Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Archive for February 2013

The Journey is What Matters

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An African animal park near Japan’s Mt. Fuji. The owner said he built the park because Fuji reminded him of Mt. Kilimanjaro

I’m leaving to join a group of women in Tanzania and climb Mt. Kilimanjaro for a book project called “Dreamers and Doers.” The sponsoring group, Ladies Trekking Virtual Club, will use proceeds from sale of this book to supply textbooks and other educational materials for school children living around the base of the mountain.

It took me a while to agree to photograph this project. I’m not a devoted athlete. I walk when I have the time, but the last thing I climbed with any height was Mt. Fuji over 11 years ago. Back then I was in a different place, both physically and emotionally. I was working regularly and in good shape from hauling my gear in what seemed like at the time like nonstop travel. When I watched the sunrise from the top of Fuji in August 2001, the world seemed wide open and full of hope for a peaceful future.

This is the traditional view of Fuji--pristine and spiritual.

This is the traditional view of Fuji–pristine and spiritual.

Of course, our perceptions are based on where we stand.  You don't see all the industry surrounding the mountain as often

Of course, our perceptions are based on where we stand. Usually you don’t see all the industry surrounding the mountain.

Twelve days later, two planes hit the twin towers in New York, one hit the Pentagon near Washington, D.C and another plunged a group of Americans to their deaths in Pennsylvania. I watched this horrible destruction play over and over on TV.  I held my eight-year-old daughter tight and told her that the world would never be the same again.

In so many ways that has been true for my peers and me. Technology and market changes caused many newspapers and magazines to shrink or disappear. Hundreds of my fellow photographers became unemployed, leaving those of us in the free-lance world with less and less work to count on. My day rate hasn’t changed since the 1990s. Few editorial jobs—once my mainstay—now pay for assistants. Business class, once a given for international travel, is a thing of the past. What once was fun is now an exercise in non-stop stress.

In response, I started moving away from my first love—journalism—and towards my avocation—non-profits. Working for groups like Catholic Relief, the Ladies Trekking Virtual Club or many others has become my main focus.

Like all of us, I’m aging. So when the offer to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro came up, I hesitated, thinking “how can I do something like that?” I would be the oldest person on the group by over a decade. But as the saying goes, “you’re not getting any younger.”  So why not?  And if not now, when? (Luckily the writer I suggested to them accepted the job, so now I’m merely the second oldest person on the climb.)

All sorts of strange things occur on the journey up Fuji, like these drummers who hiked to the top, played furiously for 15 minutes, then headed back down the mountain

All sorts of strange things occur on the journey up Fuji, like these drummers who hiked to the top, played furiously for 15 minutes, then headed back down the mountain

Hearing about this newest adventure, my friends looked at me with expressions ranging from shock to curiosity. No one said, “Wow I’d love to do that!” Most comments were “I really admire you for that.” In other words “You’re a fool—I’d never do that in a million years!!”

As the world changes, I hope that I’m maturing along the way. I’ve learned to grab opportunities that come my way–like climbing Kilimanjaro. I don’t want to regret that I passed up a chance to experience something different.  “Just do it,” a phase that Nike has run into the ground, is actually how I try to live my life.

If I had listened to my mother I’d probably be an unhappy housewife trying to carve out a living while selling cosmetics at the Little Creek Naval Base Exchange in Norfolk, Virginia. My parents had no aspirations for me. All they wanted me to do was get married, have a family and not commit any crimes. They never thought of college as an option for me. So I plowed ahead without their support, earning money for college application fees with summer jobs. I worked at a fish and chip joint, a self-serve gas station (I was held up. It was the first time I had a gun pointed at me) and finally that Naval Base cosmetic counter.

Luckily I got a full academic scholarship from the University of Michigan, so I went there. I paid the rest by working three jobs. One of them, photographing for the “Michigan Daily” student paper, laid the foundation for my professional career.

Atop Mt. Fuji in 2001 with my son Will and husband Bill.  We were proud of Will for making the climb to the top when he was only 10 years old.  It was much harder and colder than he'd expected, but he didn't give up.

Atop Mt. Fuji in 2001 with my son Will and husband Bill. We were proud of Will for making the climb to the top when he was only 10 years old. It was much harder and colder than he’d expected, but he didn’t give up.

I won’t accept words like “no” or “can’t.” I’ve always risen to the occasion even if what I do ends in failure. I cannot complain unless I’ve tried. Life is too short and wonderful not to try new experiences even if I can’t complete them. So that is why I decided in the end to accept the challenge to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. If I complete the climb, I’ll be ecstatic with bragging rights. If I don’t, at least I tried and trying is all I ask of my children and myself.

Written by kasmauski

February 23, 2013 at 8:13 pm

One Year Later…

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It’s been a while.

My blog has been on hiatus for over a year. During that time I studied for a Masters in Newsroom Management and Photography. This was possible because I was fortunate enough to be awarded a Knight Fellowship at Ohio University’s premier Visual Communications school.

Graduating from Ohio University in 2012 after completing my Knight Fellowship

Graduating from Ohio University in 2012 after completing my Knight Fellowship

I decided not to blog during my Fellowship because I wanted to focus on learning. I loved interacting with my fellow grad students, some of whom were younger than my son. One instructor, Brandon, an amazingly smart and kind person was only two years older than my oldest child.

The Fellowship was an amazing experience. I recommend it for any mid- to even late career visual journalist who needs their enthusiasm jump-started. I will write more about my Fellowship later.

Restarting my blog makes me think about why I continue in my profession. Many of my friends and colleagues were impressed that I was going back to school but wondered why I wasn’t taking courses that might guarantee me a job; the health profession, or IT, or something other than photography. Was I training for a profession that might not exist in ten years—or sooner?

I decided to improve my visual communication skills because I love what the field allows me to do—connect with people and tell wonderful stories about them. Just before I left for college, I had an amazing experience that reconfirmed my commitment to visual communications. It happened on a shoot for a national nursing group at the neonatal ward of Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.

I mentioned to the PR person with me that the last time I had been at Children’s was to follow a 16 year old who had Cystic Fibrosis. He was one of five children, three of whom had CF. The PR person looked at me and said, “I know exactly who you are talking about, the. …family. Kathy’s the mom.”

Kathy in 1999 with her three sons who have cystic fibrosis--Jimmy, Matt and John.

Kathy in 1999 with her three sons who have cystic fibrosis–Jimmy, Matt and John.

I had many conversations with Kathy about her decision to continue to have children even when they knew the gene was present in the family line. Her heartfelt belief in the goodness of life and in God’s mystery touched me deeply and I thought often of our talks.

“I think they are here today,” the PR said and went off to check. CF patients were the only adults allowed to come back to Children’s. In the past, CF people didn’t live long enough to be long term adult patients. Their pediatric doctors continued to care for them as long as they lived. Yet with better treatments CF patients are now living longer.

The PR person returned. “They’d be happy to see you,” he said. Kathy’s middle boy Jimmy was in for a follow up. Jimmy was now in his mid-20’s and was living life as fully as he could. He’d been living in Australia and had just returned for the checkup where we now met. Kathy and I picked up as if we’d seen each other yesterday, not 15 years ago. Her warmth and honesty about her life with three CF children amazed me as much at the timing of our encounter.

Sadly, this was also the birthday of John, another of Kathy’s sons. John would have been happy that I visited them on his birthday, she said. I remembered Kathy telling me that her goal was to allow John to live the life of a normal teenager and make it to graduation. Unfortunately, John’s weakened body didn’t let that happen. John’s struggle with CF affected me greatly. He wanted to live so badly.

I thought of my own brother who self destructed and wondered why he wanted to die when people like John so desperately wanted to live. Thinking about John and sharing memories with Kathy brought tears to my eyes.

Jimmy said he got an A in his communications class when he wrote about being in the National Geographic story on genetics for which I had photographed him.

Jimmy, me and Kathy in 2011.

Jimmy, me and Kathy in 2011.

Walking out of that room, I thought about why I have stayed in photography for so long—perhaps longer than I should have considering how badly the editorial world is crashing and burning. But it’s these moments that fuel my love of the profession and why I decided to continue, despite all of the warning signs. What other profession would give me the gift to reconnect with a subject after 15 years? What other profession would have brought me into contact with such wonderful, brave and inspirational people? That is why I stay in the profession and why I gladly accepted the Knight Fellowship to get my masters in photography and visual communications.