Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Posts Tagged ‘Knight Fellowship

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.

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.

Back from Knight Fellowship and New Exhibit

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You may have noticed I haven’t posted anything in some time.  That’s because over the last year I’ve been at Ohio University studying media management at the School of Visual Communication.  I received a Knight Fellowship to support this wonderful experience.  I’ll write more about the Fellowship later–I’m in the midst of finishing my Masters Project this month.  But in the meantime, the City of Falls Church is mounting an exhibit of my global health photographs this week at the ArtSpace, 410 South Maple Avenue, Falls Church.  Please come by–the exhibit opens with a reception at 7PM on October 11 and is up through October 14.