Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Posts Tagged ‘AK-47

Complexities of a Simple Weapon

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I was arrested in Zaire moments after taking this picture of a woman helping her grandson. Both were refugees, returning to their home country of Zaire after fleeing to Tanzania.

I was arrested in Zaire moments after taking this picture of a woman helping her grandson. Both were refugees, returning to their home country of Zaire after fleeing to Tanzania.

The death this week of Mikhail Kalashnikov, creator of the AK-47, which the Washington Post calls “the world’s most omnipresent weapon, used by national armies, terrorists, drug gangs, bank robbers, revolutionaries and Jihadists” made me think about my own three encounters with this gun.

The last time I saw an AK-47 it was pointed at me.

It was the late 1990s. I was in Zaire for National Geographic and I was getting arrested. I was accompanying a group of Zairian refugees who were being repatriated to their homeland (Zaire is now called Congo). The writer, his wife and I were on a UN ship traveling from Tanzania. We carried papers signed by the proper authorities. But as white journalists we stood out like sore thumbs. The ship docked, we walked ashore and Zairian soldiers, all carrying AK-47s, surrounded us.

The soldier performing the arrest was not a large person. But he suffered from what I call the “small man with big gun” syndrome. I see that affliction not only in Africa but also here in the United States. It affects people who feel insecure. They use guns to show the world how big they are. In some situations this behavior might seem pitiful or even ridiculous. This wasn’t that kind of situation—I was facing a small and agitated man who was yelling at me in a language I didn’t understand and waving what looked like a well-used automatic weapon in my face.

Actually, that was the second time I’d had an AK-47 pointed at me. A few years earlier, in 1993, I was working in Sierra Leone on a story about Lassa Fever. I was traveling with a medical team when our vehicle reached a checkpoint. This one happened to be in a beautiful location offering an incredible view of nearby mountains. One of the staffers suggested that I take a picture. I’m not sure why I agreed. At checkpoints, it’s always a bad idea to take pictures. But moving in a kind of idiotic trance I raised my camera. Within seconds, I had the barrel of a gun in my face and I was arrested, along with the two medical staffers. We drove to police headquarters with the solider arresting us—another small man—sitting in the back seat. I stole occasional glances behind me and could see him alternately pointing his AK-47 at the back of my head or the back of the driver’s head. Thankfully as we bounced along the rough dirt road he kept his finger off the trigger. At the police station he marched us before his commander, eager to show off his prize. Luckily for my two African colleagues and me his commander was not interested in us. As in Zaire, we were eventually released, grateful that we had literally dodged the bullet.

In Vietnam I fired one shot from an AK-47 at a tourist attraction operated by the Vietnamese Army.

In Vietnam I fired one shot from an AK-47 at a tourist attraction operated by the Vietnamese Army.

My third AK-47 encounter fell between the two frightening African episodes. In 1994 I was in Saigon, photographing a story on the Vietnamese economy, which at the time was just opening up to foreign investment. The Vietnamese Army held a fundraiser. For $1.00 per bullet, foreigners could fire an AK-47. I bought one bullet. Under the watchful of a soldier I shouldered the weapon aiming at the target. I lightly squeezed the trigger. There was a loud bang and a slight kick to my shoulder. I missed the target.

Of course, most AK-47s aren’t used for fundraisers. More that 100 million of these automatic weapons have been built in countries around the world since Mikhail Kalashnikov first developed it in the 1940s for the Russian Army.  With only eight moving parts, the Kalashnikov earned a reputation for simplicity and effectiveness, offering the fully automatic fire of a machine gun and requiring minimal care. The North Vietnamese used AK-47s like the one I fired when they fought US troops in the Vietnam War. It was considered a more reliable weapon than the M-16s issued to Americans.

Yet while it is an impressive feat of military engineering, I have to believe that easy access to cheap, reliable and extremely deadly weapons like the AK-47 is a big contributor to the decades-long conflicts plaguing the developing world.  It’s ironic that Mr. Kalashnikov made a sturdy easy to use weapon to help the soldiers of his Russian homeland, but in the end, that became the weapon of choice for warring parties in underdeveloped countries. Would post-Cold War conflicts scattered around the globe continue as long, with casualties as high if efficient killing devices like the AK-47 were complex, unreliable and expensive?

In the South Sudan village of Palotaka, Jonas James who is a nurse, hopes for peace, so that a priest might return to the village church.

In the South Sudan village of Palotaka, Mr. Jade, the church caretaker, hopes for peace, so that a priest might return to the village church.

Sadly, another developing world conflict is unfolding right now in South Sudan. Almost three years ago, shortly before the vote that established South Sudan as a country, Catholic Relief Services sent me there to photograph peace. The assignment was both simple and complicated. Could I show “What does peace look like in South Sudan?”

Kindergardeners happily greet visitors to their school in Magwi, a village in South Sudan.

Kindergardeners happily greet visitors to their school in Magwi, a village in South Sudan.

It was one of the best assignments I ever had, not because it produced award-winning photos (though several did win awards), but because I had the opportunity to capture the lives of people who hoped they could finally live in peace once the new country of South Sudan was created. It was a wonderful and exciting time to be there. People felt that fear of conflict was finally behind them. Refugees were returning to reclaim their lands and restart their lives. I met some of the nicest people I have ever photographed, warm and open to my camera. Being there seemed like a gift from God. I felt transformed.

So during this holiday season of peace and good will, to hear that South Sudan is again falling into conflict and bloodshed is highly distressing. What will happen to the many wonderful people I met?  The young boy helping his mother wash clothes in a roadside ditch. Little Sandy whose mother is learning how to sew so she can support the family. The female community leader helping her village recover from the last conflict. The laughing girls getting water from the village pump without fear of being brutalized. The kindergarten children who warmly greet visitors while drinking their morning tea.

Sandy and her mother at day care in Avumadrici village.  Sandy's mother had hoped that peace would allow her to continue classes at a technical school where she was learning to sew.

Sandy and her mother at day care in Avumadrici village. Sandy’s mother had hoped that peace would allow her to continue classes at a technical school where she was learning to sew.

Of course, the causes of conflicts are complex and rooted in many issues, but again I can’t help but think that if Mr. Kalashnikov had not invented that sturdy, cheap and reliable weapon of choice of poor armies and rogue groups, these types of conflicts would be slower to start and harder to carry out. Mr. Kalashnikov once said if there had not been a war at the time he invented his legendary gun, he might have gone on to improve farm equipment. I wonder how the world might be different had he done that. At the end of the Washington Post article he says, “I created a weapon…it’s not my fault that it was sometimes used where it should have not have been. That is the fault of politicians.” That same tired old line that “guns don’t kill—people do.” Humans have always found ways to kill each other. But can you imagine how the dynamics of warfare in places like South Sudan would be if people only had hoes or clubs rather than a weapon that reliably fires and kills multiple times within seconds.

Written by kasmauski

December 27, 2013 at 5:51 pm


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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.