Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Posts Tagged ‘Journalism

Making America Great Again

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

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

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

I didn’t know what to expect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This I wasn’t expecting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Lesson in Hope and Perseverance

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Paustino Jada, the catechist  of the Palotaka Church in South Sudan looks up at the damage ceiling.

Paustino Jada, the catechist of the Palotaka Church in South Sudan looks up at the damage ceiling.

Three years ago I traveled through southern Sudan. I arrived in July, five months before an election that would establish the new country of South Sudan.

Catholic Relief Services, who maintained a steady presence in the region during a half century of violent engagements, sent me to Sudan. The last Sudanese civil war lasted from 1983 to 2005. Nearly 2.5 million people were killed and over 4 million were displaced. With this violent history it took great faith to believe that peace could be achieved.

My photographic mission was both simple and complicated. I was to photograph peace.

On the surface this seemed straightforward. In my opinion, peace meant living without fear. Women could go to wells for water without fear of being brutalized, children could go to school with confidence and farmers could work their fields without being attacked or killed. In other words I was to photograph normal life.

But in a region shadowed by years of warfare, tribal distrust and hatred, life was not so easy.

As a journalist who has photographed post-conflict situations for many years, my view of situations like southern Sudan was a bit jaded. Societies emerging from conflicts often do so by taking baby steps, only to often stumble backward when larger steps are attempted. 

But towards the end of my journey through southern Sudan, I met a man whose overwhelming sense of hope helped me to see that so long as there is hope there is also opportunity for goodness to prevail.

Meeting Paulstino Jada was a chance encounter.

Children gathering water maneuver the nearly impassable roads found through out much of the region.

Children gathering water maneuver the nearly impassable roads found through out much of the region.

Accompanied by CRS members I had navigated through a swamp of muddy roads before reaching the village of Palotaka to document a health program. On the way I stopped at a church run decades ago by Italian priests. I was intrigued to encounter what had once been an elegant building—now badly deteriorated—in this remote corner of the country. I had to go iA visitor looked inside the Palotaka Church. Damage from years of conflict had scarred the building.

A visitor looks inside the Palotaka Church. Damage from years of conflict has scarred the building.

A visitor looks inside the Palotaka Church. Damage from years of conflict has scarred the building.

Soon the church’s manager—the catechist—a thin man in worn clothes, arrived with the key. This was Paulstino Jada. There are probably many people like Jada—unsung individuals who keep communities together and live their lives as best they can under unbearable circumstances. Known only to their families and neighbors, they will never win a peace prize, appear on Oprah Winfrey or be interviewed by the New York Times. Yet what they do defines our humanity.

As Jada showed me through the church, I could feel a powerful energy surrounding this man. I asked him about his life.

He had grown up in the village and attended the church when it was still grand. Then the conflict started. During Sudan’s civil war the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan terrorist group taking advantage of the conflict’s chaos captured him. He was tortured but remained prayerful. Jada said the LRA eventually asked him to be their spiritual leader but he refused. Finally escaping, Jada returned to his village, where he served the church and tried to keep the congregation together.

I’m not sure how much of Jada’s account was fact and how much was fiction, but at least he believed it and that belief sustained him as the church began deteriorating around him. Jada said that other enemies had tried to drop bombs on the church six different times, but all of them missed. When the bombings started Jada told the congregation to stay inside the church and God would protect them. Later, villagers showed me nearby depressions where the bombs supposedly landed.

Jada said that when the Italian priests left a priest from Magwi, a town four to five hours away, was assigned to the congregation. Yet with nearly impassable roads and travel limited by continual conflicts, his visits were few. Years would pass, Jada said, without seeing the priest from Magwi.

Mr. Jada felt he was responsible for the care and maintenance of the church as well as the spiritual well being of the congregation.

Mr. Jada felt he was responsible for the care and maintenance of the church as well as the spiritual well being of the congregation.

I asked Jada why he continued to manage the church without any financial support. His response was simple. As the church’s catechist he felt it was his responsibility to keep the congregation going, preserving hope that the Church leaders in Juba would eventually send a full time priest to them. Jada hoped that the forthcoming elections would accelerate their decision.

I was impressed with his perseverance in this difficult situation but I think it was his hope that moved me the most. Even as we spoke a part of the church’s ceiling fell to the floor about forty feet from us. If it had fallen on us or on the people around the church kneeling in prayer we could have been badly hurt. Perhaps there is some truth about the power of hope.

As a journalist my own profession is in decline. Many of my friends have lost their jobs. Freelance work is decreasing. Sometimes I lose hope and fall into a dark well of despair. But meeting someone like Mr. Jada brings perspective to such concerns. Jada thinks that keeping hope alive will make change happen. Is that naive? Perhaps, but then, what’s wrong with naiveté? That doesn’t make his story any less powerful, at least to me. 

My life is not comparable to Jada’s. He lives on the edge. Each day he struggles to feed his family, to collect clean water for them to drink, to keep them safe from the political unrest all around them.

I won’t starve if I don’t get another assignment. I may need to change my profession or rethink my strategy, but my situation is not life threatening. As a privileged individual who can move freely and live without constant fear of physical harm, I feel it is my duty to pass on the sense of hope and perseverance that Jada conveyed to me. Telling his story is a small way to repay his gift of inspiration.

As a journalist it’s easy to get wrapped up in chaos—the big pictures of conflict, poverty and despair. Yet within those big pictures, individual dramas of great power and meaning can be witnessed. One has only to be still for a moment to see people like Mr. Jada.

South Sudan did become a country. People optimistically celebrated the birth of this newly formed nation. Sadly conflict continues there. I often wonder if we humans are hard wired to solve our differences with violence. It takes great faith and courage to meet an adversary face to face without a weapon in hand. Most people are not that brave.

Three years after my time in south Sudan I wonder if Mr. Jada and his small congregation still wait for a priest to arrive. Has he kept the bright flame of hope alive during this long time of darkness? I hope that his light will never burn out.

Paustino Jada holds one of several crosses he wears help him focus on his task at hand.

Paustino Jada holds one of several crosses he wears to help him focus on his task at hand.

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

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IIn Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, a young woman gets a blessing from her aunt before she enters service as a Buddhist nun.

IIn Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, a young woman gets a blessing from her aunt before she enters service as a Buddhist nun.

Two years ago I decided to take a leave of absence from my life and my business.  I applied for a Knight Fellowship to study Visual Communications at Ohio University. The fellowship, an intense one-year immersion in the latest digital and video techniques, also awarded a masters degree on completion

 When my friends and colleagues heard that I had been selected for this amazing opportunity, some gave me warm congratulations but many offered quizzical looks and questions.

Why was I getting a masters degree in a profession that is dying—or, at the least, experiencing some serious shifts in direction?

Most photographers who have been in the profession for a while have experienced disruption. Skills that took decades to hone and perfect—storytelling, visualizing concepts, producing long form essays, crafting a perfect image—now seem barely appreciated by many editors. Media industry demand has shifted to spontaneously created photographs or video still frames—images that can quickly be moved across many mediums, and provided for less the day rate I was making over 20 years ago.

Of course, change is inevitable. You adapt or get run over.  So certainly part of the reason I took the fellowship was to learn new tools and techniques like motion, audio, editing software and web architecture that could further my career.

I took pride in learning these tools, but the major thing I gained from my technical skill classes wasn’t becoming comfortable with Premiere or Final Cut. It was the enlightening experience of sitting next to my fellow students who were literally my children’s age. These young adults were funny, kind and generous individuals, who didn’t mind having a middle age woman join their work teams. I still feel warm and fuzzy when I think of one particular 22-year-old student who looked at me standing by myself as other students who all knew each gathered into work teams. He came over and asked me to join him and his other two colleagues.  I could have been his mother! That moment renewed my positive outlook on humanity.

Beyond learning new skills and experiencing new perspectives, accepting the Knight fellowship served as a reconfirmation of the profession to me.  Visual journalism, if done well, still provides a major service to our communities by reporting on the events affecting us as clearly and as honestly as we can. In doing so, we show the commonality that bonds us together regardless of our nationalities, religion or ethnic makeup.

Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam a young girl peers teasingly out at the photographer from behind a pile of reeds

Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam a young girl peers teasingly out at the photographer from behind a pile of reeds

While working with on a story about Saigon for National Geographic, my wonderful editor David Arnold looked at a photo I shot of a young man looking directly and solemnly at the camera. “This kid looks like my neighbor,” David commented.  Then he added, “ If we could have seen images like this before we entered the Vietnam conflict, I doubt we would have. How can we kill people who look like our neighbors?”

I think what he meant was if we recognize the commonality of our lives, it’s harder to make enemies.

Women harvesting rice in Vietnam

Women harvesting rice in Vietnam

Another colleague of mine, Ron Short, an amazing musician, actor, storyteller and Vietnam veteran, told me a story about his tour of duty in Vietnam.  He once looked over a hill at an enemy village.  He saw a simple house with chickens, goats and kids running around. “That could be a farm from home,” he recalled, and then wondered, “Why are we fighting them?”

Yet conflicts show no sign of stopping, and in today’s world, where we’re assaulted with increasingly graphic images of war, death and dying, it’s harder than ever for photographers to survive doing stories that look deeply at our commonality and humanity.

Such stories aren’t entertaining enough, at least according to the marketing people that seem to run the media these days. Newsroom resources are shrinking and harried staffs rarely have the freedom to probe below the surface of what they encounter. Deeper stories take time. Uncovering the root causes of an issue is a slow moving process, requiring patient observation and listening, waiting for those revealing moments that can touch a heart and invite attention.

A young horse jockey comforts a buddy before they start a race in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

A young horse jockey comforts a buddy before they start a race in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

In the often-manic immediacy of today’s media environment, we should see that sort of storytelling as our duty.  In an increasingly divisive world, finding and telling stories that illuminated our human commonality may inspire people to begin looking at the world in kinder and more generous ways.

So I will recommitment myself to this turbulent, frustrating, but ultimately rewarding profession. I’ll do this as long as I can. It’s my little bit to help spread the understanding that we just aren’t that different from one other.


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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.

My inaugural post

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Kobe after his comments

Kobe after his comments

I was trying to figure out how to start my inaugural blog.  I always thought I would have so much to say, but when it came to writing anything on paper, my mind did a flat liner.  So my dog gave me the material, literally.  He pooped on the tax returns my husband had spread out on the basement floor.  Kobe normally doesn’t leave little treats for his human keepers to pick up, but it seemed such an appropriate tribute to the last 12 months of both my life and the beloved industry in which I exist and work—photojournalism.  My immediate response was not to get mad but pat him on the head—“you go, Kobe!!”

I wish I could put those little brown treats on top of the heads of those clueless individuals who are giving themselves and their fellow incompetents bonuses with my hard earned tax dollars.  Just before I discovered what Kobe had left us, I was reading in the Washington Post about those amazing folks at AIG who think its OK to use tax dollars to give bonuses to the same individuals whose incompetent actions led to the collapse of their company in the first place.  Oh that wonderful excuse that should be embossed across their chests like scarlet letters.  Do they really believe it themselves when they say, “bonuses are needed to keep talent”? Why does that sound like someone backpedaling?  If these folks are so talented then why are we in this mess?

What has been troubling me even more than the corporate robber barons is the slow demise of newspapers in this country.  Why are long established newspapers dropping like victims of an avian influenza epidemic?  This is the most frightening trend that I have seen in a long while. It’s ironic that all this is happening during a very critical time.  The economy is collapsing and companies like AIG are found dancing and drinking up a storm while the ship sinks slowly below the waves.

Journalists, the free press, those watch dogs of society, are the ones who brought this story forward. Should trained journalists disappear or turn into PR (now referred to as Communications) people, who will keep the political and corporate types honest?  Without a free press, there cannot be a free society.  It’s interesting that as journalists are becoming an endangered species, public relations or “communications” jobs are sprouting up like spring flowers.  Everyone wants to put a spin on his or her agenda. Will “news” be nothing but one spin after another; let me one up your spin with my spin?

About now, you may be asking, “is this is a photographers’ blog?”  What does AIG have to do with photography?

Well, photography, at least my kind of photography, is more than techniques and equipment.  There are many wonderful and useful technical blogs out there that I look at regularly.

But I went into photography because I am passionate about my world and want to share it.  This blog is a place where I’ll offer my observations.

What happens around me greatly affects who I am and how I see the world.  Being a woman, a wife, a mother, a school or church volunteer; witnessing the living and dying of those I love dearly, struggling to make a living, all of these affect how I see the world through my camera.

I remember one famous female photographer expressing her frustration at being called a woman photographer.  Is there a difference she protested, “I’m a photographer, not a woman photographer.”

I have to say yes, there is a difference.  Everything we experience, our joys, our sorrows, all the stuff that makes up the baggage we carry through life affects how we view the world.  I think of another famous photographer—this one male—who managed to have a slaughterhouse or bar in most of his coverages.  Makes me wonder what his life baggage was.

So is there baggage in this blog?  Sure.  It’s about living and dealing with what life brings.  Not just my life, but the lives and stories of the people I’ve been privileged to witness and share.

Written by kasmauski

March 25, 2009 at 11:55 pm