Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Posts Tagged ‘Career

Ecological Sin: Musings on the Pope’s Most Recent Encyclical

leave a comment »

At the height of the dry season in Mali, lakes evaporate.  A village nurse  lifts slabs of mud to look for moisture as the reminants of a sand storm whip across the lake bed.

At the height of the dry season in Mali, lakes evaporate. A village nurse lifts slabs of mud to look for moisture as the reminants of a sand storm whip across the lake bed.

When I first heard about Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si”—the long form translation seen in many media sources—“Praise Be to You: On the Care of Our Common Home” my first reaction was “Huh?” That was followed by confusion, then excitement. “You go Pope Francis!” I thought.

The document has been interpreted in several ways. Many see it as a treatise on global warming concerns. We need to shape up or Mother Earth will ship us out. If predictions about global warming prove accurate, then coastlines will alter, cities will flood, and storms will increase in strength and number. Food supplies may be threatened, straining the planet’s ability to handle the ever-growing human population.

(So, okay I’ll say it. Why isn’t the Pope also talking about limiting population? I suppose he is taking things one at a time, given the conservative elements of the Church.)

I am thankful for Pope Francis’ encyclical. Will it be effective? Who knows? A Washington Post columnist pointed out that the Pope is talking not only about global warming but also about the consumption culture that treats our Earth like an open credit card where overspending has no consequences.

People living and working on a garbage dump outside of Danang. Hundreds of people depend on finding stuff thrown away by others to recycle or sell.

People living and working on a garbage dump outside of Danang. Hundreds of people depend on finding stuff thrown away by others to recycle or sell.

Too many of our political leaders push growth and consumption as the savior of our democracy. The consequences are rarely discussed with the same enthusiasm. I’m as guilty as the next person, writing this on a computer with parts made from toxic materials mined by underpaid developing world workers. When my computer is replaced I recycle it, but I really don’t know if the parts are just dumped in another developing world country. Fossilized plants and animals power all my car, home and professional gear.

So, having now confessed my sins, I’m going to ignore them and return to global warming. This is something we can’t ignore. During my National Geographic career I saw examples of weather patterns changing in major ways

Mali farmer walks across  the devastated soil that use to be his garden during  the height of a drought.

Mali farmer walks across the devastated soil that use to be his garden during the height of a drought.

Viruses, my first Geographic health story, took me to areas where epidemics were raging. I wondered why each place I visited was also stressed environmentally or socially. I began to realize how environment contributed to disease—that epidemics didn’t just appear out of nowhere.

I don’t pretend to be a scientist, but I’ve seen a lot of changes over the past two decades, especially with weather. In the 1990’s I worked in remote areas of Africa and was often stranded by heavy rains and flooding during the so-called dry season. Yet in other locations, rains didn’t come for years. Crops failed, soil eroded and people went hungry.

A young boy walks atop a brick wall surrounding a health clinic in Niger.  Due to continually shifting sands and other environmental factors, the clinic has never been able to officially open.

A young boy walks atop a brick wall surrounding a health clinic in Niger. Due to continually shifting sands and other environmental factors, the clinic has never been able to officially open.

In Niger I photographed a partially built health clinic in a once fertile area. It sat unfinished because weather changes brought severe drought to the region. Sand swept through millet fields and water sources dried up, leaving a wasteland of cracked mud.

Once, in eastern Kenya, I came upon a town. From the distance it looked like pale flowers covered the fences lining the road, but drawing closer, I was stunned to see they were thousands upon thousands of plastic bags, blowing about, trapped in fences or caught in tree branches. My first thought was why didn’t anyone pick them up? My second thought was how did they get here and why here? Why were they drifting on this particular road? Since they’re made from petroleum, it was like watching precious oil flying in the wind.

I began looking at ways environments were stressed, from overusing agricultural chemicals and polluting water to political corruption and changing weather. As I gathered threads from my observations I began thinking about a project I called “Ecology of Disease.” It looked at the connections between the rise of disease with environment and poverty. Eventually that became a National Geographic story and later formed the foundation of my first book “IMPACT: From the Front Lines of Global Health.”

I didn’t consider the role of religion in that project, but perhaps faith can persuade in ways that books and videos and websites can’t. We don’t have a lot of time left and I can’t visualize a world where safe water is no longer easy to find, where the ice caps have melted and useable land is as rare as gold. The Pope has called on us to stop the destruction of ecosystems or else face terrible consequences. Those may not affect us older folks, but they will affect our children and all the children that follow. What sort of legacy are we leaving them?

Mali boy in shallow lake in the Tessit area takes water to drink at twilight. This lake is shrinking due to drought.

Mali boy in shallow lake in the Tessit area takes water to drink at twilight. This lake is shrinking due to drought.

Pope Frances writes (I am quoting from other media articles who have summarized the encyclical): “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, and political. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

He adds: Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures…the proper relationship between humanity and earth has been broken by the fall, both outwardly and within us. This rupture constitutes what we call sin…the church must introduce in its teaching the sin against the environment. The ecological sin.”

I can’t say it any clearer.

Written by kasmauski

June 29, 2015 at 3:44 am

The Journey is What Matters

with 3 comments

web-NGM2002-08_UNP_R491F16

An African animal park near Japan’s Mt. Fuji. The owner said he built the park because Fuji reminded him of Mt. Kilimanjaro

I’m leaving to join a group of women in Tanzania and climb Mt. Kilimanjaro for a book project called “Dreamers and Doers.” The sponsoring group, Ladies Trekking Virtual Club, will use proceeds from sale of this book to supply textbooks and other educational materials for school children living around the base of the mountain.

It took me a while to agree to photograph this project. I’m not a devoted athlete. I walk when I have the time, but the last thing I climbed with any height was Mt. Fuji over 11 years ago. Back then I was in a different place, both physically and emotionally. I was working regularly and in good shape from hauling my gear in what seemed like at the time like nonstop travel. When I watched the sunrise from the top of Fuji in August 2001, the world seemed wide open and full of hope for a peaceful future.

This is the traditional view of Fuji--pristine and spiritual.

This is the traditional view of Fuji–pristine and spiritual.

Of course, our perceptions are based on where we stand.  You don't see all the industry surrounding the mountain as often

Of course, our perceptions are based on where we stand. Usually you don’t see all the industry surrounding the mountain.

Twelve days later, two planes hit the twin towers in New York, one hit the Pentagon near Washington, D.C and another plunged a group of Americans to their deaths in Pennsylvania. I watched this horrible destruction play over and over on TV.  I held my eight-year-old daughter tight and told her that the world would never be the same again.

In so many ways that has been true for my peers and me. Technology and market changes caused many newspapers and magazines to shrink or disappear. Hundreds of my fellow photographers became unemployed, leaving those of us in the free-lance world with less and less work to count on. My day rate hasn’t changed since the 1990s. Few editorial jobs—once my mainstay—now pay for assistants. Business class, once a given for international travel, is a thing of the past. What once was fun is now an exercise in non-stop stress.

In response, I started moving away from my first love—journalism—and towards my avocation—non-profits. Working for groups like Catholic Relief, the Ladies Trekking Virtual Club or many others has become my main focus.

Like all of us, I’m aging. So when the offer to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro came up, I hesitated, thinking “how can I do something like that?” I would be the oldest person on the group by over a decade. But as the saying goes, “you’re not getting any younger.”  So why not?  And if not now, when? (Luckily the writer I suggested to them accepted the job, so now I’m merely the second oldest person on the climb.)

All sorts of strange things occur on the journey up Fuji, like these drummers who hiked to the top, played furiously for 15 minutes, then headed back down the mountain

All sorts of strange things occur on the journey up Fuji, like these drummers who hiked to the top, played furiously for 15 minutes, then headed back down the mountain

Hearing about this newest adventure, my friends looked at me with expressions ranging from shock to curiosity. No one said, “Wow I’d love to do that!” Most comments were “I really admire you for that.” In other words “You’re a fool—I’d never do that in a million years!!”

As the world changes, I hope that I’m maturing along the way. I’ve learned to grab opportunities that come my way–like climbing Kilimanjaro. I don’t want to regret that I passed up a chance to experience something different.  “Just do it,” a phase that Nike has run into the ground, is actually how I try to live my life.

If I had listened to my mother I’d probably be an unhappy housewife trying to carve out a living while selling cosmetics at the Little Creek Naval Base Exchange in Norfolk, Virginia. My parents had no aspirations for me. All they wanted me to do was get married, have a family and not commit any crimes. They never thought of college as an option for me. So I plowed ahead without their support, earning money for college application fees with summer jobs. I worked at a fish and chip joint, a self-serve gas station (I was held up. It was the first time I had a gun pointed at me) and finally that Naval Base cosmetic counter.

Luckily I got a full academic scholarship from the University of Michigan, so I went there. I paid the rest by working three jobs. One of them, photographing for the “Michigan Daily” student paper, laid the foundation for my professional career.

Atop Mt. Fuji in 2001 with my son Will and husband Bill.  We were proud of Will for making the climb to the top when he was only 10 years old.  It was much harder and colder than he'd expected, but he didn't give up.

Atop Mt. Fuji in 2001 with my son Will and husband Bill. We were proud of Will for making the climb to the top when he was only 10 years old. It was much harder and colder than he’d expected, but he didn’t give up.

I won’t accept words like “no” or “can’t.” I’ve always risen to the occasion even if what I do ends in failure. I cannot complain unless I’ve tried. Life is too short and wonderful not to try new experiences even if I can’t complete them. So that is why I decided in the end to accept the challenge to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. If I complete the climb, I’ll be ecstatic with bragging rights. If I don’t, at least I tried and trying is all I ask of my children and myself.

Written by kasmauski

February 23, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Regrets

with 3 comments

Palm trees frame the shuttle “Endeavour” as we wait for liftoff.

The last scheduled night space shuttle launch inspired me to jumpstart my blog again.  My husband managed to snag a couple of VIP tickets for us.  I immediately went onto Expedia and reserved cheap flights to Orlando for my daughter, Katie, and myself.  My husband’s company was paying for his. We left DC just hours before the first of this month’s two big snow storms shut down the city.  Katie was just looking for a weekend of warm weather, but I was revisiting a childhood dream.

Since I was tagging along, I was not allowed access to those lovely long lenses that Nikon lends to photojournalists covering the event.  I was fine with that.  I was going to witness my first ever space shuttle launch.  Almost all the websites that talk about shuttle launch advises if this is your first launch, just experience it.  I thought about that briefly, but I’ve been a shooter longer than not and I knew I would beat myself up if I didn’t take a frame

I packed two digital cameras and brought along two cheap lenses.  One was an ancient Nikkor 500 f.8 manual focus.  On the plus side, it’s small and compact, but manually focusing a lens during a fast and exciting event, after years of using auto focus, well…. what was I thinking?  The other lens performed beautifully and most of the pictures I’m showing came from that piece of glass.

I attached a small 70-300 f4.5-5.6 G lens to my Nikon D300s.  I set it to what I thought it should be after soliciting advice from just about everyone, from the Nikon rep to other photographers around me at the launch. Everyone—and I mean everyone—gave me different settings.  I stood besides my tripod looking at two pieces of paper where I had written eight different recommend exposures for a night launch. I took an educated guess.  I set it to 500 ISO, f.8, 1/200 of a second, infinity focus and gave the camera to my daughter with the directions to start shooting when she saw the light coming from the bottom of the rocket and don’t stop until she couldn’t see it anymore.  OK.  That’s as technical as I ever will be on this blog site.

I’ve included three images to show what we got.  I’m happy.  These are personal souvenirs for an amazing event was both exciting but melancholy to witness.

Endeavour lifts off at 4:14 am.

The shuttle engines turned the night sky to day.

Endeavour cleared the low clouds.

I was one of those dorky kids who always wanted to be an astronaut.  My husband and I bonded over that.  On our first date, we spoke about our dreams and aspirations.  Almost simultaneously, we each blurted out that we had always wanted to be an astronaut.  We laughed and I knew I had found my lifemate.

Even with the wonderful career I had as a contract photographer for National Geographic, if I could do it all over again, I would apply to become an astronaut.

Why didn’t I in the first place?  It was not to be my destiny.  As I grew into my teens, I lost my 20/20 vision, devastating my space travel dreams.  Maybe it’s ironic I became a photographer, another profession dependant on vision.

We ended this wonderful adventure the same way we started it, trying to outrun a blizzard.  The second big storm was on its way to Washington and our flights back were cancelled.  Worried about leaving our house alone with over three feet of snow falling on and around it, we decided to drive our rental car back.  During that 14-hour 900-mile dash home, we only stopped twice.   Once was to clean up the back seat when my poor daughter, who never could handle long drives, vomited all over it.  Our second stop was at 1:30 am to pick up a few groceries outside of Richmond, Virginia at a 24 hour Super Wal-Mart, I found on my iPhone.  Friends had warned us that the grocery stores in the Washington area were all running low on supplies.   We finally arrived home at 3:00 am.  And ended up shoveling snow until 3:30 am so we could get our car into the driveway.

Even though I never did become an astronaut, my life always does seem to end up an adventure.

Arriving home to an historic snowfall, after a 14 hour drive.

Written by kasmauski

February 17, 2010 at 12:20 am