Last week Time magazine ran a beautiful series of black and white photographs showing refugees in Greece. Yet they were abstract depictions, reducing individual’s humanity to artful forms. No wonder Americans are fearful of these refugees. They are judged and dismissed as anonymous groups an ocean away. Some of our presidential hopefuls portray them as dangerous to our way of life…whatever that may be.
Still, as an American, I understand that fear. One of the refugees handed me a broken plastic film camera, made in America years ago. He wanted me to have it as a reminder that Syrians love America. I’ll admit my first response was not to accept it, but my guide told to take it. I’m ashamed to say my next thoughts were “What’s in it? Will it blow up when my plane climbs into the sky?” I actually took the camera apart when I got to my hotel room to make sure it held nothing other than good intensions of Syrian hospitality. It now sits in my office as a reminder of my own suspicious nature when handed a gift of friendship.
The reality is these are normal people caught in extraordinary circumstances. They face hardship and devastation. A few years ago they would have been siting in their court yards sharing food with friends and family, taking pride in their children’s accomplishments, living life just like people anywhere.
I wasn’t in the camps to report the tragedy. I was looking a program that helps young women—the lucky ones, whose parents managed to get to a refugee camp. While the camps are not without issues, they are, for the moment, relatively safe. These girls are able to continue their education because of efforts made by non-profits including the Malala Fund and their partners: Kayany Foundation and UNICEF.
Other than the fact that every girl wore a hijab, their classrooms could have been anywhere in the US.
They were normal teenage girls. They laughed and teased each other. They were enthused about learning, inspired by their teachers and shared a contagious excitement.
This I wasn’t expecting.
The teachers astonished me. Shadi, a young math teacher in the Jordan camp of Azarq, holds physics and math degrees, and kept his classroom of girls excited about solving algebra equations. Jamalat wears a floor length brown coat and hijab while working with the refugee children, keeping them competitive and excited. Jamalat had 40 students between the ages of 8- 13. She never sat down as she moved between lessons in English and Arabic, keeping the students engaged the entire day. Both teachers are Syrian refugees themselves. And, they volunteer at the school.
In the US, I would only expect to see such enthusiasm kindled only by the best teachers in the best schools of the best districts. I felt jealous that I didn’t have a teacher like Jamalat when I was in 3rd grade
When I left the US to begin this work, the leading Republican candidates were trying to one up each with their bigotry. They painted the refugees as villains or worse—terrorists determined to hurt us. Yes, there are extremists planning to do just that. But the majority, perhaps 99.9% of them, just want a safer life for their children, an education and a living.
We are a nation built of immigrants. Every one of us arrived from some other place. My ancestors came in waves from eastern Europe and Asia. My husband’s ancestors came from England, Ireland and France. They might not have been welcomed with open arms but they were allowed to come and make new lives over here. America is a better place because of millions of similar stories.
The people I visited in the refugee camps inspired me; parents who risk all for their children, girls who love math and science and teachers who strive to keep the love of learning burning inside their students. These are exactly the people we need to make America to great again.
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.