Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Archive for June 2014

Myanmar Memories

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Sunrise at the Shwe San Daw pagoda in Bagan begins  with balloon flights over the temples.

Sunrise at the Shwe San Daw pagoda in Bagan begins with balloon flights over the temples.

The last time I visited Myanmar most people still called it Burma. I was there in May 2008, not long after Cyclone Nargis hit the country, killing over 200,000 people. I’m on the board of a small NGO called Global Community Service Foundation. We supported two orphanages that were right in the path of Nargis and we were anxious to see if our staff and the children were OK.

Fortunately they were.

It was a tough job. The government was checking people at the airport and I would have been stopped if I brought my professional equipment. Instead, I carried my Canon G9, a small but powerful point and shoot camera that a tourist might use. I was able to document the damage to our projects, which helped raise money for repairs.

Tourist photographs the famous Reclining Buddha in Yangon, Myanmar.

Tourist photographs the famous Reclining Buddha in Yangon, Myanmar.

This past winter, National Geographic Expeditions sent me back to Myanmar to lead a photo tour. The decaying colonial structures were still there, recalling the time when the British controlled what they called Burma. But the place was bustling. Energy and opportunity were in the air. Where in 2008 there were few hotels, now new luxury hotels had sprung up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. On the streets, everyone seemed in constant motion, trying to take advantage of their government’s 2012 decision to relax restrictions and open the country to foreigners.

This new Myanmar reminded me of Vietnam in the 1990s. In 1994 I did a story on Ho Chi Minh City for National Geographic. At the time the city was rundown, still damaged from years of war. Yet when I returned 10 years later, the city glittered with the chrome and glass towers characteristic of many prosperous Asian cities.

With all of this change, the group I led was eager to see the historic side of the country. Fortunately, many of Myanmar’s important sites like Bagan have been made into reserves, with development restricted.

Of course, tourism like Myanmar is experiencing brings economic opportunities but also the risk of overdevelopment and loss of historical culture. However I was pleased to see that many of the areas we visited still conveyed the feel of what I remembered from 2004 when I visited the country for the first time.

Young Burmese dancer at Bagan

Young Burmese dancer at Bagan

The Burmese are very welcoming. Whether photographing people or temples its a photographers paradise. At one point after we saw several temples and monasteries, I took my group off the bus and we started walking through a village. The residents must have found this very amusing, but they greeted us warmly. We left with lovely pictures of people working the fields, making bricks and feeding their cattle along with memories of wonderful interactions. On a walk through another village my group got invited to an initiation. Several young children were going to enter the monastery for a month or two and the village came out to support them. We were asked to attend and enthusiastically agreed. We got memorable pictures of the ceremony as well as children dressed in ceremonial garb being led on horseback to the monastery.

Fisherman collects his net on Myanmar's Inle Lake.

Fisherman collects his net on Myanmar’s Inle Lake.

Timing is the foundation of many successful photographs. I arranged our group’s schedule to improve our chances for making the best possible pictures. I made sure people had the option to arrive early in the morning or later in the day to capture the warm directional light that coats the world just after sunrise and just before sunset. Getting on site early also meant that we didn’t have to compete with too many other visitors wandering into our carefully composed pictures. Not everyone wanted to sacrifice their sleep, but those that did were rewarded with wonderful images.

Myanmar is filled with stunning scenery and warm friendly people. Each time I visit, I discover new places and learn new things about this amazing country. I hope people will join me and make their own discoveries about Myanmar when I lead a photo expedition there from November 11 to 23, 2014. You can learn more at: http://www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com/expeditions/myanmar-photo-tour/experts

Back in time for Thanksgiving!!

Written by kasmauski

June 30, 2014 at 11:45 pm

People of Honduras’ Mesoamerican Reef

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Fisherman Rigo Soliz checks his nets for holes. Fishing has been slow so he spends his days, checking his fishing gear.

Fisherman Rigo Soliz checks his nets for holes. Fishing has been slow so he spends his days, checking his fishing gear.

This year I’ve worked in Mexico and Myanmar. I’m currently on assignment in Ghana and Nigeria. However one of my favorite trips this year has been to the Bay Islands of Honduras. I journeyed there this spring for the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP)—for whom I am a senior fellow—and their partner, Centro de Estudios Marinos Honduras (CEM). The region is part of the Mesoamerican Reef, a key marine region extending along the coast of Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico.

Population pressure, overfishing, pollution and global warming all affect the Reef. Their consequences stress fishing communities all along the coast of these Central American countries. Fishermen must stay out longer and travel farther to match the number of fish caught in previous years.

Many conservation organizations focus on the Reef system but a few groups like ILCP and CEMS also support projects that investigate connections between the health of the seas and the health of the coastal communities.

A fisherman’s daily catch, caught by line and hook. Barra is a line and hook fishing community but it is surrounded by communities that illegally drag nets.

A fisherman’s daily catch, caught by line and hook. Barra is a line and hook fishing community but it is surrounded by communities that illegally drag nets.

This project involved two underwater and two dry land shooters. I was one of the latter. I focused on the social impact of diminishing sea life around the reefs. This is one of my skills, as I specialize in photographing global health concerns, especially those linked to the degradation of the environment and social structures.   I was thrilled to have a story about which I was passionate.

However…I had not worked in this area before had never worked around reefs and didn’t speak Spanish.

A nurse gives a student a tetanus vaccine. They hold a clinic in Salada Barra, usually outside, once a month. Children can get vaccines and treatment for other health issues.

A nurse gives a student a tetanus vaccine. They hold a clinic in Salada Barra, usually outside, once a month. Children can get vaccines and treatment for other health issues.

There was another way that this seemed like an odd assignment for me.

I can barely swim.

I learned when my uncle threw me into Spring Lake, Michigan and said, “swim.” I managed like a dog, paddling with my front paws and kicking with my back ones. I never really improved on that technique. Needless to say, underwater photography isn’t one of my skills.

Yet despite my poor swimming skills, I’m very comfortable around water. I come from a fishing family. My younger years were spent in Norfolk, Virginia, a city located where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. We ate fish and crab we caught ourselves. We used chicken necks to catch a bushel or two of crabs right from shore.

My father was a career sailor who served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. He met my mother in Japan during the occupation. If he wasn’t in a war zone he was on a ship at sea. He could see first hand the thin line between life and death—men lost overboard and rogue waves nearly capsizing ships.

Fishing was important to the survival of both sides of my family. My father’s father drowned while fishing for supper in rural Michigan. My grandmother was never the same afterwards. My father’s family was poor. Catching their own food was vital to their survival. My mother was born in a small Japanese fishing village called Sajima, south of Yokohama. At the time it was so insignificant, the Americans forces flew over it on the way to bombing Yokohama and Tokyo without even giving the village a second thought. My mother’s uncles all fished for a living. They survived the war eating fish and other foods from the sea and didn’t starve like so many of their countryman living in bombed out urban areas.

Like the Mesoamerican Reef, the Chesapeake Bay faces similar overpopulation, overfishing and industrial development issues. In 2008 the Chesapeake Bay crab fishing industry was declared a federal disaster. The crab population has yet to recover.

But there is a big difference between my life on the Bay and the life of those living along the Mesoamerican Reef. My entire livelihood does not depend on the sea. I have options. Yet for many in the communities our team visited, fishing is the only way to make a living.

Dunia Hernan, 17, 2nd student from the right, kids her friends during class. She is part of the first ever high school program held in this village. Her father is a fisherman.

Dunia Hernan, 17, 2nd student from the right, kids her friends during class. She is part of the first ever high school program held in this village. Her father is a fisherman.

I looked at the efforts to help communities and diversify their livelihood. One of the first communities I visited with the CEM team was Salada Barra, a small fishing community inside the Parque Nacional Cuero y Salado Marine Reserve, through which the Rio San Juan flows. The reserve is west of the coastal city of La Ceba. Our mission was to show the diversity of marine life among the mangroves and the interdependency of the marine area and the community of Salada Barra. I hoped to photograph life in the village. Not all went as planned. Fishing was problematic as many fish were too far from shore for the men to easily harvest.

There were plenty of environmental organizations present in this community. In this case, they seem to help the overall health of this particular community. Conservational projects including preserving the reefs, replenishing the mangroves, and protecting the manatees found in these waters employ locals to implement these plans. These efforts paved the way for other groups to provide social improvements. A high school class was added for the first time. Older students didn’t have to go away from home if they wanted to continue their education after elementary school. Visiting doctors and nurses came once a month to provide maternal and childcare, vaccinate school kids and look at other health concerns. We ran into a team of veterinarian technicians looking for dogs and cats to vaccinate for rabies. This especially impressed me since rabid dogs are fairly common in underdeveloped areas. These services are remarkable considering how remote this village is.

There is no easy way to access Salada Barra. The only way to get in and out of the village is aboard an old produce train that used to carry coconuts, pineapples and bananas out of the area to market. The ride is 35 minutes each way. Although this was once a large plantation region, agricultural is in decline and few coconuts are shipped out these days. They are developing a small tourist industry with a visitor center built by USAID. The hope is to bring people in via the train to tour the marine reserve, see manatees and eat fried fish cooked in local homes.

A group of fishermen illegally drag nets in an area too close to shore to catch undersized fish and conches.

A group of fishermen illegally drag nets in an area too close to shore to catch undersized fish and conches.

Fishing is still central to this community. But they feel pressures from illegal drag fishing that catch all sizes of fish and other sea life. Although good laws are in place, enforcing them remains a continual challenge.

Salada Barra was one of many communities along the Bay Island region we visited. Some are more developed than others but all face the same pressures coming from a declining fishery industry and a threatened reef system. Though I didn’t know Spanish, I did know these people’s concerns, because those of us raised by the sea speak the same language.

You can read more on this at National Geographic.

 

To my Polish Grandmother (I knew I’d turn out just like her.)

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Genevieve as a young woman in 1926 with my year-old father Steve.

Genevieve as a young woman in 1926 with my year-old father Steve.

I’ve worked in some exotic areas this past year, including Myanmar, Mexico, Honduras and Jerusalem. Soon I’m leaving for Ghana and Nigeria. But recently I took a hiatus from my blog.

The reason is that I found myself obsessing about something quite personal—the shape of my Polish grandmother Genevieve! I was in my 30’s when she died, after a long coma resulting from a fall.

We weren’t friends.

When my family would visit her, she would often get drunk. When I was little, she tried to beat me with a belt if she thought I had done something wrong. I always outran her. Not the grandmother Norman Rockwell might have painted.

My father was a sailor. A good son, he often visited her when he wasn’t at sea. Our family had to come along–my brothers, my sister and my mother, a Japanese war bride. These stressful visits often ended with my grandmother crying into her beer  about the misery of her life and the hardships of her daughters, one of whom seemed to collect abusive boyfriends the way some women collect shoes.

Genevieve had seven children. My father was the oldest. Her husband—my grandfather—drowned in a boating accident in Michigan before my father had even met my mother. The details of the accident were vague and mysterious. He was fishing with his son-in-law, my uncle Einer. Somehow the boat turned over. Einer, who wasn’t a swimmer, survived. My grandfather, who was a swimmer, drowned.

After that my grandmother started to fall apart. To relieve her pain she began frequenting a local tavern for beer and conversation. She met George, who eventually became my step-granddad. George left his wife and five children for her. But his inability to control his drinking eventually damaged his business and their marriage. They separated and he later died in a poor house.

In time I came to like her, though I always wished for a more traditional grandmother. I don’t know if it is vanity or narcissism that now leads my thoughts to dwell on her body shape rather than on the hardships that she endured. But her body is the one that I am growing into.

I have a clear picture of my grandmother as my father drove us away from her home after another strained visit. I was sitting in the front seat of our Chrysler station wagon. I looked back to see her standing on the crumbling porch of her small white wooden house. She waved goodbye. Her strong hand was connected to her unexpectedly delicate wrist and muscular arm. Her sturdy wide body was wrapped in a cheap cotton print dress. She wore stretch stockings to help with the varicose veins bulging on her legs. Her feet were secured in sensible thrift store slippers. Her only income was Social Security.

I still remember the chill that ran down my back that moment as I looked at her. Somehow I knew that I was seeing myself in 30 or 40 years. I was quite thin in my twenties. Yet as I age, I appear to be turning into my grandmother—at least in appearance. She had the wide peasant face and the sturdy middle of many older eastern European women of a certain age. Hers was a body built to work. Now, when I look in the mirror, I can glimpse echoes of my grandmother.

My grandmother Genevieve   at a hunting trailer in Michigan in 1954.

My grandmother Genevieve at a hunting trailer in Michigan in 1954.

Like her, I have a body built to work. Oddly, we both ended up in jobs involving heavy lifting. As a photographer I lug cases of camera gear around the planet. My grandmother’s final job was bussing tables at the country club in Spring Lake, Michigan. She lugged piles of dirty dishes back to the kitchen. She was amazed at how much food was wasted and left on plates. Fried shrimp was one of the more expensive items on the menu. “How could they leave the shrimp?” she would ask to no one in particular. Then in an almost smug tone, she confided that she would eat the fried shrimps left on the customer’s plates. “They hadn’t even touched those shrimps,” she would say to my frowning 15-year-old face. In fact, her bold move fascinated me. I wanted to eat some that shrimp. Even today, whenever I think of that story I crave fried shrimp.

Now, other ancestors seem to be passing on their traits to me. My joints are starting to creak like my father’s and my night vision is deteriorating just as his did. Driving at night has become terrifying, unless I wear glasses that give me better than 20/20 vision. Like my father, I also turned gray at a young age. If I’m lucky to live as long as he did, my hair will doubtless be the same snow white as his was. And though my face reflects the Asian heritage of my Japanese mother, my body belongs to the eastern European stock of my father.

My girlfriends who, like me, are half Asian all inherited the thin delicate bodies of their mothers. I have the study structure of my grandmother. A woman born to work. And to this day, no matter what else is on the menu, I always chose shrimp.

Written by kasmauski

June 7, 2014 at 10:02 pm