Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Posts Tagged ‘Culture

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

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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

Using Common Sense and Kindness

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Showing kindness during the 1995 Kobe Earthquake

Showing kindness in the aftermath of the 1995 Kobe Earthquake

My blog, like my life, doesn’t always travel in a straight line.

I started to write about my recent trip to Africa. But then I read a column by Petula Dvorak of the Washington Post about movie theater security people evicting a disabled man from the theater in Frederick Maryland—an action that resulted in the man’s death.  This event happened in the greater  Washington DC area, but it could have occurred anywhere.

That tragedy—over a ten-dollar movie ticket—was just one one of several events in the past month where unnecessary force resulted in death.  During this Easter Sunday—the most important Christian holiday—I’m wondering about what seems like a shift in our society towards such violence.

According to current United Nations data, the gun murder rate in the United States is 20 times the average for all other countries in the world.

These tragedies—whether using violence on a disabled man for a trivial issue, shooting and killing a neighborhood teenage that drunkenly wanders into the wrong house or the far too familiar mass killings of school children—leave me wondering how we got to this point.  Why is there an increased use of force when problems are encountered? Why do we seem to think it okay to “stand your ground,” shoot first and talk later?

Our films, television, music and especially our games are saturated with violence.  Much of it is delivered without consequence—someone gets shot and the shooter just walks away.  Has this glut of graphic imagery and action contributed to making us a more violent culture?

Are we training a generation to be so overworked and overstressed that they don’t think their actions through, “using common sense” as my father use to say? Did that movie theater clerk fear that he or she would be fired for allowing a handicapped person to stay on for a second sitting?  Did he or she think through the consequences of calling security?

More disturbingly the security team—all of them off-duty sheriff deputies—showed a similar lack of common sense. Could they not assess the situation and realize this was a disabled man who was not acting logically?  Why did they need to move immediately to physical force?

I’m no pacifist and no stranger to conflict. I know that force is sometimes required. I come from a military family. My father served for 35 years in WW II, Korea and Vietnam. My husband’s father was a career military office, a Green Beret who served in Korea and Vietnam. My brother served in the first Gulf War and my niece served in Bosnia. I have looked down a barrel of a gun three times in my life–once when a gas station where I worked and got robbed and twice when rogue soldiers arrested me in Africa. There is nothing more life altering than looking down a barrel of a loaded AK-47.  It makes you aware of just how final the use of force can be.

But for my father, or my father in law, both combat veterans, force was always the position of last resort.  Today as a nation, we seem to forget that lesson. There is a fierce determination among many to be armed with weapons that would have astounded the Second Amendment authors with their power.  Yet the determination to educate our children—and adults—away from violence and force seems far less fierce in our culture.

Workmen moving goods at the Port of Rotterdam

Workmen moving goods at the Port of Rotterdam

You can find other ways of coping with stressful situations. Years ago, I photographed a story on the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands.  I spent time with the Port security force. I was surprised that the guards had no weapons. I asked one guard what he would do if he caught someone stealing cargo.  “We would try to arrest them,” he replied, “but is it really worth taking the life of a person over stolen goods? A life can never be replaced, but the property can.” I’m not sure how much of that I could live by but it’s a useful perspective to think about the role of force in our country.

Thousands found shelter in public schools after the Kobe Earthquake.

Thousands found shelter in public schools after the Kobe Earthquake.

A few years after Rotterdam I covered the 1995 Kobe Earthquake in Japan. Over 5500 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were homeless. Many found shelter in large school gymnasiums, sleeping side by side next to strangers. Yet the Japanese persevered, knowing they were all in it together and also that whatever was left of their homes would not be vandalized. I saw jewelry stores with rings still displayed in broken windows and liquor stores that placed all their bottles on the street, ringed with yellow police tape. As far as I know, nothing was stolen.  Theft was unthinkable.

For the survivors of the Kobe quake a bowl of soup may have been their only hot meal each day.

For the survivors of the Kobe quake a bowl of soup may have been their only hot meal each day.

But what I remember most from that earthquake was a situation similar in some ways to the theater in Frederick, but with a very different outcome.  A food truck arrived at one of the shelters. People lined up.  Everyone was hungry and on edge.  When the kettle of hot soup arrived, an older man began yelling and pushing to the front of the line. Not speaking Japanese I had no idea what he was saying, but I could see everyone around him becoming alarmed and agitated. Then a shelter worker came up to the man. He spoke softly to him, not raising his voice. The worker hugged the older man, keeping his arms around him and calming him down. Finally the shelter worker walked him to the front of the line and gave him soup. I could feel the tension in the shelter fade away. Although it seemed like the episode lasted a long time, it was probably over in two minutes.

That simple act of kindness affected everyone, including me. The shelter worker recognized that anger from one man could infect a whole crowd. He had the training and common sense to properly defuse it. With the young man in the movie theater, if the security officers had taken the time to find his caregiver and talk, they would have learned that he didn’t like to be touched and might have altered their response.

Common sense can be found closer to home. In Dvorak’s column, she mentions another security guard who responded to a mentally ill woman at a CVS. The woman had eaten food for which she had no money and was yelling loudly about it in the checkout line. Unlike those officers in the movie theater, this security officer diffused the potential violence by speaking calmly to the woman and leading her outside. She made the decision that the well-being and security of the other customers was more important than the few dollars worth of food the woman had eaten.

Isn’t the safety and well being of individuals more important than the price of food—or a movie ticket? That seems like common sense.

Written by kasmauski

April 2, 2013 at 7:57 pm

Is Anything as Permanent as the Pyramids?

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The pyramids have endured for 5000 years. How long will records of our civilization remain?

As events unfolded in Egypt I watched with great interest.  Seeing civil resistance transforming a government that has ruled with an iron fist for over 30 years is exciting.  But Egypt represents something else to me—the idea of permanence.

I loved being in Egypt.  Standing in front of the massive 5000 years old pyramids was exhilarating.  These stones stood sentinel as hundreds of generations were born, grew up and died.  Upriver on the Nile we visited the Valley of the Kings. The tombs there date back to 16th century B.C.  Though they were over 3700 years old, many of the writings and colors in the tombs remain vivid and readable today (if I could read hieroglyphics.)

The permanence of Egypt’s ancient objects started me thinking about how we preserve information today.  As a photographer, I’m concerned about permanence, particularly in our digital world where images seem so ephemeral.  Would the thousands of pictures I’ve created over my lifetime survive, even to the next generation?  Would my children, when they become adults, make any effort to preserve my work— especially those in digital form?  Would they try to migrate my life’s work to whatever medium will be used 30 or 40 years from now?  And when they’re gone, and their children are gone, will that be it?  Could my images survive a full century, let alone 37 centuries?

I have a girlfriend, Stacy, who is a brilliant writer.  Tragically, her husband had brain cancer and passed away early last year.  Just before he went in for his initial surgery he was still looking good and vital.  I took two frames of Stacy with him in the hospital room.  They were last pictures showing him as a healthy person, before he started his plunge into depths from which he could never return.

After he was gone Stacy wrote an article for her newspaper about this horrible period in her life and the biological meaning of death.  Her editor wanted an image of her and her husband together during his illness.  Stacy remembered that I had sent jpegs of the two images to her at work.  But in the chaos of her husband’s illness she had forgotten to save the images.  Her company periodically eliminates older emails, so when she looked for them, the pictures were lost, wiped out with the click of a button.  Luckily, as a professional photographer, I keep almost all my images.  Stacy emailed me the date of the surgery and I found the missing pictures.  She wanted them not only for her editor, but also as a reminder of her vital husband.  In his drugged state he was smiling, almost happy, not really focused on what was about to happen. I was glad—it made for a warm and poignant moment.

The photographs helped my friend preserve a memory of her husband.  But like memories, photographs—even digital ones—can fade.

Hard drives keep all of our records today. In 10 or 20 years, no one will know how to access devices like these. Can our records have anything like the permanence of the Egypt’s pyramids?

I feel like I’m constantly fighting against that fading, constantly pursuing permanence.  My computer links to an array of hard drives holding most of my professional and personal images.  Those drives have backups, and the backups have backups.  Some days, it seems like all I do is tend to this technology, in a never-ending ritual of back up trying to secure some sense of permanence.  I’m a worrier, so my nightmare vision is that some disaster like a major solar flare will wipe out my hard drives and all my life’s work.  So I make DVD back ups of all my assignments AND my family images, which frankly are more important to me than my assignments.

In our digital world where everything is impermanent, I spend much of my time trying to create and preserve a permanent record of my work.

During most of her life Vivian Major was a nannie for wealthy New York City families.  On her days off, she photographed life in the city, using a 2 ¼ camera.  She died an unknown, her negatives neatly filed in boxes.  After her death, she was “discovered.”  A young man researching a history book on Chicago bought 30,000 prints and negatives from an auction house that acquired the photographs from the storage locker that had sold off Majer’s goods. http://vivianmaier.blogspot.com/

This woman had boxes of negatives holding images that were extraordinarily fresh in their observational power.  Of course they could easily have been tossed out.  After all, who has the patience to go through 30,000 negatives?  Vivian Majer’s life work might have gone into the trash and she would have been just another photographer passing gently into that good night.

Since her “discovery” this woman who died alone without family or friends has become famous.  Through digital marketing her images have attracted a following.  She has thousands of admirers (including myself) who love the honesty and vision of her work.

So here’s the question:  If her work was on a hard drive rather than in boxes, would Vivian Majer have been discovered?  Would the buyer of that hard drive take the time and pay whatever costs were required to find out what it held?  Or would the buyer simply erase it, and store other information on the device?

I think of the Egyptians and the amazing staying power of the cultural monuments they built 5000 years ago.  In our time, we’ve moved from the permanence of stone or paper records to having nearly all information stored as fragile bits of magnetic data.  Of course the digital records from this era will need regular updating and transfer to new storage systems as hardware and software become obsolete.  With all these concerns, I doubt that many folks in the far future will accidently find a treasure of prize images at a country flea market, left behind by an unknown talent like photographer Vivian Major

Unless we’re rich enough to pay for a company continually migrating our image files to future storage systems, within a generation or two, most of us will have our work trapped on archaic devices that no one will know how to access.  There are many wonderful things about the digital world.  Yet as it becomes the only home for more and more of our culture, I have to wonder if the humans 5000 years from now will know more about the Egyptians, with their stories saved in stone, than about us.

Written by kasmauski

February 25, 2011 at 2:07 pm