Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Archive for May 2009

Diversity

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Cherry Blossoms bring Life-Even to an Office Park

Cherry Blossoms bring Life-Even to an Office Park

As I mentioned in my first blog, being a photographer is also about participating in life.  Often times we get so bogged down in the technology we can fail to understand that good photography is really about finding slices of life and capturing moments that can move us emotionally or to action.  Unfortunately for blogging, over the last month I participated a little too much (or maybe the right amount) in life and updates went on the back burner.

I’d planned to write about the annual spring renewal of cherry blossoms blooming in Washington DC.  They can lift anyone’s spirit.  The hundreds of trees ringing the Tidal Basin are a gift from Japan.  They flower overnight, bursting into amazing arrays of delicate pink flowers.  On a warm spring morning the blossoms are perfectly mirrored in the calm waters of the Basin.  A stroll beneath the trees can be like walking through a living cloud.  Perhaps because I’m partly Japanese, I feel a special connection to them.  The trees came from a country with whom we were once friends, then enemies and now friends again.  A symbol of unity.

Of course part of what makes unity is diversity and diversity seems to be the theme guiding my current work and life.  Because of the down market for editorial photographers, I’ve been doing pro-bono jobs for organizations I’ve been associated with for years.  Over my daughter’s spring break, we headed to East Tennessee to start work on a multi-media production about a group that deals with regional diversity.   Save Our Cumberland Mountains is successful grassroots group that, since the early 1970s, has continued growing and adapting to the needs of the region.

It has been awhile since I visited East Tennessee.  After college, I was a volunteer for several years in the area.  In the early 1990’s, I photographed a story for National Geographic Magazine on the region, titled  “The Heart of Appalachia.”   At the time, I was pregnant with my daughter, who is now 16. Since then, most of my time has been spent photographing stories in the developing world.  So, even though I knew Appalachia, I remember feeling a bit uncomfortable traveling back into an area where ethnic diversity is not one of the regional characteristics.  Yet when I arrived to begin work, I was warmly greeted by my old buddies and quickly remembered why I love this area so much.  Not only is the land beautiful, but so are the hearts of many of the folks who live there.

On this trip, driving into Morgan County Tennessee was like coming home.   Visiting Appalachia again to make pictures made me think about diversity.  Usually, diversity brings to mind ethnic backgrounds and skin color.   But returning here, I was reminded that diversity is also about cultural and economic differences.

The hardest part of photographing in Appalachia is not to stereotype.   Here, as anywhere, you can find people living a wide range of lifestyles.   Yet so many photographs of Appalachia seem sad and dark in spirit.  They’re gritty black and white images of people looking downtrodden.  The boys are shirtless, smoking and drinking.  The girls wear too much makeup.  The children have dirty faces and runny noses.  Astonishing numbers of people are missing teeth.

My Appalachian friends (I have a lot of them) don’t look like that.  Neither do their neighbors.  Sure, a few Appalachian families might fit that bleak pattern that some photographers seem to seek when venturing into the region, but most people don’t.  No wonder folks get all defensive when the media comes around.

What we photographers (and other media) need is balance.  Images can lead us or mislead us.   When we aim the camera, we’re carrying our preconceptions and baggage with us.   That often isn’t enough, if the goal is a fair portrayal.  Balance grows out of careful research to understand the history and dynamics of the community or situation in which you are working.

I certainly understand the powerful lure of a dark gritty black and white image.  In today’s hyper-competitive photography industry, stark pictures attract attention.  I’ve spent my share of time in some of the world’s bleak places, doing stories on disease, prostitution and poverty.  Yet even in those situations, not everyone is sad, not everyone looks at the world darkly.  We live in a world that is racially, ethnically, economically and emotionally diverse.   Perhaps, particularly in these trying economic times, we need more stories about people who live their lives appreciating the gifts they do have.

Like the cherry blossoms, whose annual flowering gifts us with a brief burst of color and life, we need stories that celebrate, rather than objectify the diversity around us.