Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Archive for September 2013

Service Part Two: Why I am a visual journalist (despite all the warning bells)

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IIn Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, a young woman gets a blessing from her aunt before she enters service as a Buddhist nun.

IIn Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, a young woman gets a blessing from her aunt before she enters service as a Buddhist nun.

Two years ago I decided to take a leave of absence from my life and my business.  I applied for a Knight Fellowship to study Visual Communications at Ohio University. The fellowship, an intense one-year immersion in the latest digital and video techniques, also awarded a masters degree on completion

 When my friends and colleagues heard that I had been selected for this amazing opportunity, some gave me warm congratulations but many offered quizzical looks and questions.

Why was I getting a masters degree in a profession that is dying—or, at the least, experiencing some serious shifts in direction?

Most photographers who have been in the profession for a while have experienced disruption. Skills that took decades to hone and perfect—storytelling, visualizing concepts, producing long form essays, crafting a perfect image—now seem barely appreciated by many editors. Media industry demand has shifted to spontaneously created photographs or video still frames—images that can quickly be moved across many mediums, and provided for less the day rate I was making over 20 years ago.

Of course, change is inevitable. You adapt or get run over.  So certainly part of the reason I took the fellowship was to learn new tools and techniques like motion, audio, editing software and web architecture that could further my career.

I took pride in learning these tools, but the major thing I gained from my technical skill classes wasn’t becoming comfortable with Premiere or Final Cut. It was the enlightening experience of sitting next to my fellow students who were literally my children’s age. These young adults were funny, kind and generous individuals, who didn’t mind having a middle age woman join their work teams. I still feel warm and fuzzy when I think of one particular 22-year-old student who looked at me standing by myself as other students who all knew each gathered into work teams. He came over and asked me to join him and his other two colleagues.  I could have been his mother! That moment renewed my positive outlook on humanity.

Beyond learning new skills and experiencing new perspectives, accepting the Knight fellowship served as a reconfirmation of the profession to me.  Visual journalism, if done well, still provides a major service to our communities by reporting on the events affecting us as clearly and as honestly as we can. In doing so, we show the commonality that bonds us together regardless of our nationalities, religion or ethnic makeup.

Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam a young girl peers teasingly out at the photographer from behind a pile of reeds

Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam a young girl peers teasingly out at the photographer from behind a pile of reeds

While working with on a story about Saigon for National Geographic, my wonderful editor David Arnold looked at a photo I shot of a young man looking directly and solemnly at the camera. “This kid looks like my neighbor,” David commented.  Then he added, “ If we could have seen images like this before we entered the Vietnam conflict, I doubt we would have. How can we kill people who look like our neighbors?”

I think what he meant was if we recognize the commonality of our lives, it’s harder to make enemies.

Women harvesting rice in Vietnam

Women harvesting rice in Vietnam

Another colleague of mine, Ron Short, an amazing musician, actor, storyteller and Vietnam veteran, told me a story about his tour of duty in Vietnam.  He once looked over a hill at an enemy village.  He saw a simple house with chickens, goats and kids running around. “That could be a farm from home,” he recalled, and then wondered, “Why are we fighting them?”

Yet conflicts show no sign of stopping, and in today’s world, where we’re assaulted with increasingly graphic images of war, death and dying, it’s harder than ever for photographers to survive doing stories that look deeply at our commonality and humanity.

Such stories aren’t entertaining enough, at least according to the marketing people that seem to run the media these days. Newsroom resources are shrinking and harried staffs rarely have the freedom to probe below the surface of what they encounter. Deeper stories take time. Uncovering the root causes of an issue is a slow moving process, requiring patient observation and listening, waiting for those revealing moments that can touch a heart and invite attention.

A young horse jockey comforts a buddy before they start a race in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

A young horse jockey comforts a buddy before they start a race in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

In the often-manic immediacy of today’s media environment, we should see that sort of storytelling as our duty.  In an increasingly divisive world, finding and telling stories that illuminated our human commonality may inspire people to begin looking at the world in kinder and more generous ways.

So I will recommitment myself to this turbulent, frustrating, but ultimately rewarding profession. I’ll do this as long as I can. It’s my little bit to help spread the understanding that we just aren’t that different from one other.

Service is Something We all Need to Do

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My father, Steve, (center) mugging with buddies during WWII. Family Photo

My father, Steve, (center) mugging with buddies during WWII.
Family Photo

This Labor Day weekend I’m thinking a lot about the meaning of labor—and by extension, the meaning of service. The events in Syria and a phone call with my son have focused my attention on the way that we honor some kinds of service in this country, but not others.

When I travel and walk behind those in military uniform, I often hear people thanking them for their service. I want to offer my thanks as well. I come from a long line of military people.  My father served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. My younger brother served in the first Gulf War. My niece served in Bosnia as an army medic. Some of my cousins or their children serve in the present day conflicts. I’m grateful for what each of them has done.

Yet despite my family history, I feel bothered by our recent show of military deification, constantly thanking soldiers and sailors for their service.

Following in my father’s footsteps, my brother, Stan, enters military service. Like my father he was a teenager at the time. As a child. Stan, decorated his Cub Scout uniform with my father’s medals. Family Photos

In my cynical moments I imagine some of this constant thanking is overcompensation for the horrible way that troops returning from Vietnam were treated. It may also be guilt, since so few people actually serve in the military these days. Or could people think that by thanking soldiers for their service, they are somehow contributing to the security of the country?

The fact is that making our nation a better and safer place for everyone requires service in countless ways. Its everything from paying taxes honestly to making sure our homes and streets are cleaned, our water systems work, our government runs smoothly (sometimes), our cars are repaired and we and our children are fed, educated and healthy.

Yet how often is a police officer thanked for his or her service? In our heavily armed nation, they risk their safety every time they pull a car over for a traffic offense.  What about public health nurses who work long hours and days to combat disease outbreaks? Who thanks the teachers who try to pass on knowledge and skills, often without enough resources or funding? How about the people who maintain electrical lines and water pipes or collect trash? All those who provide the services that makes our country safe, relatively efficient and a place of opportunity and hope.   How often are those people thanked for their service?

It is true that we value service that can be quantified—how many fires were put out? How many battles were fought? How many students made it to college?

My son giving a talk during the swearing in ceremony of new Peace Corps volunteers in Uganda.

My son giving a talk during the swearing in ceremony of new Peace Corps volunteers in Uganda. Family Photo

But often service is something that cannot be quantified.  The results can’t be put into a spreadsheet. For example, my son is in a very remote area of Uganda serving in the Peace Corps. There is no electricity in his village. Water has to be hauled some distance from a well and boiled before drinking. The program conducted by the non-profit to which he was assigned turns out not to exist—he’s had to rethink the purpose of his role in the small community where he will live for the next couple of years.

Most of what he does is teach the non-profit he works with how to quantify—how to keep records of their finances and program spending, how to write better grant applications, or improve the website publicizing their efforts.

My son, far left, receiving a turkey as a gift during a site visit. Family Photo

My son, far left, receiving a turkey as a gift during a site visit. Family Photo

Perhaps ironically those efforts and his presence are hard to quantify. His friendly and flexible personality makes him a good role model of an American citizen to the villagers. He is teaching the young people how to be computer literate.  If one of them eventually becomes a leader in their village or even their country, they will have pleasant memories of that kind and funny American who helped them understand how to work a laptop, build a spreadsheet and connect to the internet. They may not remember his name, but they will remember he was an American. That cannot be quantified.

What he does is without the resources or prestige of other kinds of government service like the military or the Foreign Service. Peace Corps volunteers don’t get paid, receive discounted travel or shopping privileges at government commissaries.  They serve alone in highly stressed areas, often without clean water, electricity or the other comforts we take for granted.  Its anonymous—no one besides his parents will thank him for his service.

My son will return a better man having lived and worked in this village. He will learn as much about living and perseverance from the villagers as they will learn about computers and quantifying data from him.

So on this day honoring labor and service, I can’t help but think how if more Americans took up service, and, whether at home or in another country, shared experiences like the ones he is having—how to cope with strange conditions, how to solve problems without resources, how to stand in the shoes of a stranger, then we might have a world with more connections and fewer conflicts.

But I can’t quantify that.

Written by kasmauski

September 2, 2013 at 10:12 pm