Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Posts Tagged ‘Environment

Reflections From An Icy Realm

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

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

I still dream of Antarctica.

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

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

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

Katabatic winds whipped through the Wendell ice fields.

Katabatic winds whipped through the Wendell ice fields.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gentoo Penguins hike slowly to the top of Ducas Island.

Gentoo Penguins hike slowly to the top of Ducas Island.

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

Global Health Photo Exhibit

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The IMPACT exhibit on display at the Keck Center in the National Academies building.

The IMPACT exhibit on display at the Keck Center in the National Academies building.

IMPACT, my photography of global health issues spanning 15 years of work on five continents, is now exhibited at the at the Keck Center of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington D.C.

This exhibition is a journey through critical forces shaping 21st century life–rising populations, emergence of new diseases, relentless effects of global economics, increasing environmental concerns, and soaring technological advances. It seeks to connect the dots between events that may seem unrelated, but considered collectively can lead to a new understanding of the complex health issues now confronting us.

The exhibit is built around more than a decade of work and features 50 photographs chronicling my odyssey through issues of global change and public health.

It has its roots in my “Ecology of Disease” story published in the February 2002 issue of National Geographic magazine, and later in my book: IMPACT: From the Front Lines of Global Health.  The book is available on Amazon


The opening spread from my National Geographic story on emerging infectious diseases.

Cover of the IMPACT book

Cover of the IMPACT book

The exhibit runs until September 21, 2015. The Keck Center is located at 500 5th Street, Washington DC. 202.334.2000. Click here for more information. Note: You must contact in advance to view the exhibit. For permission email cpnas@nas.edu or call the Keck Center at 202.334.2000.


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A shorter version of this post appeared in Nikon World Magazine this summer

SOCM members Sharon Criswell and her husband have a small subsistance farm in western Tennessee where they try to grow their food and raise their animals as organically as possible.

As journalism markets have diminished, there has been a lot of attention on NGO and non-profit work.  Its been called a new kind of journalism.  Last year, I had the opportunity to work in the non-profit world.  I wouldn’t call it journalism—a dispassionate look at a situation.  Covering a non-profit turns out to be more like a partnership, with its own frustrations but also with its own rewards.

My journey began when a friend sent me a link to a program developed by Getty called Grants for Good.  “It’s right up your alley,” she wrote.   I checked it out.  Two photographers would be awarded grants to help a non-profit develop photography that would be used to improve their profile and help raise public awareness of their mission.

I’ve always liked nonprofit groups.  After college, filled with idealism, I headed to East Tennessee where I spent four years working for a variety of nonprofits, including an environmental group called Save Our Cumberland Mountains or SOCM.

These days, along with my photographic career, I’m still involved with non-profits.  One works with poverty relief in Vietnam and Burma.  Another works with education projects in the Congo.  But SOCM seemed like a natural choice for my Getty grant project, which required that I partner with a non-profit group.   SOCM’s main mission is to empower people and train them in techniques to change what they see as injustice.

I had practical reasons for my choice.  The other non-profits I’m involved with operate on the far side of the world.  If I worked in Asia or Africa, the grant would not provide enough time for me to develop a substantial project.  But Tennessee-based SOCM was nearby and not too expensive.  Working there, I’d have the time I needed to develop an extensive photographic project, as well as to collect audio and video for multimedia components.

SOCM’s work wasn’t as visual as that of the other groups, but I believed in what they were doing. I was also excited by the opportunity to help a group that dealt with average Americans living in non-exotic locations.  One of my pet complaints is about photographers going after predictable visual situations of pain, heartache and tragedy.  Here was an opportunity to deliver on what I have espoused during my professional life—to show how change is actually effected at the community level.

A spill of toxic coal ash at the Kingston Tennessee power plant in late 2008 left the area devastated. Two years after the event, cleanup efforts continue.

So, I approached SOCM’s leadership about the idea of working with me on the grant project.  They were more cautious than I’d expected—being seasoned, they knew that nothing is free. But in the end SOCM agreed to work with me, if the grant came through.  They were redesigning their website and the pictures I could provide from the grant would be a huge help in presenting their image to the public.

To my surprise, I was awarded one of the grants.  Then the real challenge began.  How would I make interesting photographs of a group whose main tools for empowering people consisted of meetings, emails, letters and phone calls?  Adding to this challenge, SOCM was also in the middle of an organizational shift, as the woman who had directed the organization for 30 years was stepping down.   They had not yet found a replacement.  At the time I had no idea how much this leadership transition would affect my coverage.

When I began working with SOCM after college, they were focused on coal, minerals rights and taxation issues in eastern Tennessee.  Over time, the group became statewide, taking on social issues like green jobs, immigration, health care and racial equality.

But when I arrived in Tennessee to start my project, most of the new social issue programs had not been implemented, and were still being researched.   Well, I always wondered how you can photograph research of this kind.  I was about to figure it out.

Along with showing how the organization was shifting directions, I faced two major challenges.

First, how could I photograph an organization whose strength lies in empowering people and developing community leaders?  SOCM members meet and talk.  Then, they meet and talk more.  They write emails and follow up with more talking and meetings.   Few attend rallies or shout epithets.   This would be tough, since a few meeting photos go a very long way.

Second was logistics.  I had a limited budget and limited time.  How could I efficiently and equally cover the membership of a group that stretched across Tennessee?

The solution for both challenges was planning…followed by more planning.  I had to coordinate people’s schedules, activities and events.  On top of that, I had to weave in coverage of new programs that I learned about as I traveled around the state.

I found that the key was to be a good listener.  People in Tennessee love to talk.  Home visits always involve long hours of wonderful storytelling and listening.

Lenora Clark adjusts one of the solar panels powering  her Tennessee home. She and her husband Bobby live off the grid, supplying their own electricity, water and most of their food.

So I began my work in the homes of members, talking to them about their goals for the organization.  I continually asked what would they want to see if they were going to put together a set of pictures about SOCM.

Their comments became my shoot list.  I found green jobs and training situations.  I interviewed people struggling to obtain health care.  I photographed land affected by mineral extraction or aerial spraying.   I developed stories on members who lived off the grid, or grew organic food.   Since SOCM was focused on renewable energy I found stories on people developing wind, solar and biofuels.

One hurdle was that I lacked “proper” media credentials for the project.  As a result access to many government and corporate facilities was difficult.   For decades, SOCM had an antagonistic relationship with the Tennessee Valley Authority or TVA, which handles almost all the energy production in the area of SOCM’s membership.  Many of the alternative energy projects as well the traditional coal, TVA managed oil and gas production.  They were not overly excited about cooperating with this project.   Without a clear media outlet for the photographs, corporations involved in “green” industries like solar panel manufacture were reluctant to open their doors to me.

Mikel Crews is combating a variety of physical disabilities that appeared after helicopters repeatedly sprayed his central Tennessee home with herbicides.

I worked around this as best I could, sometimes photographing operations from public property, other times finding alternative organizations to represent themes I felt needed to be included in the project.

I finally realized that the key to portraying SOCM was to show its members, both in activities and as people.   Meetings were central to the activities, so I worked very hard to deliver a few really great pictures of those situations.  I started making environmental portraits of people who were, in a variety of ways, struggling for a better life.  Those became as important to the finished project as the aerials of strip-mined mountains and overdeveloped farmland.

Perhaps the biggest adjustment for me was internal.   I had to come to an understanding with myself: I was doing a project in service of a non-profit organization.  The grant wasn’t just about my vision—I had to serve the needs of the group as well.   Doing so forged a new kind of partnership.

Tidal Marshes & Oil

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Tonging oysters in the Chesapeake Bay near Norfolk, Virginia

I’m angered and saddened as I watch the oil staining the Gulf coast, blackening the beaches and wetlands, suffocating the marine life and shore birds.  Though I’m not from the Gulf, I feel connected to life around the water.   I grew up in Virginia’s Tidewater region—an area very similar to the Louisiana coast.  As a kid, I spent summers crabbing at Lynnhaven Inlet, or fishing in the ocean from Harrison’s Pier.  The bounty of the sea seemed unlimited.

My love of coastal regions was strengthened by an early National Geographic assignment on the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina.  The Sea Islands are surrounded by coastal marshes, and isolated from the mainland by wide creeks.  Each summer, thick grey clouds of mosquitoes rise from the marshes to feed.  Working on that story, I used insect repellant for the first time in my life, though I was still covered with itchy red welts much of the time.

On these isolated islands, the unique Gullah culture survived.  Descendants of African slaves, the Gullah preserved some of the crafts, traditions and language of their ancestors.  Yet all that was quickly changing.  The islands were becoming popular resort destinations.  New roads and bridges allowed easy travel to the various islands, effectively blending them with the mainland. My assignment was to explore what remained of the Gullah culture.

As I worked there, I began living like a Sea Islander, my days shaped by the rhythm of the sea and the seasons.  The summer was for crabbing and shrimping.  Oystering was for the fall and winter.  To capture the pictures I needed, I learned to follow the tides.  On their rise and fall, the fishing and shrimping boats went out and came back.

At low tide, a boy hunts the muddy marsh flats for crabs and shrimp stranded in pools of water

When the tide was in, people on shore netted fish.  When the tide was out, sure-footed children ran onto the mud flats, picking up stranded shrimp and scurrying crabs and putting them in plastic buckets.  I noticed that they only took a few creatures—not more than their family would eat that day.  Camera in hand, I followed them, but quickly learned that on the tidal flats, you need to be small, skinny and quick.  Within minutes I started sinking deeper and deeper into the dense mud.   When I was up to my knees, I told myself that sometimes, it was best to wait for the scene to come to me.   I was too big and slow to keep up with the children, who clearly enjoyed watching the photographer trying to keep her gear from getting muddy while attempting to pry herself out of the mud.  Thank God my shoelaces were tied in double knots.

I ate often with the families that I photographed.  On Wadmalaw Island, I had shrimp and grits for breakfast, shrimp sandwiches for lunch and fried shrimp for dinner.  There was shrimp gumbo, seafood casserole, creamed shrimp and something called Frogmore stew—shrimp cooked with sausage, potatoes and corn on the cob.  Like that character in Forest Gump, I didn’t know shrimp could be served so many different ways, each one fresh, tender and sweet.

Shrimpers working off Hilton Head South Carolina unload their catch onto the deck of their boat

Shrimp caught off Hilton Head South Carolina

Daufuskie Island was special for me. Here, crab was king.   I was practically raised on crabs and have been known to eat a dozen crabs and still want more. My favorite was deviled crab, which resembled a crab cake without any breading, served on the cooked shell.  Every day, boatloads of tourists landed on Daufuskie looking for that delectable dish.

The summers were far from lazy on the islands.  People were always busy, gardening, fishing, trapping and canning for the winter.  The year I was there set a record for the longest continuous number days over 100 degrees with nearly 100 percent humidity. My skin was covered in a layer of moisture that never evaporated, even in my air-conditioned motel room.  Still, I knew I had to be a southerner because I felt comforted by that hot, damp weather.  I didn’t mind that my damp sticky shirt stuck to my damp sticky skin.  Extreme weather makes me aware that I’m living and surviving in my environment.

There is a rhythm in this region that I became part of.  Each humid day ended with a brilliant red sunset.  Magnified in the thick air, the sun seemed to take up the entire sky.  Hanging there the sun was a visual lullaby, telling me to slow down, to appreciate the moment before the evening arrived.  I loved every minute of my time in the Sea Islands.

A resident of Johns Island South Carolina casts his net for fish and shrimp in one of the islands rivers

As I traveled with watermen through the tidal marshes, I could see how rich these islands were with life.  They provided refuge for the small creatures living among the sea grasses, allowing them to reproduce and mature.   Mussels, oysters, marsh periwinkles, shrimp, fiddler crabs, snails, and worms were all nurtured here, many becoming food for the schools of fish swimming up the waterways, animals forging the marsh, shore birds hunting in the shallow waters and humans living on the shores.

In this low-lying region, sea and land were closely connected, boundaries washed away by the daily tides.  I’m drawn to areas like the Sea Islands, where life has adapted to a special kind of geography.  Trees have learned to live in brackish water.  In the branches of those same trees, plants live symbiotically, grabbing moisture and nutrients from the air.  Wetland areas like the Sea Islands or the Louisiana coast are the foundation of life.

Today, seeing how millions of gallons of oil leaking into the Gulf are damaging the rich productive marshlands of Louisiana, I have to wonder just what were we thinking.  I think of the Gullah oystermen and shrimpers I photographed, knowing how dependent they were on the sea.   I can only imagine the sadness and fear the watermen living along the Gulf Coast must feel as they see their livelihood vanish but also see their partners in the marsh, the seabirds, the dolphins, turtles and other creatures living there struggle to survive.  I cannot help but think that people who depend on the sea as much as the creatures with which they share it, must watch a pelican covered with oil, and see themselves in that bird.

Our lust for oil is so insatiable that we risked one of our richest food sources by drilling in the waters of that region—not with just one or two rigs but with hundreds.  The odds of an accident may be low, but it did happen and the damage is catastrophic.  The seas grasses that incubate the life found in and around the marshes cannot stop the oil from snuffing out all life in it’s path.  No amount of money will bring back the life taken away by that brown, thick, sticky goo.  It may take decades for the earth to recover from the damage caused by just one accident.

Sea Island men harvest oysters on Lemon Island

The marshes are like a breadbasket, protecting and nourishing an astonishing amount of life in their sheltering grasses.  This protein, easily reached, is an often under-appreciated bounty.  Since my blog also deals with food, I’m including a couple of simple recipes.


Steamed Shrimp

I usually like to eat my seafood as plain as possible. Nothing can beat shrimp steamed in a mix of half vinegar (or beer) and water with a healthy dose of Old Bay Seasonings. The key is not to overcook.  As soon the shell turns pink and it starts to curl, I take it off the stove.  Then peel and eat.

Crab Norfolk

There crabmeat dish is so simple it’s like eating it plain.  Chesapeake or east coast Blue crab is the best one to use for this dish.  Imported crabmeat does not have the sweetness or texture of crabs from the east coast of the United States.  I used to make this all the time when I lived in Norfolk, but with lump crabmeat now sitting at 30 dollars a pound, this is now a rare treat.

-1 stick of butter (you can use less, but the crab should be coated and not swimming in the butter)

-1 lb of lump crabmeat

-4 Tablespoons of vinegar (You can adjust for taste. I like the flavor of vinegar)

-Sprinkle of Paprika  (I usually skip this, as I don’t like red color on my crabmeat)

Take half the butter, and melt in a medium size pan over medium heat.  Add the crabmeat and top with the remaining butter.  Sprinkle vinegar over it.  Sauté quickly.  Try not to break up the lumps.  Cook until the vinegar evaporates.  Sprinkle the paprika and serve from the pan.

In the Wake of the Spills

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Ten years after the Exxon Valdez spill, a footprint glistens with oil on an island in Prince William Sound.

Watching the drama of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the subsequent gushing of thousands of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico’s fragile biodiversity, I’m saddened, but not surprised to see history repeat itself yet again.

Back in March 1989, a tanker called the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons into Alaska’s Prince William Sound.  Like the current Gulf spill, the Exxon Valdez disaster was well covered.  We were flooded with dramatic and heartbreaking images—animals coated in thick black oil struggling to live, heroic people desperately trying to save them, yellow suited teams of workers cleaning the oil from rocks lining the once-pristine shore.

Though I hadn’t been to Alaska at that time, I grew up around the water and the disaster was vivid for me.  When I saw those images, I thought, never again.  How could we as a nation, even with our great need for oil, allow a mistake like that to occur? Countless animals were killed or maimed and the livelihood of thousands of people was jeopardized.

In the mid 1990s, National Geographic assigned me to photograph a story on the effect of the oil industry on Alaska.  It was called “Oil on Ice.”  I accepted it with trepidation.  I had rarely worked above the Mason–Dixon line.  My assignments took me mainly to warm climates and I liked it that way.

I underestimated the north’s wild call.  Once I got that first blast of cold air into my lungs, I was hooked and Alaska became my favorite photography location.  That might seem odd since I rarely photograph animals or landscapes.  I photograph social and economic issues.   But I loved the state and once I completed the oil coverage I started thinking about projects I could propose that would bring me back to Alaska.

That chance came in 1998, when National Geographic sent me to Prince William Sound to photograph a story on how the region was recovering nearly a decade after the Exxon spill.  Researching the story reminded me how much damage had been done to the area.  Still, I didn’t expect to see oil, much less smell it.

I was traveling with a researcher whose job was to see where the oil still remained and take assessments of it.   We were jumping from one island to another via a floatplane.  When we landed by the first of the islands that had been in the pathway of that spill, the stench was overwhelming.  Although the shoreline looked clean, it stank just like a refinery.  The researcher showed me why.  The oil was still there, just below the surface and still in liquefied form.  As we walked along the shore, our booted feet broke through the thin covering of rock chips on the surface, and water rapidly filled in our footprints.  The sun hit the one closest to me, spinning a beautiful rainbow of color out of the oily film.

Rocks on an island in Prince William Sound still carry oily goo from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The researcher stopped to collect samples, digging down with a spoon; she came up with clumps of a gooey black mess.  It didn’t take her long to get enough samples to fill a jar.  By the time we headed back to the plane, her yellow work gloves were black.

After the Exxon Valdez spill, researchers began studying bird rookeries in the Barren Islands to determine the impact.

Showing oil on the shoreline didn’t have a lot of visual drama, but it was an important picture for the coverage.  There would be other more dramatic situations; a bird rookery impacted by the spill, salmon harvesting, and Prince William Sounds’ magnificent coastline scenery.  Seeing oil was a visual reminder that the spill had done long term damage, not a passing injury that would wash away in a month or two.

Before setting foot on those islands I had no idea that oil in its liquefied form could last that long.  The spill had happened ten years before!   But that is what we have to remember if we, as a nation, feel that offshore and coastal drilling are necessary.  Yes, the technology is advanced and relatively safe and yes, there are years when nothing much happens and the rigs pump the oil day in and day out without so much as a leak.  But when an accident does occur, the consequences can be catastrophic and the price we all pay—in money and damage to the environment—is very high.

Laying down oil spill containment booms during a drill. The drills were instituted after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, but the technique doesn’t work well in choppy water

What I find most amazing is how ill prepared the oil companies seem to be for these catastrophes.  The boom technology we’ve seen used in futile attempts to contain the Gulf of Mexico spill is little changed from that used for the Exxon Valdez spill over twenty years ago.   Companies drilling in deep water like the Gulf should not be allowed to do so unless they have a workable plan to immediately contain spills.

Eleven human lives have been lost, and countless numbers of birds and marine creatures will be lost, along with millions of gallons of oil.  As with Alaska, the effects of the spilled Gulf oil will linger long after the clean up efforts have ended.   After witnessing first hand the long-term damage of the Exxon Valdez spill ten years after the fact, I feel we should rethink our desire to drill for oil in these fragile ecosystems.

Getty Grant Project

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Web page of my work on the Getty Grant project

Last year I was a recipient of the first “Grant for Good,” an innovative project sponsored by Getty Images.  The grant was a wonderful gift that provided support for me to document the work of a non-profit organization called SOCM that I’ve long admired and been associated with.  Getty just posted a selection of my pictures from the grant.  You can see that work by clicking on “Karen’s Getty Grant Project” here, or in the “My Sites” section on the right side of this page.  My account of working on the project follows:

As photographers we often focus on actions resulting from the failure of process: wars, riots, hunger, poverty, and distressed communities. Even natural disasters are intensified because process fails. Deaths from the recent Haiti and Chinese earthquakes soared because of poor building construction resulting from corruption and poverty.

Yet actually photographing process—not its failure—is both difficult and visually challenging.

With the support of the Getty Grant for Good, this is what I attempted. I wanted to show how an organize effects social change working within the process of laws and politics.

To do this, I focused on a single long-lived grassroots organization that has been active in Tennessee for almost 40 years. Over several months, I visited and interviewed the membership. I wanted to show the often-quiet process of change at the grass roots level. I wanted to show the long-term commitment those in the organization make in the interest of securing social change.

There were challenges. When I started the project, I had no idea that the organization itself was in the midst of major transitions. As I began work, the organization still used its old name, Save Our Cumberland Mountains or SOCM.

SOCM began as a regional group based in east Tennessee, focused on environmental issues like clean water and strip mining. After graduating from college, I had worked with the organization before beginning my career as a photographer. But in recent years, the organization expanded to a statewide focus, with a broader mandate to address racial and economic issues.

This transition accelerated sharply over the course of my project. While I was documenting their efforts, the organization formally changed its name. The new name, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, retained the familiar SOCM acronym. The old director, a key figure in the organization, stepped down after 30 years of service. Two interim directors were appointed. A month after I finished my project, a new director finally came on board.

In the midst of this transition, both older SOCM members that I had known for years and newer members whom I came to know and admire were all helpful in assisting me with documenting both traditional and new activities.

The newly named organization was growing in many directions, like branches on a tree. Finding a central focus to tell this multi-faceted story seemed elusive. Once comprised of a largely white membership focused on a few environmental issues, the organization was now multi-racial and multi-ethnic. New chapters, spread across the state, focused on racial harmony, immigrant worker rights, and green jobs, along with the older environmental concerns.

In this unexpectedly complex tapestry, my challenge was to find a common thread. In the end, I found that thread in the members themselves. Despite a shift of focus, what SOCM did remained consistent, teaching people how to use the tools needed to make effective changes in both their lives and their communities. This was grassroots organizing at its best.

Since SOCM’s strength is in its membership, I made environmental portraits of members who had been active in the past as well those now taking leadership in the present. I documented those issues that are core to the traditional and contemporary focus of the organization.

Much of grassroots change is process, typically done through meetings. Though these tend to be nonvisual events, I felt coverage was important, since so much of SOCM’s learning process is shared in them. Here, members visit and bond, discussing concerns of importance to them and their communities.

My challenge throughout was to create images that can help SOCM capture public attention. Once engaged, visitors to SOCM’s website may become involved and participate in the organizations efforts.

SOCM is largely comprised of working and middle class individuals who deeply care about their communities, their families and the land on which they live. Many, whether they attend church or not, are spiritually inclined.

In my interviews I found most SOCM members to be articulate and well informed about the issues concerning them. Because of that, I placed extra emphasis on recording audio, and to some extent, video. I wanted the people of SOCM to tell their own stories in their own words. My hope is that those listening to them and seeing their images will be moved by what they hear and see, perhaps to the point of helping this unusual and long-lived organization continue to carry on its mission of social change.

Written by kasmauski

May 16, 2010 at 4:47 pm