Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Archive for October 2013


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I wonder why our Congress can't seem to connect-to agree on anything.

I wonder why our Congress can’t seem to connect-to agree on anything.

I’ve watched as the recent antics of our endlessly bickering Congress nearly drove the country over a cliff. Putting aside the political differences—which will always be there—this whole sad business made we wonder what has happened to qualities like friendship and loyalty, but especially for concern about those who are outside of one’s immediate group.

If the behavior of our government is any guide, we seem to be having a lot of trouble seeing another person’s point of view. We don’t seem to be able to connect very well.

We’re bombarded with messages about how networks and gadgets will help us better connect and communicate—as long as we do so in less than 140 characters. Yet most of what is touted as communication in this manner seems to me like noise—brief and banal distractions, that perhaps erode the time needed to make deep and meaningful connections with other people.

This matters to me because connecting seems to be part of my DNA.

As a photographer I’ve spent most of my life traveling around the world, meeting strangers and establishing connections with them to tell a story. As a wife and mom, when I return home, I plunge back into the lives of my family.  I meet my friends for lunch or coffee.  As a freelancer, I try to touch base with colleagues and editors (who increasingly seem to be reachable only by text, email, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever new platform two kids in a Silicon Valley garage are still dreaming about—anything to avoid talking on the phone.)

Yet for me, connecting is all about talking—really listening to what someone has to say over a period of time. That seems to me that catalyst that can move a relationship from “connection” to “friend.” I take my friends seriously.  As I get older, I realized that I’ve had friends for as long as I’ve been alive, whether from my childhood, college years, post-college volunteer work, or my newspaper days at the Virginian Pilot Newspaper.

This year I visited Scotland and reconnected with old friends who I had met on an archeology dig years ago when I was still in college. I now measure my friendships in decades, not years.

My great regret is not keeping in touch with more of the many wonderful folks I’ve met along the way. Whether or not I’ve felt an assignment succeeded has to do with the quality of the pictures I bring back of course. But mostly I’ve felt that success has to do with whom I’ve met and whether or not I was able to make connections with anyone. My biggest thrill is being invited to someone’s home for dinner. When that happens I feel like I’ve hit the social jackpot.

Passing connections on.  My daughter getting to know her grandfather while he was still alive.

Passing connections on. My daughter getting to know her grandfather-my father-while he was still alive.

Over the past decade, the editorial photography business that I once imagined that I’d retire from from has been changing rapidly. Editors are being downsized or seeing the handwriting on the wall and departing on their own. Media companies no longer find value in maintaining staff photographers or experienced photo editors. Everyone is a contractor now. Few editors with whom I worked over the past two decades are still employed where I first met them.

So I wasn’t really surprised when Nikon World editor Barry Tannenbaum called me last week to let me know that I had written my last column for him. Nikon was shutting down their premier trade magazine. Phone cameras were eating up their small camera market and the company had to make cuts.

What did surprise me my reaction.

It didn’t trouble me too much that I lost my regular column-writing gig due to downsizing. Instead, I was filled with sadness that I had lost a friend. This may sound strange, since I’ve never actually met Barry. I don’t even know what he looks like.

Yet whenever a column was due, we’d chat on the phone, talking through what I could write about. Then the call would evolve into our thoughts on world events, observations about the photography industry, life in general and even my concerns of trying to raise good children in this crazy world. Stuff that friends talk about. Barry, an editor from the old school, knew that talking often leads to new ideas. Our conversations about one column frequently gave birth to another. Conversation is a creative and productive tool. Sadly, not many editors make time for that anymore.

Once my conversation with Barry ended I wouldn’t hear from him again until the next column was due. Twice each year I could count on him calling and telling me, “Karen, it’s time for the next column.”

Our professional relationship may have ended, but I hope to keep those wonderful chats with Barry going—that we stay connected. As a way to remind me of that, I’m reprinting  one of my (now historical) Nikon columns called “Diplomatic Relations” from winter 2013.  I’ll reprint others from time to time.

My Nikon World column on Sierra Leone

My Nikon World column on Sierra Leone

About ten years ago, CRS built houses in the Grafton neighborhood for people whose homes had been destroyed during the civil war

About ten years ago, CRS built houses in the Grafton neighborhood for people whose homes had been destroyed during the civil war

The first time I visited Sierra Leone I got arrested. If I’d been covering conflict or a corrupt government, I might have expected that result, but I was there to document the work of a Centers for Disease Control medical team. My coverage was part of a National Geographic assignment on viruses, and the CDC team was combating an outbreak of Lassa fever, the close cousin of the Ebola virus.

Sierra Leone’s civil war had already begun, but the CDC team was confident of their safety. I covered them treating patients and analyzing disease carriers, like mice, but I also needed scenic pictures to set the story’s location. Accompanied by two team members, I boarded one of the team’s trucks, which featured the Lassa fever logo, a large outline of a mouse, and we headed into the countryside so I could photograph the surrounding land and villages. There were checkpoints on the road every mile or two, but they were no problem—the guards saw the logo and waved us through. Then at one checkpoint I saw a lovely mountain, and one of the staff members said I should photograph it. My instincts, which I’ve since learned to listen to very carefully, told me that taking pictures near a checkpoint was not a good idea, but being young and inexperienced, I thought that being a photographer meant never being afraid to take a picture.

So I raised my camera, and within moments I was looking down the surprisingly large barrel of an AK-47 pointed at me by a very young soldier who was yelling at me and my CDC companions. He herded us into the front seat of our truck, then climbed into the back, still pointing his weapon at us. We drove to a police compound. I knew this was a very unstable situation; people, including Americans, had already been randomly shot and killed. The soldier ordered the CDC staffers inside; I was told to stay in the truck. For two hours I could hear periodic shouting from inside the building. Finally the police commander arrived and we were allowed to leave.

The District Education Committee Primary School in the chiefdom of Sulima is part of the CRS food program. Volunteers cook the food for the children who attend school.

The District Education Committee Primary School in the chiefdom of Sulima is part of the CRS food program.
Volunteers cook the food for the children who attend school.

We drove back to the CDC compound in silence, aware of how lucky we had been. Last year, 20 years after that incident, I returned to Sierra Leone when Catholic Relief Services (CRS) offered an assignment to photograph their maternal health, food and education programs. CRS had operated in Sierra Leone for 50 years and was one of the few nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that didn’t abandon the country when it deteriorated into war.

The war ended in 2002, leaving 50,000 dead and thousands more maimed. I was happy to take the assignment; I wanted to see how the country had changed. Twenty years ago, well-armed men inspected my bags at the airport. One suggested I might share some money with him. I said, indignantly, “Bribery is illegal in Sierra Leone.” He laughed, but waved me through. On the 2012 trip, I had CRS’s photo editor with me, and when we landed, the customs people immediately started hustling him for money. Well, I thought, some things can be slow to change.

Farmers meet once a week in the village of Mongo Kiridu to hand in money to a savings and loan club. The club then votes on who can borrow from the fund and for what projects.

Farmers meet once a week in the village of Mongo Kiridu to hand in money to a savings and loan club. The club then votes on who can borrow from the fund and for what projects.

The country was on a massive roadbuilding spree, yet few of the roads were finished. We drove mainly on dirt roads in various stages of construction. We traveled east to Kenema, the town where I’d worked on my first visit. I saw Chinese and Korean crews, grading and paving roads to connect the larger towns and the mines that dotted the countryside. There was an air of chaos around the projects. Traffic often swarmed alongside the road machinery, carving deep ruts in the carefully graded roadbeds, delaying paving efforts. Runoff from the roadwork spilled into ponds and wetlands, turning water to red mud. The new roads and power lines rarely reached the many small villages we visited.

The people in those villages live on very little. They grow rice that’s eaten with green leaf vegetables cooked in palm oil. If they’re lucky they’ll have fish; sometimes a chicken is killed. If electricity is available, it’s a luxury that few can afford. Almost no one has running water. Some villages have pumps to draw water from wells, but most villagers walk miles to get a bucket of water that probably is not safe to drink by western standards.

Yet despite their tragic past and intense poverty, most Sierra Leoneans are amazingly friendly to strangers. In each village I felt welcome. Of course, I was working with a respected NGO that had proven itself to the people by not leaving the country when the political situation became dangerous, but I remembered that same warmth from 20 years earlier. While friendliness is a gift for a photographer, gifts often come at a price.

When the villagers learned of the CRS team arriving to photograph a program, everyone wanted to be part of the scene, and at almost every location I encountered friendly chaos. Groups of people moved towards me, seeking my camera’s attention.

If I shifted to the right, the group shifted with me. Without intervention, every photo I shot would have shown 20 people or more crowded in front of my lens. My job was to get good pictures, but I didn’t want to insult anyone. Whether to a village, a clinic or a project, access depends on good relationships developed by the hosting organization with the community leaders. It’s extremely important to keep that relationship going.

I photographed an innovative program bringing in traditional birth attendants to assist and take the pressure off the nurse, who was juggling multiple responsibilities.

The program provides income to the attendants, who in turn encourage women in their communities to visit the clinic. I envisioned warm, loving pictures of a kindly birth attendant working with the nurse and helping women who had just given birth. When I arrived, the nurse was there—and so were all 12 of the birth attendants in the program. They all wanted to participate, trying to crowd into every situation that I photographed.

Near Kabala in the Northern Province, a farm family slashes and burns their property to clear the land for peas and cassava.

Near Kabala in the Northern Province, a farm family slashes and burns their property to clear the land for peas and cassava.

At one point four of them converged on a woman who was having labor pains. Surrounding her, they stayed focused on my camera, smiling at me as they walked her to the birthing room. To manage the situation, I divided the dozen into smaller groups and asked each to do different tasks in different parts of the clinic. Eventually, with patience, smiles and an enormous number of group shots, I got my work done.

This kind of experience is not unusual when working with NGOs. The challenge is to deal with a chaotic situation while preserving good relations and staying focused on making the good pictures that will show off the programs to donors and others interested in the good work being done; to be not only a photographer, but something of a diplomat as well.

New Exhibitions of My Work

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This is the opening frame from the BBC "First Person" video.

This is the opening frame from the BBC “First Person” video.

This past week, my work has appeared in two wonderful locations.

The BBC filmed me for their “First Person” segment and produced a nicely edited short piece called “Photographing Death and Disease” on what I do.  I was as sick as a dog when I did the interview, but in the finished piece I was quite impressed to hear that I actually sound coherent. A good producer and videographer can do magic!

Women in Sierra Leone water from one of the wells built from the water gotten from the water gravity project

Women in Sierra Leone carry water from one of the wells built for a water gravity delivery project.

In addition, the Social Documentary site SocialDocumentary.net highlighted my piece titled  “Empowering Women” along with nine other exhibits in their October “Spotlight.”

I hope you have a chance to look at these two sites.

Written by kasmauski

October 17, 2013 at 10:24 pm


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Looking towards the West Bank from East Jerusalem.

Looking towards the West Bank from East Jerusalem.

       I just got back from a trip to Palestine

       I visited the West Bank once before in the late 1990’s while covering a story about genetics. I worked with both Israelis and Palestinians, photographing a school for the deaf. Of course I knew of the conflicts between the two groups, but the school was a rare example of cooperation and I wasn’t there long enough to absorb the complexity of the issues.

           This trip was different.

           I am still trying to comprehend the politics driving tensions between two groups of people with long histories who believe in God.

The border wall that separates Bethlehem from  Israel.

The border wall that separates Bethlehem from Israel.

        The main expression of this tension that I encountered was the restrictions on movement. As an American I take freedom of movement in our huge country for granted, knowing that I can drive thousands of miles without visas or border checks.

           But in the close confined space of the West Bank and Gaza, movement is another story. I spent a full week going in and out of the multiple checkpoints strung around the area. Standing in what seemed like never-ending lines and undergoing scrutiny at each crossing, I began to see how stressful the situation is for many of the people living in the area.

Pilgrims visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Christians believe Christ was crucified, died and rose from the dead.

Pilgrims visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Christians believe Christ was crucified, died and rose from the dead.

Yet within those restrictions, the signs of faith were everywhere.  In the old city of Jerusalem, I walked through streets jammed with churches, mosques and synagogues, each of them holy to believers of the three major faiths that are expressed in this remarkable city. The beauty of the ancient buildings and the sincerity of the faithful who visited shrines, lit candles and offered prayers was moving. Even a non-believer would have been touched by these many examples of faith.

            Still, there is perhaps no other place on earth where tensions between different religious groups are more strongly encountered, whether as restrictions on movement, like those I encountered, or in a host of other ways.

             I returned home wondering about this contrast between tension and faith.

             As a journalist I’ve been privileged to visit many societies and witness a wide range of cultural behaviors. Most peoples have a belief in something larger than themselves—a spiritual being or god, with those beliefs often expressed as a religion. Yet nearly every religious group has had its ugly moment, persecuting people who don’t believe as they do.

            I’m troubled by the idea of people being oppressed, hurt or even killed because of their beliefs might not agree with the beliefs of another group.  So what is the point in being faithful, if too often, the result leads to tensions like those I encountered on my trip—or worse?  However despite these doubts, I try to remain faithful.

             I blame it on the nuns.

In the early 1990's, an Irish Catholic nun gives care in a rural Ugandan hospital.

In the early 1990’s, an Irish Catholic nun gives care in a rural Ugandan hospital.

          Back in the 1990’s while working in south western Uganda, I came across small communities of European nuns helping people who were not of their cultural, racial or religious background. They were providing the best care they could for the sick and afflicted.  The AIDS epidemic was building steam, with death rates rising into the millions. Women and children were especially susceptible. At the time there were no drugs. All the nuns could do was keep their patients comfortable, letting them die with dignity. Despite having no money, the nuns provided a comfortable cot and clean white sheets for each patient. The nuns were sustained by their faith that all human beings were loved by their god and should be treated with dignity in life as well as death.

             On that same trip, I met another group of nuns working in rural Sierra Leone. They were nurses at a hospital treating victims of Lasso Fever, a close cousin to Ebola.

            In addition to the health risks these women faced in dealing with such a deadly disease, Sierra Leone was about to explode. Just over the border in Liberia, five nuns had been murdered. The nuns I had met in Sierra Leone only had a short wave radio with which to contact the outside world. If trouble came, help would be a long time coming. Despite living under this cloud of potential violence, they kept the hospital immaculate. Their guesthouse where we stayed was one of the cleanest I’ve ever encountered while traveling through Africa.

            The nuns could sense the violence that was coming closer and closer to their hospital. One evening during dinner I asked a sister if she was afraid. Her only response was “We cannot live our lives in fear. We must do the work that God would want us to do.” I will never forget the way she said it with patience and conviction.

            Several months later rebels overtook the hospital, killing a priest, a visiting doctor from the Netherlands, his wife and their two-year old daughter. A volunteer traveling in the doctor’s vehicle was captured and brutalized until she was rescued.

             Miraculously, the nuns escaped. Their vehicle was shot up but not a single nun was hit.

             These women lived their lives faithfully and courageously.

            And because of these nuns, I try as a journalist to live up to their convictions and report the best I can about the injustices of the world. It’s becoming harder to cover these sorts of stories. It’s expensive to travel to devastated areas. Many media companies don’t see the point especially if the issue is in a region that most Americans know little about. They want to quantify results; yet attaching metrics to images isn’t a nice tidy process. Does one specific image change anything?  Perhaps not, but over time, it’s much more likely that a continual flow of images may eventually create connections and foster understanding. With understanding, change can begin.

            In that, I do have faith.

Dome of the Rock , a holy site in East Jerusalem.

Dome of the Rock , a holy site in East Jerusalem.

Written by kasmauski

October 11, 2013 at 4:16 am