Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Posts Tagged ‘children

Making America Great Again

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In Jordan at the Azarq temporary school for Syrian refugees, a student rushes up to the blackboard to solve a complex Algebra problem as part of a classroom competition.

In Jordan at the Azarq temporary school for Syrian refugees, a student rushes up to the blackboard to solve a complex Algebra problem as part of a classroom competition.

Last month I was sent to two Syrian refugee camps to photograph school girls.

I didn’t know what to expect.

I knew what school girls in the United States like to do. They play sports, laugh, gossip, create alliances and join clubs. But these girls are refugees. In my mind, I see images of highly traumatized people, crying, pleading and fleeing—people risking their lives and those of their children on frail rubber rafts.

School girls at the Malala Yousafzai All Girls' School in Bar Elias gather around a computer where one team of girls uploaded a powerpoint they created on Cleopatra.

School girls at the Malala Yousafzai All Girls’ School in Bar Elias
gather around a computer where one team of girls uploaded a powerpoint they created on Cleopatra.

Last week Time magazine ran a beautiful series of black and white photographs showing refugees in Greece. Yet they were abstract depictions, reducing individual’s humanity to artful forms. No wonder Americans are fearful of these refugees. They are judged and dismissed as anonymous groups an ocean away. Some of our presidential hopefuls portray them as dangerous to our way of life…whatever that may be.

Still, as an American, I understand that fear. One of the refugees handed me a broken plastic film camera, made in America years ago. He wanted me to have it as a reminder that Syrians love America. I’ll admit my first response was not to accept it, but my guide told to take it. I’m ashamed to say my next thoughts were “What’s in it? Will it blow up when my plane climbs into the sky?” I actually took the camera apart when I got to my hotel room to make sure it held nothing other than good intensions of Syrian hospitality. It now sits in my office as a reminder of my own suspicious nature when handed a gift of friendship.

The reality is these are normal people caught in extraordinary circumstances. They face hardship and devastation. A few years ago they would have been siting in their court yards sharing food with friends and family, taking pride in their children’s accomplishments, living life just like people anywhere.

I wasn’t in the camps to report the tragedy. I was looking a program that helps young women—the lucky ones, whose parents managed to get to a refugee camp. While the camps are not without issues, they are, for the moment, relatively safe. These girls are able to continue their education because of efforts made by non-profits including the Malala Fund and their partners: Kayany Foundation and UNICEF.

Other than the fact that every girl wore a hijab, their classrooms could have been anywhere in the US.

They were normal teenage girls. They laughed and teased each other. They were enthused about learning, inspired by their teachers and shared a contagious excitement.

This I wasn’t expecting.

 Math teacher, Shadi, helps a student solve an algebra problem.

Math teacher, Shadi, helps a student solve an algebra problem.

The teachers astonished me. Shadi, a young math teacher in the Jordan camp of Azarq, holds physics and math degrees, and kept his classroom of girls excited about solving algebra equations. Jamalat wears a floor length brown coat and hijab while working with the refugee children, keeping them competitive and excited. Jamalat had 40 students between the ages of 8- 13. She never sat down as she moved between lessons in English and Arabic, keeping the students engaged the entire day. Both teachers are Syrian refugees themselves. And, they volunteer at the school.

 Jamalat, herself a refugee,  was a teacher in Syria.  She teaches the younger students with warmth and ethusiasm

Jamalat, herself a refugee, was a teacher in Syria. She teaches the younger students with warmth and ethusiasm

 Jamalat brings her students outside when the weather is warm to play games and keep them energized.

Jamalat brings her students outside when the weather is warm to play games and keep them energized.

In the US, I would only expect to see such enthusiasm kindled only by the best teachers in the best schools of the best districts. I felt jealous that I didn’t have a teacher like Jamalat when I was in 3rd grade

When I left the US to begin this work, the leading Republican candidates were trying to one up each with their bigotry. They painted the refugees as villains or worse—terrorists determined to hurt us. Yes, there are extremists planning to do just that. But the majority, perhaps 99.9% of them, just want a safer life for their children, an education and a living.

High school students walk back to their temporary homes in the Azraq Refugee Camp

High school students walk back to their temporary homes in the Azraq Refugee Camp

We are a nation built of immigrants. Every one of us arrived from some other place. My ancestors came in waves from eastern Europe and Asia. My husband’s ancestors came from England, Ireland and France. They might not have been welcomed with open arms but they were allowed to come and make new lives over here. America is a better place because of millions of similar stories.

The people I visited in the refugee camps inspired me; parents who risk all for their children, girls who love math and science and teachers who strive to keep the love of learning burning inside their students. These are exactly the people we need to make America to great again.


Sharing Soup and Stories

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A hearty version of miso soup, prepared using my friend Lucy Craft's recipe.

A hearty version of miso soup, prepared using my friend Lucy Craft’s recipe.

My father died several years ago.

In my grief, I needed comfort. I began craving mochis. They’re a Japanese food—rice pounded to a dough-like texture, then cooked over a hot grill, finally bloating into a crusty ball with an inner texture of chewing gum. Finally, the dough is mashed into soy sauce sweetened with sugar. Yummy!

I love these little treats, but you probably have to have some Japanese blood to start salivating at their description.

Now, I find myself stressed for other reasons and have started craving miso soup. Not the wussy little bowls of nearly clear broth with tiny cubes of hydrated tofu served in most Japanese restaurants. No, what I want is my own recipe. The way I concoct miso is probably rooted in my hybrid Japanese, Polish and Lithuanian heritage with a tad of Russian thrown in. My soup has to have mounds of sliced shitake mushrooms and a block of tofu big to make a vegan family happy.  If available, I also throw in a hand full of spinach.  I add slices of green onion, some MSG and of course the miso, about a half a ladle full. It serves 4-6 folks, depending upon the size of the bowl and how hungry everyone feels. It’s a meal.  Include a few Japanese pickles and maybe a cracker or two and I feel satisfied.

Cutting tofu into cubes for the soup.

Cutting tofu into cubes for the soup.

I learned to make this soup just a month ago when a dear friend of mine, Lucy Craft, an NPR and CBS correspondent based in Tokyo, showed me the simple recipe:

Heat four cups of water in pot.  Throw in a teaspoon of Hondashi, (aka MSG) found in any Asian food store, 2 or 3 finely chopped stalks of green onions, tofu cubes and sliced shitake mushrooms. You can add additional veggies as you prefer. When the broth begins to steam, mix in half a ladle of miso paste (also available in Asian food stores). Mix the paste slowly with the broth using a long pair of cooking chopsticks. Heat until the broth approaches boiling, but remove from heat before boiling begins. I often add  spinach to the broth just before I remove it from the heat.

I find it intriguing that I crave foods from my mother’s homeland whenever I’m stressed. Its like I’m genetically wired to need comfort food from a place I never lived, save as a small child. My mother rarely made Japanese food. When she did, she served it with a side dish of haughty arrogance and declarations about the superiority of Japanese people. My mother lived in her own cosmology, separate from the rest of society. Her stories were entertaining, but over the years I learned never to trust them.  Starting in fifth grade, I made dinner nearly every night.  If my mother was home, she would stand by my side, helping with some chopping and a lot of storytelling, usually about her childhood spent in a small fishing village during World War II.

My father was my best friend. After I married and moved away, we spent hours on the phone solving the world’s problems. Whenever we had the opportunity to be in the same location, we’d sit outside until the sun went down. He had his own tales to entertain me—stories of his upbringing on a farm in Pentwater, Michigan. Once he told me how he and his two younger siblings saw what they thought was Big Foot in the wild Michigan forest. They screamed all the way home. Oddly, no one else ever caught a glimpse of that creature. My father and I would drink glasses of red wine, watching day turn to dusk, appreciating the moment.

Stirring miso paste into the soup.

Stirring miso paste into the soup.

As close as I was to my father, the only ethnic food I ever attempted to cook for him was black bread. I would spend days trying to master the recipe. It required fermentation and my house smelled like a brewery. My father had borrowed a vintage Lithuanian cookbook from a friend and made a copy. Then he made me a copy of his faded copy. This was the 1980s, and books on obscure ethnic foods were hard to come by.

Somehow I could never stomach making other Lithuanian or Polish treats, like the duck blood soup that his mother made for him during the Depression. Once I tried to make him Kugelis, a kind of baked potato torte brimming with butter, bacon, pork chops, milk and eggs. I felt like I was committing a criminal act. The cholesterol in that dish would have killed a weak heart in seconds.

As I get older I realize, like it or not, I am the sum of my parents. Not all of that is pretty. In fact, there are some parts I’d like to leave behind. But at my ever-advancing age, what I have accepted and embraced is my diversity. Growing up poor and enduring the stresses of my youth shaped me into the person I am today. Making food connects me to those two very different people who found each other in post-war Japan, married and became my parents.

When I’m in the field working, my most enjoyable moments are sharing a meal with the people I meet. Often they’ll ask me, “Are you hungry?” When I hear those amazing words, I know that I’ve been accepted into their extended family and a wonderful evening is about to begin.

Despite our crazy schedule, my husband and I try to share a meal with whichever of our children happens to be home. If we’re lucky, they’ll both share the table with us.  Our meals are often filled with laughter as the kids who have inherited their dad’s gift of humor try to outdo each other with exaggerated stories about their day.

Edamame-soybeans boiled in salted water--is a tasty side dish with the soup.

Edamame-soybeans boiled in salted water–is a tasty side dish with the soup.

I grew up seeking story—my parents sharing stories of their upbringing, my children interpreting their days, or the tales told by my subjects who allow me to photograph their lives. Food is a wonderful way to begin that sharing.

Written by kasmauski

June 13, 2013 at 10:21 pm

Staying Flexible

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My parents, Steve and Emiko, in their 50th year of marriage.

My parents, Steve and Emiko, in their 50th year of marriage.

Some years back, my husband and I interviewed all of my family members for a video on my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary. I remember asking my father the secret of a successful marriage.  He smiled and said, “Be flexible.”

When we decided to have a child, our lives were transformed.  It was our turn to be flexible, adapting to the needs of our son and a few years later our daughter. Nurturing two small children was a wild ride, especially since I traveled so much for National Geographic and my husband was a full time editor.

Katie, 7, and Will, 9, posing for their annual Cherry tree portrait.

Katie, 7, and Will, 9, posing for their annual Cherry tree portrait.

But all good things must eventually end. Our kids grew up. The familiar chaos of responding to our children—whether hustling them out the door in the morning, or racing home at night to get them before day care closed, or following their college sports and performances—drew to a close.

Or so we thought.

With both kids in college my husband and I became empty nesters—except of course for our children’s monthly trips home to do laundry, raid the food supplies and meet old high school buddies.

Since they were out of the house—sort of—I decided to return to academia. I always wanted to get a masters degree for teaching or managing a visual department. That became possible when I was awarded a Knight Fellowship at Ohio University. I was apprehensive about the decision. While I’ve had a strong freelance career, I feared that disappearing for a year might not be a wise business move. But I approached it with a flexible attitude and my fellowship year turned into one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.

At the end of that year I graduated from Ohio and my son Will graduated from William & Mary within weeks of each other. Pictures of both of us in our caps and gowns are on the Facebook sites of our friends and family.

Katie, me, and Will at my Ohio University graduation in 2012.

Katie, me, and Will at my Ohio University graduation in 2012.

In the fall Will applied to the Peace Corps and was assigned to Uganda. He left this spring. At the same time Katie decided she wanted to come home to finish college. Our daughter, a smart gorgeous girl, turned out to be a homebody!! Go figure, but my husband and I were secretly pleased to have her back. We count ourselves lucky to have a daughter who wants to be near us. We love having children at home. The weekends are lively with their friends dropping by. Will leaving for two years left us deflated, but having Katie move back home pumped us back up again. We couldn’t be happier.

I guess full-fledged empty nesting will have to wait for a while. But we’re flexible.

Being flexible is one of the more important qualities for a successful career in photojournalism. I used to say if something could go wrong it will. I just need to deal with it since there are no second chances in the profession.  If I didn’t return with the pictures on an assignment, I wasn’t getting hired again.

Among other things, being flexible means changing direction if a job doesn’t materialize or a contract can’t be finalized. In the ever-changing profession of photojournalism, flexibility is a mantra. This week another newspaper, the Chicago Sun Times, dumped their staff of 28 hard working and talented photographers.  Hearing about such outrages saddens me and I pray that my fellow photographers who lost their jobs will be flexible and smart about finding something that can keep them in the business, or find something else that makes them productive and happy.

After all the years I’ve spent working as a photographer, I guess I once thought that at a certain point in the profession I wouldn’t need to constantly stay flexible. But I now see that isn’t true. I went back to school for a masters in visual communications to keep my skills competitive. I loved immersing myself in modern multimedia techniques and seeing the energy and creativity of the next generation of journalists.  Seeking out flexibility expanded my horizons.

Will and a few of his buddies at his Peace Corps going away party.

Will and a few of his buddies at his Peace Corps going away party.

I hope that I have passed that trait onto my son. He will need it.  Like a dutiful mother, I gave my son advice as I dropped him off in Philadelphia this spring to join his fellow Peace Corps volunteers. Of course I cried uncontrollably. I’m a crybaby. I admit it. Through my tears, I struggled to give my kind and handsome son a few pearls of wisdom for whatever they were worth. I’m sure he wasn’t listening. He was probably focused on the fear and excitement of embarking on an amazing adventure. But it made me feel useful.

My advice to him echoed what my father said to me years earlier:  Be safe, be kind and be patient. Most of all be flexible.


Written by kasmauski

June 4, 2013 at 4:30 am

It’s All Relative

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The Ladies Trekking Club starts their journey at the Morum Barrier Gate, 12,362 feet.

The Ladies Trekking Club starts their journey at the Morum Barrier Gate, 12,362 feet.

Several weeks ago, when I was climbing laboriously up the trails of Mt Kilimanjaro, each step bringing intense pain and dizziness, I told my fellow trekking companion that if we were at sea level in Virginia, it would just be a hike through the park.

Last week, on a cool and sunny spring day, I took that hike through the park. My husband and I took on the two-mile-long Billy Goat Trail, which winds along the Potomac River, in Great Falls National Park.

The trail led over rough and rocky terrain, including a steep climb up a cliff face. We scrambled over and around huge boulders, finishing in 75 minutes. While the trail was technically more challenging than the path on Kilimanjaro, I wasn’t a bit tired at the end.

The difference was 14,000 feet.

It’s all relative. I find that the older I become the more I let the relative happen. I can’t judge myself against my younger self or even my peers. It took me a while to come to that conclusion. As photographers we always compare ourselves to each other. Who won what award?  How did they get that job? Why was their work selected for that exhibition?

It’s exhausting and with social media the need to brag about our lives and accomplishments seems to have intensified.

Mt. Kilimanjaro bathed in moonlight at 2:30 am.

Mt. Kilimanjaro bathed in moonlight at 2:30 am.

Being on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro took me away from all that. There is something wonderful about being able to say “I won’t have email for a few weeks.”

I decided to join the climb because the organizers, The Ladies Trekking Virtual Club, had an admirable mission. They were raising money for books to be distributed in schools near the base of the mountain and to pay education fees for ten Maasai high school girls. The project was called Dreamers and Doers. My assignment was to create photographs of the climb and the schoolbook distribution.

School children at the Maroroni Elementary school look over the text books donated to them by the trekking group.

School children at the Maroroni Elementary school look over the text books donated to them by the trekking group.

The climbers were a diverse group and each had their own reason to participate. For some it was something to cross off their bucket list. For others it climbing this mountain was fulfilling a dream. A few wanted to change their lives and this climb was their first step in that direction.   For Janika Vaikjarv, who organized the climb, it was a way to give back to the community. She invited a Maasai woman named Theresia to join us. Her daughters’ secondary school fees were being paid for by this trek. Theresia may have been the first Maasai woman to climb Kilimanjaro. When Theresia later visited her daughters’ school and the principal announced her accomplishment to the students, she was greeted like a rock star.

Theresia in a pensive mood as the school books were distributed to the students at the Maroroni Elementary.

Theresia in a pensive mood as the school books were distributed to the students at the Maroroni Elementary.

For me the climb was a job—but one of the better ones I’ve had in a long time. I made it to 14,000 feet and stayed there for two days before realizing that for an inexperienced climber like myself, trying to work and trek at the same time was not possible. The lack of oxygen was making me sick.

I had a decision to make. Should I try to continue working? I might be able to, but I was also risking getting sick enough that I would have to be hauled down the mountain. Reaching the summit wasn’t an important goal for me—I was there to take pictures. But sick as I was, photographing was no longer possible. I decided to descend on my own power.

Once off the mountain, I spoke with an experienced climber who told me that working like a photographer—using short intense bursts of energy—was absolutely the wrong thing to do, especially when mountain sickness began to set in. No wonder I was getting sicker the harder I tried to work!

Each time I maneuvered to take a picture, I would feel dizzy and nauseated. Normally I can ignore physical discomfort by focusing on taking pictures. In the past I have photographed while seasick and vomiting.  But this seemed different.

At this point I’m experienced enough to know that sticking through something like this is not always wise. I rarely come back with a memorable picture when I try to work through a painful situation.

Hoof print of a water buffalo that wandered up to 13,000 feet on the mountain looking for salt.

Hoof print of a water buffalo that wandered up to 13,000 feet on the mountain looking for salt.

To my delight, the journey down Kilimanjaro was wonderful. The weather was clear and since we were not holding to a schedule I could travel at a relaxed pace. Deogratus, my guide, took his time explaining the geology, flora and fauna found on the mountain.

A friend of mine who lives in Hawaii and believes in the spirit of the land said the mountain had given me a gift. Often in my life I get so focused on reaching a goal that I overlook the beauty along the way. Our slow descent brought Kilimanjaro’s stark scenery into sharp focus. I was happy to be there. With the fog of my painful ascent clearing away, I realized how fortunate I was to be standing in the middle of this high altitude moonscape. Deogratus took great pleasure in sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of the mountain. I was amazed at the everlasting flowers that grew under all conditions. I photographed the hoof print of a water buffalo looking for salt. We stopped to absorb the view of   “Ol Doinyo Lengai, ” or “Mountain of God” in the Maasai language. It last erupted in 2008 and is one of those rare volcanoes producing nitrocarbonatite lava. This downward trek became the highlight of my four days on the mountain. The closer I got to the bottom, the better I felt.

Did I make it to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro? No. But again, it’s all relative. I didn’t need to reach the summit. Over time, I’ve learned that knowing when to change direction can often open doors to new and better experiences and opportunities.

A trekker looks off Kilimanjaro at sunrise.

A trekker looks off Kilimanjaro at sunrise.


Its A Puppy!

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Leo, ready for a new day, fresh adventures, and more things to chew.

It’s been while since I posted my last blog. I wish I could say I was away on a challenging assignment.  Instead I’ve been doing some almost as taxing—trying to raise a new puppy.

As my children began college, I wondered if my loyal dog Kobe might need a friend. The house was getting quiet. No one threw him balls or ran around the yard with him. Kobe is a good dog. He doesn’t dig holes in the yard, is even-tempered and very loyal. He is also cool, aloof and perfectly content to sit by himself for hours, looking elegant in his thick black fur coat.  Only when Leo arrived did I realize that Kobe is actually a cat, disguised as a dog.

I decided to get another dog like Kobe. He is a Norwegian Buhund.  They’re small herding dogs, from the Spitz family, with fox-like faces and curly tails—very cute.  There are a few breeders in the United States. I contacted one and found that a wheat-colored male was going to be available. The breeder sent us photos of the little guy, including one where he was hugging a toy mouse as he slept.

Leo as an infant, clutching his mouse toy. When I saw this picture I knew we were getting another dog.

That did it—my husband and I were hooked. In April we picked up him up.  The wheat-colored fur made him look a bit like a lion, so we decided to call him Leo—he looked so small and felt fragile.

Looks can be deceiving.

Two-month-old Leo immediately swarmed all over nine-year-old Kobe, treating him like a fellow puppy.  Seeing Leo get into the car, Kobe threw me a mournful look of betrayal. “Aren’t I a good dog?” he seemed to say. “Why are you doing this to me?”

In hindsight I realized that Kobe did not need or want another dog.  He watched warily as Leo expanded, a bit like a monster child. After just two months, Leo is no longer small or fragile. In fact, he is now Kobe’s size and still growing.  Rapidly.

Kobe contemplates the arrival of Leo, probably thinking something like, “Should I push him down the sewer or into the traffic?”

They couldn’t be more different. If both were human, elegant Kobe would probably sip fine cognac and watch Masterpiece Theater. Leo, on the other hand, is Joe Sixpack, a party dog who would grab a brewski and head to a stock car race.

They fight like two teenage boys brimming with testosterone.  Leo jumps all over Kobe, chomping on his collar like a shark snagging a baby seal.  When guests visit, they merge into a single ball of fur, rolling from room to room, yapping, whining and growling so loudly that all else stops.  Of course, as soon as guests leave, the fighting stops.  It’s all about attention.

Leo loves to dig holes and chew. I spend my time trying to keep this energetic puppy from enthusiastically destroying my home. We’ve already lost three shoes, countless chew toys, several rugs (I have removed all rugs from the first floor), three pillows, two baseboards and one wooden window sill. Leaving Leo without human supervision is inviting more destruction.  It’s like having a toddler running amok in the house. Without a diaper.

But when caught, Leo looks at me with wide brown eyes.  He starts whimpering and burying his head in my lap or under my knee. Then he climbs up on my lap and lays his head on my shoulder. How did he learn that trick? It works all the time. Yelling at him does nothing but make me feel guilty for yelling at him.  Did I mention how cute he is?

So, over the last two months my work has ground almost to a halt. But actually, I’m okay with that. I wouldn’t trade Leo in for anything.  Even Kobe is starting to tolerate him.

Sort of.

Leo and Kobe in a rare moment of peace

Written by kasmauski

June 21, 2011 at 11:24 am

Posted in Photography and Life

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Nuclear Fears

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I got tested for radiation contamination at NIH-the National Institutes of Health.

In the fall of 1988, I was contaminated with Chernobyl radiation. It was two and a half years after the accident and I was nowhere near the nuclear facility. The contamination happened when I was sharing a meal with a Sami family in northern Sweden.

I had been photographing a story on radiation for National Geographic Magazine. I was in Sweden to look at the effects of radioactive fallout from Chernobyl on the animals and people who lived below the plume of radiation that swept over Europe soon after that catastrophic accident on April 24, 1986

I was a young photographer at the time. I had only worked a couple of years for the National Geographic. Radiation was my first international story and the first one where I dealt with complexities of science. I had little idea what I was getting myself into.

My contamination was found quite by accident. Several months later, I was at the Hartford nuclear plant in Washington State looking at their programs dealing with radiation detection. I photographed a woman receiving a precise radiation measurement called a whole body count.  Afterwards the technician asked if I wanted to go through the process for the experience. Always up for a new experience, I responded, “Why not?”

At the end of the procedure, the technician asked if I had been in Europe recently. In fact, I’d traveled a great deal that year, covering not only French nuclear power plants, but also Japanese A-Bomb survivors, workers at Chernobyl and in Sweden at nuclear waste storage facilities, radon gas leaks, and cleanup of a radiation accident in Brazil.  “Why do you ask?” I inquired.

“Because you are contaminated,” he replied. “You’re registering cesium-137 in your whole body count. The signature of the isotope is from Chernobyl.”

That long ago moment came back to me this week when I heard the news reports of fear sweeping through the Japanese populations living close to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

I know exactly what that fear felt like. I felt it—intensely—when I heard the technician utter those words, “you are contaminated”.

As a woman, several questions went through my mind all at once.  Would I get cancer? Would I die soon? Can I have children? What will they look like?

I knew I been exposed to radiation several times over the course of working on the story. After photographing in a Swedish nuclear storage sites located a mile under the ocean, I had to go through an isotope detector in order to leave.

Sweden’s nuclear facilities have strict standards. You are scanned as you go in, and you cannot leave if the scanners show more radiation than you had on entering.  As I attempted to exit through the scanner, alarms went off.  A display screen showed an outline of a human body.  There at the back of the head—my head—a light flashed as the alarm blared.

“You cannot leave. You have radon contamination in your hair,” the security people told me.

They escorted me to a decontamination shower. I scrubbed myself down–Karen Silkwood style—with a green soap. I got dressed and tried to leave. But once more, the alarms went off.

The security people said I could try one more time to scrub down, but after that, I’d have to have my hair cut off. So I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed.  I hated the thought of losing my hair. But the third time was the charm, and I walked out with my hair intact.

The damaged reactor at Chernobyl, two years after the 1986 disaster.

Soon after that event I was at Chernobyl on a media trip into the contaminated area. During the story, I carried a small radiation detector with me. It looked like a fat pen, and had a tiny digital readout. If the levels rose above normal the detector would begin to click. The bus carrying our group approached Chernobyl, entering a strange post-apocalyptic world. The earth was denuded of life. Only a single tree hung on and it too would soon be dead.

As we drove into the area, my detector started clicking. It began slowly, and then picked up the pace, clicking every few seconds, and finally erupting into an alarming cascade of “click-click-click-click-click-click-click.” This steady rhythm annoyed the Soviet official telling us media representatives that the area was now clean. He offered us cucumbers to eat that which been grown there. No one took a bite. We toured the plant and were allowed to photograph the so-called healthy workers. Then we walked on the edge of Pipyat.  Once home to 45,000 people, it was now a ghost city, uninhabitable for future generations.

The official said that all children in the region were healthy. Just a few years later the lie was exposed as children began dying of leukemia and babies were born with serious birth defects.

But I wasn’t contaminated on that trip–at least not in any way measured by the whole body counter at Hanford.

Swedish health workers test reindeer for radiation contamination following the Chernobyl disaster.

I returned to Sweden to cover the reindeer roundup conducted each year by the Sami people living in the far north of the country. I accompanied a health worker from Sweden’s public health department.  The first plumes of Chernobyl had swept across Sweden, settling into vegetation that reindeer and other animals ate.  The health department monitored radiation levels of the reindeer being slaughtered that year. The government set a level of radiation acceptable for human consumption of reindeer meet. But if the reindeer were above that level they were fed to minks.

I often wondered how that level was set.  And would the radioactive meat consumed by the minks eventually be transferred into the coats created by their fur when they were slaughtered?  I never found out.

I got to know the Sami who herded reindeers for food and income. They invited me to share their meals, so for two days, I ate with the people I was photographing. Because I knew of the reindeer contamination, I nibbled on reindeer jerky, but I consumed the main meal of moose meat. I have no idea why I didn’t think the moose would also be contaminated along with the reindeer.  I didn’t think much about it until my editor and I started to think about where I might have gotten contaminated.

When I came home from Hanford my husband took me immediately to the National Institutes of Health. They have one of the most sensitive radiation detectors in the world there, a chamber lined with thick steel from pre-World War II battleship that contain none of the trace radioactive particles released into the environment after atom bombs were developed in 1945. I was tested again, and indeed, I had internal contamination from Cesium 137.

The writer also received a whole body count at NIH, but was not contaminated.  We both visited Chernobyl together and ate the same foods. In fact, he had been to most of the places I had, except for Sweden. I deduced that I had been contaminated there.

What did that mean?

Nobody really knew for sure. The NIH officials told me the dose I had received would not kill me, nor would it strongly increase my chances of getting cancer. I had to believe them. They tried to reassure me, telling me that they found Cesium 137 in people who never had been to Europe but had eaten imported French cheese.  The cheese came from goats and sheep eating grass contaminated with fallout from Chernobyl.  I often wondered why knowing that would reassure me.

My husband and I went on to have two children. Through both pregnancies I worried about the potential health of my children. If they had been born with any defect or developed cancers as young children I would never have been able to forgive myself. If I had known what was going to happen on the radiation story, I would never have accepted it.

When I heard about the possible contamination in Japan, my first thought was they needed to get all the children and young women who hope to be pregnant out of there.  Then I heard the radiation had gotten into the food chain; vegetables, milk and water are contaminated.

No matter if the contamination levels from this accident are small, I have to wonder why we don’t learn from the mistakes of the past. I think of all the reindeer who had became contaminated because they ate lichen made radioactive from particles drifting slowly down from the Chernobyl disaster.

How much radiation exposure does it take to increase cancer rates?  I have no idea.  It seems that no one really wants to declare specific numbers.

Craters from nuclear tests dot the landscape of Frenchman Flats at the Nevada Test Site.

The U.S. tested nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert from 1951 to 1962.  There were sad statistics about those unfortunate enough to live down wind of the test sites.  In some cases entire families died from various cancers.  The connection was so uncontestable that in 1990, the US passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) to compensate individuals who suffered from one of 20 diseases, mostly cancers, that the U.S government connected to exposure from the testing and other activities related to the nuclear testing.

The Centers for Disease Control reported that they expected to see over 212,000 additional cases of thyroid cancers from fallout caused by nuclear tests in Nevada.

So yes, Japan should be fearful of what may follow. The long-term consequences and hidden costs of nuclear power are a burden they will have to bear long after the cataclysmic events in Fukushima.

New Work

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Nigerian caregiver arranging malaria bednets at dawn. Caregivers provide local children with bednets, water filters and protein cereals.

I finally had the chance to update my website with work from recent projects.  I spent several months working in Africa last year for a non-profit, documenting issues faced by at-risk children and showing life in what is now the independent country of Southern Sudan.  You can see more of this work in the new “Non-Profit” section of my website along with new editorial and commercial work.

Written by kasmauski

February 26, 2011 at 7:35 pm