Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Archive for May 2010

Every Picture Tells A Story

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This month’s issue of The Rotarian, magazine for Rotary International, contains an article I wrote on the basics of seeing pictures.  Click here to read the whole story.

Written by kasmauski

May 26, 2010 at 12:54 am

In the Wake of the Spills

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Ten years after the Exxon Valdez spill, a footprint glistens with oil on an island in Prince William Sound.

Watching the drama of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the subsequent gushing of thousands of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico’s fragile biodiversity, I’m saddened, but not surprised to see history repeat itself yet again.

Back in March 1989, a tanker called the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons into Alaska’s Prince William Sound.  Like the current Gulf spill, the Exxon Valdez disaster was well covered.  We were flooded with dramatic and heartbreaking images—animals coated in thick black oil struggling to live, heroic people desperately trying to save them, yellow suited teams of workers cleaning the oil from rocks lining the once-pristine shore.

Though I hadn’t been to Alaska at that time, I grew up around the water and the disaster was vivid for me.  When I saw those images, I thought, never again.  How could we as a nation, even with our great need for oil, allow a mistake like that to occur? Countless animals were killed or maimed and the livelihood of thousands of people was jeopardized.

In the mid 1990s, National Geographic assigned me to photograph a story on the effect of the oil industry on Alaska.  It was called “Oil on Ice.”  I accepted it with trepidation.  I had rarely worked above the Mason–Dixon line.  My assignments took me mainly to warm climates and I liked it that way.

I underestimated the north’s wild call.  Once I got that first blast of cold air into my lungs, I was hooked and Alaska became my favorite photography location.  That might seem odd since I rarely photograph animals or landscapes.  I photograph social and economic issues.   But I loved the state and once I completed the oil coverage I started thinking about projects I could propose that would bring me back to Alaska.

That chance came in 1998, when National Geographic sent me to Prince William Sound to photograph a story on how the region was recovering nearly a decade after the Exxon spill.  Researching the story reminded me how much damage had been done to the area.  Still, I didn’t expect to see oil, much less smell it.

I was traveling with a researcher whose job was to see where the oil still remained and take assessments of it.   We were jumping from one island to another via a floatplane.  When we landed by the first of the islands that had been in the pathway of that spill, the stench was overwhelming.  Although the shoreline looked clean, it stank just like a refinery.  The researcher showed me why.  The oil was still there, just below the surface and still in liquefied form.  As we walked along the shore, our booted feet broke through the thin covering of rock chips on the surface, and water rapidly filled in our footprints.  The sun hit the one closest to me, spinning a beautiful rainbow of color out of the oily film.

Rocks on an island in Prince William Sound still carry oily goo from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The researcher stopped to collect samples, digging down with a spoon; she came up with clumps of a gooey black mess.  It didn’t take her long to get enough samples to fill a jar.  By the time we headed back to the plane, her yellow work gloves were black.

After the Exxon Valdez spill, researchers began studying bird rookeries in the Barren Islands to determine the impact.

Showing oil on the shoreline didn’t have a lot of visual drama, but it was an important picture for the coverage.  There would be other more dramatic situations; a bird rookery impacted by the spill, salmon harvesting, and Prince William Sounds’ magnificent coastline scenery.  Seeing oil was a visual reminder that the spill had done long term damage, not a passing injury that would wash away in a month or two.

Before setting foot on those islands I had no idea that oil in its liquefied form could last that long.  The spill had happened ten years before!   But that is what we have to remember if we, as a nation, feel that offshore and coastal drilling are necessary.  Yes, the technology is advanced and relatively safe and yes, there are years when nothing much happens and the rigs pump the oil day in and day out without so much as a leak.  But when an accident does occur, the consequences can be catastrophic and the price we all pay—in money and damage to the environment—is very high.

Laying down oil spill containment booms during a drill. The drills were instituted after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, but the technique doesn’t work well in choppy water

What I find most amazing is how ill prepared the oil companies seem to be for these catastrophes.  The boom technology we’ve seen used in futile attempts to contain the Gulf of Mexico spill is little changed from that used for the Exxon Valdez spill over twenty years ago.   Companies drilling in deep water like the Gulf should not be allowed to do so unless they have a workable plan to immediately contain spills.

Eleven human lives have been lost, and countless numbers of birds and marine creatures will be lost, along with millions of gallons of oil.  As with Alaska, the effects of the spilled Gulf oil will linger long after the clean up efforts have ended.   After witnessing first hand the long-term damage of the Exxon Valdez spill ten years after the fact, I feel we should rethink our desire to drill for oil in these fragile ecosystems.

Getty Grant Project

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Web page of my work on the Getty Grant project

Last year I was a recipient of the first “Grant for Good,” an innovative project sponsored by Getty Images.  The grant was a wonderful gift that provided support for me to document the work of a non-profit organization called SOCM that I’ve long admired and been associated with.  Getty just posted a selection of my pictures from the grant.  You can see that work by clicking on “Karen’s Getty Grant Project” here, or in the “My Sites” section on the right side of this page.  My account of working on the project follows:

As photographers we often focus on actions resulting from the failure of process: wars, riots, hunger, poverty, and distressed communities. Even natural disasters are intensified because process fails. Deaths from the recent Haiti and Chinese earthquakes soared because of poor building construction resulting from corruption and poverty.

Yet actually photographing process—not its failure—is both difficult and visually challenging.

With the support of the Getty Grant for Good, this is what I attempted. I wanted to show how an organize effects social change working within the process of laws and politics.

To do this, I focused on a single long-lived grassroots organization that has been active in Tennessee for almost 40 years. Over several months, I visited and interviewed the membership. I wanted to show the often-quiet process of change at the grass roots level. I wanted to show the long-term commitment those in the organization make in the interest of securing social change.

There were challenges. When I started the project, I had no idea that the organization itself was in the midst of major transitions. As I began work, the organization still used its old name, Save Our Cumberland Mountains or SOCM.

SOCM began as a regional group based in east Tennessee, focused on environmental issues like clean water and strip mining. After graduating from college, I had worked with the organization before beginning my career as a photographer. But in recent years, the organization expanded to a statewide focus, with a broader mandate to address racial and economic issues.

This transition accelerated sharply over the course of my project. While I was documenting their efforts, the organization formally changed its name. The new name, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, retained the familiar SOCM acronym. The old director, a key figure in the organization, stepped down after 30 years of service. Two interim directors were appointed. A month after I finished my project, a new director finally came on board.

In the midst of this transition, both older SOCM members that I had known for years and newer members whom I came to know and admire were all helpful in assisting me with documenting both traditional and new activities.

The newly named organization was growing in many directions, like branches on a tree. Finding a central focus to tell this multi-faceted story seemed elusive. Once comprised of a largely white membership focused on a few environmental issues, the organization was now multi-racial and multi-ethnic. New chapters, spread across the state, focused on racial harmony, immigrant worker rights, and green jobs, along with the older environmental concerns.

In this unexpectedly complex tapestry, my challenge was to find a common thread. In the end, I found that thread in the members themselves. Despite a shift of focus, what SOCM did remained consistent, teaching people how to use the tools needed to make effective changes in both their lives and their communities. This was grassroots organizing at its best.

Since SOCM’s strength is in its membership, I made environmental portraits of members who had been active in the past as well those now taking leadership in the present. I documented those issues that are core to the traditional and contemporary focus of the organization.

Much of grassroots change is process, typically done through meetings. Though these tend to be nonvisual events, I felt coverage was important, since so much of SOCM’s learning process is shared in them. Here, members visit and bond, discussing concerns of importance to them and their communities.

My challenge throughout was to create images that can help SOCM capture public attention. Once engaged, visitors to SOCM’s website may become involved and participate in the organizations efforts.

SOCM is largely comprised of working and middle class individuals who deeply care about their communities, their families and the land on which they live. Many, whether they attend church or not, are spiritually inclined.

In my interviews I found most SOCM members to be articulate and well informed about the issues concerning them. Because of that, I placed extra emphasis on recording audio, and to some extent, video. I wanted the people of SOCM to tell their own stories in their own words. My hope is that those listening to them and seeing their images will be moved by what they hear and see, perhaps to the point of helping this unusual and long-lived organization continue to carry on its mission of social change.

Written by kasmauski

May 16, 2010 at 4:47 pm