Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Posts Tagged ‘change

Reflections From An Icy Realm

with one comment

At Penola Strait we had reached a point that was further south than any other cruise ship had ventured.

At Penola Strait we had reached a point that was further south than any other cruise ship had ventured.

I still dream of Antarctica.

Antarctica may be as close to pure nature as I will ever get. Yet when my thoughts stray to the strange white beauty of that vast otherworldly landscape, I am usually stressing about transition. Though Antarctica looks solid and permanent the ice moves continually. Change is constant. That’s true both for Antarctica and for the profession that brought me there.

Almost a year ago, National Geographic sent me to the northwestern peninsula of that continent, representing the company on a Lindblad expedition.

It amazed me to see the incredible life thriving in that frozen wilderness, from large sea mammals to flightless birds to colorful lichen. Yet Antarctica can be one of the harshest environments on earth. During the cruise, we learned about Sir Ernest Shackleton and the struggle he faced when his ship, the Endurance, became trapped and crushed by fast moving ice. He and his crew of 27 survived under unbearably difficult conditions.

Katabatic winds whipped through the Wendell ice fields.

Katabatic winds whipped through the Wendell ice fields.

By contrast, the Lindblad ship was safe and luxurious. When we traveled around the western Antarctic Peninsula we were hit by katabatic winds—air flowing down from distant mountains and smacking into us as we entered the Weddell Sea. Those winds were so fierce that we who braved the outside deck were slammed against the railings and could barely stand straight. I’d quickly retreat inside for a warm cup of tea. When I went ashore I was clad in thick polar gear and hiked with other passengers under the guidance of the skilled crew. It seemed effortless, but we were traveling in a carefully tended bubble of comfort.

At Cierva Cove, Humpback whales surface directly in front of zodiacs carrying visitors.

At Cierva Cove, Humpback whales surface directly in front of zodiacs carrying visitors.

Most of us live our lives in similar bubbles, happily insulated from the sources of our food, water, energy and other resources. We tear down century old trees to build huge homes with huge energy bills, ignoring that the uprooted trees could have cooled the house. Staying shielded in such bubbles may not a good tactic. Change is afoot. Our world is warming.

As the major ice shelves warm, huge amounts of ice may be released into the ocean.

As the major ice shelves warm, huge amounts of ice may be released into the ocean.

As that happens, Antarctica’s vast ice shelves are being compromised. This February NASA captured a picture of a 17-mile long iceberg breaking off the continent into the Amundsen Sea. These enormous masses of ice move from land to water contributing uncounted trillions of gallons to rising sea levels. What the oceans gain, we humans lose, since, as much as 90% of Earth’s fresh water is Antarctic ice.

Looking at this lone Gentoo penguin on Cuverville Island, I wonder how long this icy world will endure.

Looking at this lone Gentoo penguin on Cuverville Island, I wonder how long this icy world will endure.

The ice shelves, of only passing permanence, make me realize how much I live my life in a similarly deceptive state, oblivious to changing patterns and imagining that today will last forever. Yet suddenly there is a crack. Then, a break. Part of my life floats away, never to be recovered. A job ends, a parent dies, and a sibling is estranged. Friends move away and children become adults, beginning their own lives. Sometimes I feel like a piece of ice, broken off and floating to oblivion.

That same sudden shattering of what once seemed solid is transforming my world. I and my colleagues who still survive as photojournalists wonder when our business became what it is today. Sadly it is less about content and more about speed, marketing and easy visuals. In today’s business, staying employed long enough to retire seems laughably outdated. Many of my colleagues are leaving the field to teach or try another profession.

Yet, really, did we actually think that our business would sit still? Like the ice, it has always been moving. We just didn’t notice.

Gentoo Penguins hike slowly to the top of Ducas Island.

Gentoo Penguins hike slowly to the top of Ducas Island.

Maybe that is why I think of Antarctica when I am stressed. Instead of imagining I am floating away to oblivion I have to remember I am part of a family of people. Together we are stronger than when we are apart, just like the molecules that make up the magnificent Antarctic ice. And that is where I need to focus.

Rip It Up and Start Over: Musing on a Summer Day.

with one comment

My son didn't realize he'd be asked to weed when he got home from the Peace Corps.

My son didn’t realize he’d be asked to weed when he got home from the Peace Corps.

As the summer simmers towards August I’ve gotten sick of seeing all the weeds in the landscaping around my house. I was gone for most of May and June’s prime growing season. This spring there was plenty of rain and everything, I mean everything was flourishing. My garden was a sea of green—green weeds that is. The plants were overwhelmed. I was feeling the same about my life.

With only a little bribery, I got my adult children and my husband to help out. I was feeling the pressures of living in suburbia. Our block was about to have a street party. I didn’t want our home to be the only one to look abandon by its human occupants.

I was on a roll. I dumped buckets of weeds into lawn bags. Sweat poured down my face and soaked my T-shirt. I didn’t even mind the aroma of bug spray. The garden started looking good, reminding me of how it looked years earlier when I planted it.

Dog Leo likes to stand guard at the end of the garden.

Dog Leo likes to stand guard at the end of the garden.

I started the garden at a low point in my career. About that time, National Geographic’s leadership changed and my photography career took a drastic downturn. Suddenly all the ideas and work that I’d done for them for over two decades were unwelcome. I had to reinvent myself. The best way to manifest that reinvention was to create a garden. I moved plants, altered textures and brought in flowering bushes.

Working on my garden made me feel like my decisions had impact.

For a while everything looked lovely. I fertilized the beds, weeded religiously and was rewarded with a beautiful array of colors, textures and shapes. My career blossomed as well. I started getting assignments and traveling again. The cost of that was ignoring the garden. The weeds soon took over. I would bribe my children once more to weed. The ups and down of my freelancing stressed my garden. My assignments were unpredictable. Often I’d have a lull and be home for months. My garden would benefit. Then I’d get another assignment and be gone again for weeks. I could practically hear the weeds rallying their forces, ready to attack as soon as my plane left the ground.

This strange intertwining of my garden and my career continued. At one point, my parents, thrifty as always, gave me a small Crepe Myrtle. Mature Crepes are lovely flowering trees found along many southern streets. The one they gave me was a thin sickly plant they got at Wal-Mart for $1.99, along with two small Japanese maples. I planted these three sad trees around a beautiful yellow maple. They struggled to survive.

I once read that monks do physical labor to force the mind into numbing nothingness. Labor supposedly calms the mind, moving it into a meditative state. Perhaps distraction is a better word. The more stressed I am the harder I work on my garden, replanting and reshaping the beds the same way I need to reshape my life.

A bright red crepe myrtle stand tall at the head of my driveway.  Flowers and azalea bushes line the other side.

A bright red crepe myrtle stand tall at the head of my driveway. Flowers and azalea bushes line the other side.

Now, years after that drastic career change, I look at my garden. The yellow maple was damaged in a storm. I took it down so my three young trees could thrive in the sun. Those once scrawny plantings have become lovely full size trees. The Crepe Myrtle with its gorgeous red flowers dominates the entrance to our driveway. The two tiny Japanese maples have grown to maturity and now shelter small families of birds.

At one point I thought I‘d surround that wonderful Crepe Myrtle with a low-lying carpet of ornamental grass. I had vision of a soft green lawn, a brilliant red flowering tree at the center. But weeding became a chore and soon I couldn’t tell what was weed and what was grass. So two weeks ago I ripped out every last blade of that grass and said farewell to my fantasy of a lovely green grass carpet. I needed to clear that space. Maybe at the same time I needed to clear my head.

Took out every bunch of ornamental grass.

Took out every bunch of ornamental grass.

Weeding gave me a sense of control. Perhaps that was misplaced, but so be it.

This is an uncertain time in media and disruptive for many. Newspapers and magazines have declined in circulation. Some have completely folded up. The proliferation of cell phone and digital cameras has automated the craft of photography. A recent ad for one of the most popular smart phones declared that everyone with a phone camera was a photojournalist. Has my profession really been reduced to something that anyone with a cell phone can do? I hope not.

But the truth is that what doesn’t work needs to be pulled out. Something that thrives in a newly created environment will replace it.

Gardens only need a bit of tender loving care. A little sun, planning, watering and everything thrives. So like my garden, maybe its time to start my career over once more.

Written by kasmauski

July 29, 2015 at 7:46 pm

Faith

with 59 comments

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

Service Part Two: Why I am a visual journalist (despite all the warning bells)

with one comment

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.