Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

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.

One Response

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  1. Beautiful essay with many good points!

    Clay Bolt

    September 25, 2013 at 3:41 pm


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