Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Archive for December 2010

Wrapping Up…

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Paustino Jada, the catechist of the church in Palotaka, Sudan. During the war here, he was captured and tortured by the Lord’s Resistance Army, but escaped and returned home to this village, where he now cares for the church.

As you can see from the dates on my blog, I haven’t posted new entries lately.  But as we all know, when you get work, that takes priority.  I spent much of the summer working in Africa for an NGO, photographing in Nigeria, Malawi and southern Sudan, trying to capture life there in advance of whatever changes result from the election coming up in January.  You can see a small amount of my Sudan work here.

I’m also posting a few pieces that I wrote over the past year, but didn’t have time to post.  I hope you enjoy them.

Earlier this month, I gave a talk at the wonderful Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles.  This is a remarkable new showplace, curated by Pat Lanza, who is doing a great job attracting interesting exhibits and speakers, making this a real centerpiece on the contemporary photography scene.  Steven Crandell of the Huffington Post wrote a very nice column on my talk, which you can read here.

More frequent posts to come in 2011.  In the meantime, I hope the holiday season is a good one for you and your loved ones.


Written by kasmauski

December 24, 2010 at 8:33 pm

Making Choices

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A shorter version of this post appeared in Nikon World

Nurse Valerie Martin’s patient was in her final moments. She died later that night.

Years ago when I worked for The Virginian-Pilot, I was given a news assignment. An elderly man had accidentally crashed his car through the window of a beauty shop. Several people were injured; the car pinned one woman against a wall. As I raised my camera, the pinned woman, her hair in curlers, wailed, “Please don’t take my photo, please don’t.” For a second I saw myself in her position, my picture splashed across the front page. I couldn’t do that to her; I lowered the camera. Next to me a TV cameraman began filming, and when I told him she didn’t want to be photographed, he said, “I’m just doing my job.” Later I took a picture of her being carried out of the shop. In it she wasn’t recognizable.

When I warned my boss about the image that would be on TV and told him that I purposely did not take that picture, I braced myself for a long, loud lecture about my failure as a photojournalist. But he said, “You are a human being. If taking that picture took away your humanity, it wasn’t worth it.” Ever since, those words have guided me through sensitive situations.

For my new book on Nursing I photographed a hospice nurse as she cared for an elderly woman in her final days. I was concerned about how the family of this dying woman might respond to my request to photograph during this stressful time.   Yet because of the nurse’s ability to dissipate fear and bring understanding of the dying woman’s situation I was accepted by the family and became part of the hospice process.

Valerie Martin reports the death of a patient.

The family trusted what I was doing—a trust that I was determined not to violate. After my second visit with this family, the elderly woman died.  Photographing the nurse completing the hospice care was an extraordinarily intense situation.  I knew I was photographing the aftermath of death as the nurse filled out forms, disposed of medicines and then—tenderly–prepared the woman for viewing, brushing her hair and cleaning her.  But I was “in the moment” and have almost no memories of actually taking the pictures.

The book was beautifully laid out.  Several stories, including the one of the hospice nurse, were played across several spreads.  Yet when I looked at the layout of the hospice nurse it was as if I was seeing the picture of the dead woman I had photographed for the first time.  The effect of it, displayed across two pages, stunned me. Though very strong, I felt the picture was not appropriate for the book.  The woman’s mouth was open.  Because her eyelids wouldn’t close, the nurse had put coins on her eyes.  In the picture, the dead woman seemed alone, the nurse sitting behind her, working in a seemingly impersonal manner on her computer.

The more I thought about it, the more this picture of a dead woman lying alone bothered me.  She could have been my neighbor. I asked to have the imaged removed. The managing editor and the designer, both men, balked at my request.  It was a great, powerful image, they said.  Why remove it?

Caregiver Sonia Mundle Smith contemplates the death of a woman she spent years caring for, while waiting for the hospice nurse to prepare the body and collect information needed to report the death.

Over time, and many hard lessons, I have learned to trust my instincts. I called the hospice nurse and described the picture to her. She thought it might be misconstrued if it were published.  I placed a similar call to the text editor on the book—a woman.  She responded much as the nurse did–that the picture was great but also seemed too invasive to the family.   I thought about it carefully.

Finally I decided the image had to go.  It was replaced by a solid but less powerful picture, showing the elderly woman while she was still alive.   I thought of my former boss’s words, “If it takes away your humanity…” I put it more simply; what if this was my mother?  Would I be offended?

This 16 year old is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.

Last spring I was photographing in a pediatric cancer ward. At the end of the day, I was in the room of a 16-year-old boy— the same age of my son. The boy was so polite and charming, and as he lay there taking his chemo treatment, I saw my own son. I took photos, but I didn’t stay long in his room. It upset me so badly.

I once asked a cancer nurse how she was able to cope with children so ill. She said that she avoided attending to children who were her own kid’s ages. I think that’s part of my own situation: I can maintain my professionalism until it involves a child who is the age of one of my kids or someone the age of my parents; then I have to walk away or at least think hard about what I want say. The other part is my awareness of the dignity of my subjects, and perhaps it’s those two elements that have helped me to gain access to people’s lives. I’ve heard from several people that they’re relieved when they meet me because, they say, I’m just like them, just like a regular person.

When I see news covered, I try to look beyond the photographs to see the humanity of the photojournalist who’s telling the story. I know people often have to make hard decisions rather quickly and often times with limited information, however, I tell students, “just because  you can, doesn’t mean you should”.  A camera in hand still means we need to think ethically and morally about what images we choose to take-and show.


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A shorter version of this post appeared in Nikon World Magazine this summer

SOCM members Sharon Criswell and her husband have a small subsistance farm in western Tennessee where they try to grow their food and raise their animals as organically as possible.

As journalism markets have diminished, there has been a lot of attention on NGO and non-profit work.  Its been called a new kind of journalism.  Last year, I had the opportunity to work in the non-profit world.  I wouldn’t call it journalism—a dispassionate look at a situation.  Covering a non-profit turns out to be more like a partnership, with its own frustrations but also with its own rewards.

My journey began when a friend sent me a link to a program developed by Getty called Grants for Good.  “It’s right up your alley,” she wrote.   I checked it out.  Two photographers would be awarded grants to help a non-profit develop photography that would be used to improve their profile and help raise public awareness of their mission.

I’ve always liked nonprofit groups.  After college, filled with idealism, I headed to East Tennessee where I spent four years working for a variety of nonprofits, including an environmental group called Save Our Cumberland Mountains or SOCM.

These days, along with my photographic career, I’m still involved with non-profits.  One works with poverty relief in Vietnam and Burma.  Another works with education projects in the Congo.  But SOCM seemed like a natural choice for my Getty grant project, which required that I partner with a non-profit group.   SOCM’s main mission is to empower people and train them in techniques to change what they see as injustice.

I had practical reasons for my choice.  The other non-profits I’m involved with operate on the far side of the world.  If I worked in Asia or Africa, the grant would not provide enough time for me to develop a substantial project.  But Tennessee-based SOCM was nearby and not too expensive.  Working there, I’d have the time I needed to develop an extensive photographic project, as well as to collect audio and video for multimedia components.

SOCM’s work wasn’t as visual as that of the other groups, but I believed in what they were doing. I was also excited by the opportunity to help a group that dealt with average Americans living in non-exotic locations.  One of my pet complaints is about photographers going after predictable visual situations of pain, heartache and tragedy.  Here was an opportunity to deliver on what I have espoused during my professional life—to show how change is actually effected at the community level.

A spill of toxic coal ash at the Kingston Tennessee power plant in late 2008 left the area devastated. Two years after the event, cleanup efforts continue.

So, I approached SOCM’s leadership about the idea of working with me on the grant project.  They were more cautious than I’d expected—being seasoned, they knew that nothing is free. But in the end SOCM agreed to work with me, if the grant came through.  They were redesigning their website and the pictures I could provide from the grant would be a huge help in presenting their image to the public.

To my surprise, I was awarded one of the grants.  Then the real challenge began.  How would I make interesting photographs of a group whose main tools for empowering people consisted of meetings, emails, letters and phone calls?  Adding to this challenge, SOCM was also in the middle of an organizational shift, as the woman who had directed the organization for 30 years was stepping down.   They had not yet found a replacement.  At the time I had no idea how much this leadership transition would affect my coverage.

When I began working with SOCM after college, they were focused on coal, minerals rights and taxation issues in eastern Tennessee.  Over time, the group became statewide, taking on social issues like green jobs, immigration, health care and racial equality.

But when I arrived in Tennessee to start my project, most of the new social issue programs had not been implemented, and were still being researched.   Well, I always wondered how you can photograph research of this kind.  I was about to figure it out.

Along with showing how the organization was shifting directions, I faced two major challenges.

First, how could I photograph an organization whose strength lies in empowering people and developing community leaders?  SOCM members meet and talk.  Then, they meet and talk more.  They write emails and follow up with more talking and meetings.   Few attend rallies or shout epithets.   This would be tough, since a few meeting photos go a very long way.

Second was logistics.  I had a limited budget and limited time.  How could I efficiently and equally cover the membership of a group that stretched across Tennessee?

The solution for both challenges was planning…followed by more planning.  I had to coordinate people’s schedules, activities and events.  On top of that, I had to weave in coverage of new programs that I learned about as I traveled around the state.

I found that the key was to be a good listener.  People in Tennessee love to talk.  Home visits always involve long hours of wonderful storytelling and listening.

Lenora Clark adjusts one of the solar panels powering  her Tennessee home. She and her husband Bobby live off the grid, supplying their own electricity, water and most of their food.

So I began my work in the homes of members, talking to them about their goals for the organization.  I continually asked what would they want to see if they were going to put together a set of pictures about SOCM.

Their comments became my shoot list.  I found green jobs and training situations.  I interviewed people struggling to obtain health care.  I photographed land affected by mineral extraction or aerial spraying.   I developed stories on members who lived off the grid, or grew organic food.   Since SOCM was focused on renewable energy I found stories on people developing wind, solar and biofuels.

One hurdle was that I lacked “proper” media credentials for the project.  As a result access to many government and corporate facilities was difficult.   For decades, SOCM had an antagonistic relationship with the Tennessee Valley Authority or TVA, which handles almost all the energy production in the area of SOCM’s membership.  Many of the alternative energy projects as well the traditional coal, TVA managed oil and gas production.  They were not overly excited about cooperating with this project.   Without a clear media outlet for the photographs, corporations involved in “green” industries like solar panel manufacture were reluctant to open their doors to me.

Mikel Crews is combating a variety of physical disabilities that appeared after helicopters repeatedly sprayed his central Tennessee home with herbicides.

I worked around this as best I could, sometimes photographing operations from public property, other times finding alternative organizations to represent themes I felt needed to be included in the project.

I finally realized that the key to portraying SOCM was to show its members, both in activities and as people.   Meetings were central to the activities, so I worked very hard to deliver a few really great pictures of those situations.  I started making environmental portraits of people who were, in a variety of ways, struggling for a better life.  Those became as important to the finished project as the aerials of strip-mined mountains and overdeveloped farmland.

Perhaps the biggest adjustment for me was internal.   I had to come to an understanding with myself: I was doing a project in service of a non-profit organization.  The grant wasn’t just about my vision—I had to serve the needs of the group as well.   Doing so forged a new kind of partnership.