Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Posts Tagged ‘Death

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

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

One Year Later…

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It’s been a while.

My blog has been on hiatus for over a year. During that time I studied for a Masters in Newsroom Management and Photography. This was possible because I was fortunate enough to be awarded a Knight Fellowship at Ohio University’s premier Visual Communications school.

Graduating from Ohio University in 2012 after completing my Knight Fellowship

Graduating from Ohio University in 2012 after completing my Knight Fellowship

I decided not to blog during my Fellowship because I wanted to focus on learning. I loved interacting with my fellow grad students, some of whom were younger than my son. One instructor, Brandon, an amazingly smart and kind person was only two years older than my oldest child.

The Fellowship was an amazing experience. I recommend it for any mid- to even late career visual journalist who needs their enthusiasm jump-started. I will write more about my Fellowship later.

Restarting my blog makes me think about why I continue in my profession. Many of my friends and colleagues were impressed that I was going back to school but wondered why I wasn’t taking courses that might guarantee me a job; the health profession, or IT, or something other than photography. Was I training for a profession that might not exist in ten years—or sooner?

I decided to improve my visual communication skills because I love what the field allows me to do—connect with people and tell wonderful stories about them. Just before I left for college, I had an amazing experience that reconfirmed my commitment to visual communications. It happened on a shoot for a national nursing group at the neonatal ward of Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.

I mentioned to the PR person with me that the last time I had been at Children’s was to follow a 16 year old who had Cystic Fibrosis. He was one of five children, three of whom had CF. The PR person looked at me and said, “I know exactly who you are talking about, the. …family. Kathy’s the mom.”

Kathy in 1999 with her three sons who have cystic fibrosis--Jimmy, Matt and John.

Kathy in 1999 with her three sons who have cystic fibrosis–Jimmy, Matt and John.

I had many conversations with Kathy about her decision to continue to have children even when they knew the gene was present in the family line. Her heartfelt belief in the goodness of life and in God’s mystery touched me deeply and I thought often of our talks.

“I think they are here today,” the PR said and went off to check. CF patients were the only adults allowed to come back to Children’s. In the past, CF people didn’t live long enough to be long term adult patients. Their pediatric doctors continued to care for them as long as they lived. Yet with better treatments CF patients are now living longer.

The PR person returned. “They’d be happy to see you,” he said. Kathy’s middle boy Jimmy was in for a follow up. Jimmy was now in his mid-20’s and was living life as fully as he could. He’d been living in Australia and had just returned for the checkup where we now met. Kathy and I picked up as if we’d seen each other yesterday, not 15 years ago. Her warmth and honesty about her life with three CF children amazed me as much at the timing of our encounter.

Sadly, this was also the birthday of John, another of Kathy’s sons. John would have been happy that I visited them on his birthday, she said. I remembered Kathy telling me that her goal was to allow John to live the life of a normal teenager and make it to graduation. Unfortunately, John’s weakened body didn’t let that happen. John’s struggle with CF affected me greatly. He wanted to live so badly.

I thought of my own brother who self destructed and wondered why he wanted to die when people like John so desperately wanted to live. Thinking about John and sharing memories with Kathy brought tears to my eyes.

Jimmy said he got an A in his communications class when he wrote about being in the National Geographic story on genetics for which I had photographed him.

Jimmy, me and Kathy in 2011.

Jimmy, me and Kathy in 2011.

Walking out of that room, I thought about why I have stayed in photography for so long—perhaps longer than I should have considering how badly the editorial world is crashing and burning. But it’s these moments that fuel my love of the profession and why I decided to continue, despite all of the warning signs. What other profession would give me the gift to reconnect with a subject after 15 years? What other profession would have brought me into contact with such wonderful, brave and inspirational people? That is why I stay in the profession and why I gladly accepted the Knight Fellowship to get my masters in photography and visual communications.

Remembering Kobe—Japan’s Last Earthquake

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A survivor of the 1995 earthquake in Kobe Japan anxiously waits as rescue worker search for her relatives.

Watching the amateur and professional videos of that horrendous tsunami hitting Japan, I felt that same cold dread  as when I saw the twin towers fall on 9/11.

It was impossible not to feel complete horror as the 24-foot high, 125-mile long tsunami slammed into the flat coastline of northeastern Japan. The towns and orderly farms were ground under by a giant liquid bulldozer, destroying everything in it’s pathway.

In front of our eyes lives were lost, families destroyed, fortunes forever changed.  Survivors will never be able to regain normalcy. How could they?  For those living through this calamity, the guilt of surviving when so many died will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Japan’s prime minister called it the worst disaster to hit the country since WWII.

This unfortunate series of events were recorded in unprecedented ways. Tsunamis have rarely been captured on film or video. Fast and deadly, those in the path of tsunamis can do little more than flee if they hope to survive. But as more and more video surfaced in the hours and days after the disaster, it seemed  everyone not swept away in the wall of water and mud had been recording the devastation on video cameras and cell phones.

The torrent of images reminded me of when I covered the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan. 6,400 people died in that one city. Thousands were left homeless in the freezing January weather.

I arrived in Kobe eight days after the quake occurred. I wasn’t prepared for the personal way in which the devastation affected me. My mother is Japanese. My father, an American sailor,  met her in Japan in the 1950s. They married and I was born in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo.

After moving to the United States, my mother took on the role of an American housewife and rarely discussed her culture.  As a child I didn’t connect  with my Japanese roots. But as an adult, I started visiting Japan to photograph stories for National Geographic magazine. I soon realized  even though I was raised in the United States, my first two years of life in Japan  had woven enough strands of the Japanese character into my soul, that it affected how I reacted to conflict and friendships.   It explains a character I have that I’ve never  understood,  a strong persistence even in face of pending failure.

Ironically, my  first trip to Japan was to  covered their nuclear energy program for piece on “Radiation”.  Japan was the  only country to have suffered attacks by atomic weapons.   Yet they also embrace nuclear power. It’s a dangerous embrace—even in the late 1980s when I covered the story, Japanese were concerned about the safety of nuclear facilities in their earthquake prone country. Interestly, we were not given access to any of their plants at that time.

In the wake of the tsunami, we see how those fears were well placed—the Daiichi nuclear reactor in Fukushima Prefecture may have suffered a partial meltdown, and is likely ruined by emergency cooling efforts. The possibility of long-term contamination still lingers over the region’s devastated survivors.

Japan’s embrace of nuclear power has always baffled me. They are an energy-starved country.   But they are also dead center on an earthquake zone .  Any more quakes and tsunamis following this one could turn a mere disaster into Armageddon.

We, in the United States,  are no different. We have nuclear facilities on top of fault lines in California. One of the worst earthquakes to hit the US was in the early 1880’s, the New Madrid Earthquake,  reversing the flow of the Mississippi River and creating Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee.  It was felt as far away as Washington D.C.  and Canada.  Today, nuclear reactors are all through that region.

I thought about the Japanese nuclear reactors while  covering the  earthquake in Kobe.  The story I worked on looked at  the recovery efforts, but  because it would be published months after the quake, it also examined  how Japanese perseverance and it’s mono-culture moved it’s recovery along. Everyone was in it together.     I remember going to a “refugee camp” where thousand of homeless huddled in the gymnasium of a large high school. Tatami mats were lined wall to wall and strangers slept literally next to each other.

Japanese aid workers serve hot meals to Kobe residents after the 1995 earthquake.

Each day they served one hot meal—a bowl of soup. I photographed the serving of the meal.  People in line insisted I got the first bowl.  I was a guest. I was deeply moved that even in the midst of such tragedy their sense of hospitality was so ingrained into their spirit that they would offer  it to a stranger   under such stressful circumstances.    I was also amazed that I could walk by a devastated liquor store with yellow police tape around it and nothing would be taken. A jewelry story still had diamond rings untouched in its window. There was none  of the chaos and looting often seen when disaster hits other locations, including those in our own country.

Because it was the era of film,  I could still gather original images that no one else had seen weeks after the quake had hit.   There were no digital cell phones that could take and transmit pictures or videos instantly.  When I see the incredible images taken by “citizen journalists” coming out of Japan recently, it’s clear, the era in which I grew up in the professionally  has truly passed.

Maybe it is more of a transition than a passing.  My profession is in flux.  The way in which news is gathered has changed dramatically. New digital tools make it easy to capture events as they unfold before us. This most recent event,  occuring in the one of the most technological advanced countries in the world, proves it. We’ve seen intimate images of this disaster which  could never have been captured in previous times.  Most were taken by amateurs with cell phones and  transmitted onto the web for  the world to see.

There were  hints of that technology in 2004 with the  the Madrid train bombing, when cell phone images appeared on the front pages of major news publications. We saw it in Egypt this winter with what people called “the battle Google won.”  Cell phones in Japan captured video of the massive wall of water taking down buildings and sweeping people into oblivion. Those images will forever be part of our collective memory.

In the middle of al this tragedy, these technological devises also captured the strong human spirit   that I also encountered in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake. I have faith that the kindness, generosity and perseverance of the Japanese people will carry them through this difficult time. They may have to adjust to a new reality that includes living a more austere life and re-examining the placement of nuclear faciltiies.   If so, we, in this country, might do well to study that pathway and perhaps walk it ourselves.

Written by kasmauski

March 16, 2011 at 12:08 am

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

Making Choices

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A shorter version of this post appeared in Nikon World

Nurse Valerie Martin’s patient was in her final moments. She died later that night.

Years ago when I worked for The Virginian-Pilot, I was given a news assignment. An elderly man had accidentally crashed his car through the window of a beauty shop. Several people were injured; the car pinned one woman against a wall. As I raised my camera, the pinned woman, her hair in curlers, wailed, “Please don’t take my photo, please don’t.” For a second I saw myself in her position, my picture splashed across the front page. I couldn’t do that to her; I lowered the camera. Next to me a TV cameraman began filming, and when I told him she didn’t want to be photographed, he said, “I’m just doing my job.” Later I took a picture of her being carried out of the shop. In it she wasn’t recognizable.

When I warned my boss about the image that would be on TV and told him that I purposely did not take that picture, I braced myself for a long, loud lecture about my failure as a photojournalist. But he said, “You are a human being. If taking that picture took away your humanity, it wasn’t worth it.” Ever since, those words have guided me through sensitive situations.

For my new book on Nursing I photographed a hospice nurse as she cared for an elderly woman in her final days. I was concerned about how the family of this dying woman might respond to my request to photograph during this stressful time.   Yet because of the nurse’s ability to dissipate fear and bring understanding of the dying woman’s situation I was accepted by the family and became part of the hospice process.

Valerie Martin reports the death of a patient.

The family trusted what I was doing—a trust that I was determined not to violate. After my second visit with this family, the elderly woman died.  Photographing the nurse completing the hospice care was an extraordinarily intense situation.  I knew I was photographing the aftermath of death as the nurse filled out forms, disposed of medicines and then—tenderly–prepared the woman for viewing, brushing her hair and cleaning her.  But I was “in the moment” and have almost no memories of actually taking the pictures.

The book was beautifully laid out.  Several stories, including the one of the hospice nurse, were played across several spreads.  Yet when I looked at the layout of the hospice nurse it was as if I was seeing the picture of the dead woman I had photographed for the first time.  The effect of it, displayed across two pages, stunned me. Though very strong, I felt the picture was not appropriate for the book.  The woman’s mouth was open.  Because her eyelids wouldn’t close, the nurse had put coins on her eyes.  In the picture, the dead woman seemed alone, the nurse sitting behind her, working in a seemingly impersonal manner on her computer.

The more I thought about it, the more this picture of a dead woman lying alone bothered me.  She could have been my neighbor. I asked to have the imaged removed. The managing editor and the designer, both men, balked at my request.  It was a great, powerful image, they said.  Why remove it?

Caregiver Sonia Mundle Smith contemplates the death of a woman she spent years caring for, while waiting for the hospice nurse to prepare the body and collect information needed to report the death.

Over time, and many hard lessons, I have learned to trust my instincts. I called the hospice nurse and described the picture to her. She thought it might be misconstrued if it were published.  I placed a similar call to the text editor on the book—a woman.  She responded much as the nurse did–that the picture was great but also seemed too invasive to the family.   I thought about it carefully.

Finally I decided the image had to go.  It was replaced by a solid but less powerful picture, showing the elderly woman while she was still alive.   I thought of my former boss’s words, “If it takes away your humanity…” I put it more simply; what if this was my mother?  Would I be offended?

This 16 year old is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.

Last spring I was photographing in a pediatric cancer ward. At the end of the day, I was in the room of a 16-year-old boy— the same age of my son. The boy was so polite and charming, and as he lay there taking his chemo treatment, I saw my own son. I took photos, but I didn’t stay long in his room. It upset me so badly.

I once asked a cancer nurse how she was able to cope with children so ill. She said that she avoided attending to children who were her own kid’s ages. I think that’s part of my own situation: I can maintain my professionalism until it involves a child who is the age of one of my kids or someone the age of my parents; then I have to walk away or at least think hard about what I want say. The other part is my awareness of the dignity of my subjects, and perhaps it’s those two elements that have helped me to gain access to people’s lives. I’ve heard from several people that they’re relieved when they meet me because, they say, I’m just like them, just like a regular person.

When I see news covered, I try to look beyond the photographs to see the humanity of the photojournalist who’s telling the story. I know people often have to make hard decisions rather quickly and often times with limited information, however, I tell students, “just because  you can, doesn’t mean you should”.  A camera in hand still means we need to think ethically and morally about what images we choose to take-and show.

Comfort Food

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When my father had the stroke that eventually killed him, I asked my mother if she could make me mochi.

Mochi are a uniquely Japanese food—small white cakes made of glutinous pounded rice, molded in gentle little mounds with the look and feel of finely kneaded bread dough.  Historically, making mochi was a community effort.  People worked together, pounding rice, shaping it into a pliable mass, and then cooking the cakes.  It truly took a village to make mochi.  They were considered a spiritual food, often eaten at the first of the year to insure that life and relationships remained whole for another year.  Today, mochi making machines, not villages, churn out the little cakes, which are often eaten as a snack without spiritual fanfare.

Mom making mochi. Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, f.2.8

Handcrafting a mochi. Nikon D3s, 24-70 mm f.2.8

Still, mochi are my comfort food, and this was a time in my life that I needed comfort.  My father, who was to me both parent and friend, was in intensive care.  In my heart, I knew he wouldn’t recover from the devastation done by the stroke.

So I really needed my mochi.  When I’m stressed, lonely or sad, I crave a mochi in the same way that others might crave chocolate.  I chew each one slowly, savoring the density and warmth as it fills whatever void I have at the time.

However, for the most part, I eat mochi because I want to.  I love their texture, the flavor released by mashing it into a mixture of slightly sweetened soy sauce.

Eating mochi also ties me to my mother’s roots, and connects me with my heritage.  She was from a small seaside village in Japan called Sajima.  The youngest of six sisters, her own father died before she was born.  She and her sisters all lived in her mother’s village.  Since her uncles were fisherman, they never went hungry during the war.  At nineteen, she began working as a typist at the U.S. Naval Base in Yokosuka, a city south of Tokyo.  There, she met my father who was in the Navy.  With her family’s blessings, they married.

I was born in Japan. With my mother, I moved to America when my father’s assignment in Yokosuka ended.  Finding herself transplanted into postwar America of the 1950s, my mother tried very hard to assimilate and blend into this strange new world.   She didn’t teach my siblings or me to speak Japanese, and I don’t remember her talking too much about life in Japan.   But food remained a conduit to her home culture that she kept open.

Life in the United States was not what my mother had envisioned.  My father soon had to return to sea.  He thought if might be easier if we all lived with his mother in Spring Lake, Michigan while he was gone.  He could not have imagined how wrong he was.   We lived on the edge of poverty.   My grandmother’s house was run down, and constantly needed repairs.  The first winter we stayed there, icicles hung from the ceiling of our room.

To make matters worse, my mother and grandmother turned out to be as compatible as oil and water.  My grandmother had emigrated from Poland.  Widowed at a young age, she had raised her seven children during the Great Depression.  From those experiences she had learned to make heavy food from cheap ingredients.

I can only guess that my mother must have written letter after letter to her sisters, complaining about her wretched life in America.  Soon after we got to Michigan, boxes started to arrive from Japan.

The best of these care packages usually came around Christmas.  They were always large, covered in brown paper and wrapped tightly with jute string.  The tops were decorated with twenty or thirty exotic looking stamps, and a weathered postmark with a month-old date.  Back then, packages from Japan came by sea.   The cost of sending anything by air was so outrageous that it wasn’t even considered.

My mother would eagerly cut the string, tearing off the brown paper and slicing open the box.  With those actions, we were transported through a portal to another universe.  Out tumbled candies, tangy soy-flavored Japanese crackers, and mixes for soups, sauces, and dark sheets of paper-thin seaweed called nori.  There would be towels with strange lettering that looked like drawings that I later learned were Kanji characters. Every box had a large pile of soft cotton hankies as though they were disposables that needed yearly restocking.  And oddly, her sisters would send pajamas for my mother.   Sometimes a toy or two would be included, but the box was mostly filled with food.  At the bottom there were always blocks of dried rice cakes—mochi.  After their month long journey, the cakes sometimes had a bit of mold on them.  Always practical, my mother just scraped it off and cooked them anyway.

My mother grilled the mochi on a dry cast iron skillet.  Fresh, the dough is silky soft, a fleeting texture that quickly dries to the consistency of hardened play dough.  Heating a cake on a hot grill or warming it in a microwave causes a remarkable transformation, as the firm dough softens to a texture resembling warm silly putty.

When ready, the cakes puffed up like little balloons.  She served them with a toping of soy sauce and sugar.  My siblings and I tore them apart with our small kid teeth, savoring the gummy texture and licking the salty soy sauce off our lips.

Mashing the mochi. Nikon 700, 50mm f.1.4

To the uninitiated, eating mochi may seem like trying to devour a large wad of gum after it’s been chewed a few times, but to me, a plate of mochi is pure comfort—a culinary delight.

After watching varied reactions from many friends that I’ve introduced to mochi, I’ve become convinced that, to be a true mochi eater, you must have some Asian blood—preferably Japanese—to actually relish the stretchy, chewy experience.

Of course, there are always exceptions.  Occasionally I encounter folks whose gene pool must have mutated somewhere along the line to tolerate—even appreciate–this unusual Asian cuisine.

The aesthetics of cooked mochi can evoke odd reactions from those who haven’t been raised with it.  My husband, who doesn’t have a drop of Asian blood in him, tried a bite once.  Only once.  Now, he looks almost frightened whenever I ask if he wants a taste of my mochi.  I ask out of politeness, knowing (actually hoping) that he will refuse.  On the other hand, our children eagerly devour mochi mashed in soy sauce.  They’d rather have that than a thick fluffy donut.  But they’re a quarter Japanese.

Watching this next generation continue my own love of mochi, I’m reminded of those times long ago in Michigan, when my own mother would serve us mochi.  Doing so transported her for a brief moment back to Japan with her sisters, where they’d laugh, share secrets and dream of what their future would bring them.

Attempting to eat a mochi. Nikon 700, 50mm, f.1.4

Written by kasmauski

April 24, 2010 at 11:24 pm