Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Posts Tagged ‘life

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.

Rip It Up and Start Over: Musing on a Summer Day.

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My son didn't realize he'd be asked to weed when he got home from the Peace Corps.

My son didn’t realize he’d be asked to weed when he got home from the Peace Corps.

As the summer simmers towards August I’ve gotten sick of seeing all the weeds in the landscaping around my house. I was gone for most of May and June’s prime growing season. This spring there was plenty of rain and everything, I mean everything was flourishing. My garden was a sea of green—green weeds that is. The plants were overwhelmed. I was feeling the same about my life.

With only a little bribery, I got my adult children and my husband to help out. I was feeling the pressures of living in suburbia. Our block was about to have a street party. I didn’t want our home to be the only one to look abandon by its human occupants.

I was on a roll. I dumped buckets of weeds into lawn bags. Sweat poured down my face and soaked my T-shirt. I didn’t even mind the aroma of bug spray. The garden started looking good, reminding me of how it looked years earlier when I planted it.

Dog Leo likes to stand guard at the end of the garden.

Dog Leo likes to stand guard at the end of the garden.

I started the garden at a low point in my career. About that time, National Geographic’s leadership changed and my photography career took a drastic downturn. Suddenly all the ideas and work that I’d done for them for over two decades were unwelcome. I had to reinvent myself. The best way to manifest that reinvention was to create a garden. I moved plants, altered textures and brought in flowering bushes.

Working on my garden made me feel like my decisions had impact.

For a while everything looked lovely. I fertilized the beds, weeded religiously and was rewarded with a beautiful array of colors, textures and shapes. My career blossomed as well. I started getting assignments and traveling again. The cost of that was ignoring the garden. The weeds soon took over. I would bribe my children once more to weed. The ups and down of my freelancing stressed my garden. My assignments were unpredictable. Often I’d have a lull and be home for months. My garden would benefit. Then I’d get another assignment and be gone again for weeks. I could practically hear the weeds rallying their forces, ready to attack as soon as my plane left the ground.

This strange intertwining of my garden and my career continued. At one point, my parents, thrifty as always, gave me a small Crepe Myrtle. Mature Crepes are lovely flowering trees found along many southern streets. The one they gave me was a thin sickly plant they got at Wal-Mart for $1.99, along with two small Japanese maples. I planted these three sad trees around a beautiful yellow maple. They struggled to survive.

I once read that monks do physical labor to force the mind into numbing nothingness. Labor supposedly calms the mind, moving it into a meditative state. Perhaps distraction is a better word. The more stressed I am the harder I work on my garden, replanting and reshaping the beds the same way I need to reshape my life.

A bright red crepe myrtle stand tall at the head of my driveway.  Flowers and azalea bushes line the other side.

A bright red crepe myrtle stand tall at the head of my driveway. Flowers and azalea bushes line the other side.

Now, years after that drastic career change, I look at my garden. The yellow maple was damaged in a storm. I took it down so my three young trees could thrive in the sun. Those once scrawny plantings have become lovely full size trees. The Crepe Myrtle with its gorgeous red flowers dominates the entrance to our driveway. The two tiny Japanese maples have grown to maturity and now shelter small families of birds.

At one point I thought I‘d surround that wonderful Crepe Myrtle with a low-lying carpet of ornamental grass. I had vision of a soft green lawn, a brilliant red flowering tree at the center. But weeding became a chore and soon I couldn’t tell what was weed and what was grass. So two weeks ago I ripped out every last blade of that grass and said farewell to my fantasy of a lovely green grass carpet. I needed to clear that space. Maybe at the same time I needed to clear my head.

Took out every bunch of ornamental grass.

Took out every bunch of ornamental grass.

Weeding gave me a sense of control. Perhaps that was misplaced, but so be it.

This is an uncertain time in media and disruptive for many. Newspapers and magazines have declined in circulation. Some have completely folded up. The proliferation of cell phone and digital cameras has automated the craft of photography. A recent ad for one of the most popular smart phones declared that everyone with a phone camera was a photojournalist. Has my profession really been reduced to something that anyone with a cell phone can do? I hope not.

But the truth is that what doesn’t work needs to be pulled out. Something that thrives in a newly created environment will replace it.

Gardens only need a bit of tender loving care. A little sun, planning, watering and everything thrives. So like my garden, maybe its time to start my career over once more.

Written by kasmauski

July 29, 2015 at 7:46 pm

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

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At the height of the dry season in Mali, lakes evaporate.  A village nurse  lifts slabs of mud to look for moisture as the reminants of a sand storm whip across the lake bed.

At the height of the dry season in Mali, lakes evaporate. A village nurse lifts slabs of mud to look for moisture as the reminants of a sand storm whip across the lake bed.

When I first heard about Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si”—the long form translation seen in many media sources—“Praise Be to You: On the Care of Our Common Home” my first reaction was “Huh?” That was followed by confusion, then excitement. “You go Pope Francis!” I thought.

The document has been interpreted in several ways. Many see it as a treatise on global warming concerns. We need to shape up or Mother Earth will ship us out. If predictions about global warming prove accurate, then coastlines will alter, cities will flood, and storms will increase in strength and number. Food supplies may be threatened, straining the planet’s ability to handle the ever-growing human population.

(So, okay I’ll say it. Why isn’t the Pope also talking about limiting population? I suppose he is taking things one at a time, given the conservative elements of the Church.)

I am thankful for Pope Francis’ encyclical. Will it be effective? Who knows? A Washington Post columnist pointed out that the Pope is talking not only about global warming but also about the consumption culture that treats our Earth like an open credit card where overspending has no consequences.

People living and working on a garbage dump outside of Danang. Hundreds of people depend on finding stuff thrown away by others to recycle or sell.

People living and working on a garbage dump outside of Danang. Hundreds of people depend on finding stuff thrown away by others to recycle or sell.

Too many of our political leaders push growth and consumption as the savior of our democracy. The consequences are rarely discussed with the same enthusiasm. I’m as guilty as the next person, writing this on a computer with parts made from toxic materials mined by underpaid developing world workers. When my computer is replaced I recycle it, but I really don’t know if the parts are just dumped in another developing world country. Fossilized plants and animals power all my car, home and professional gear.

So, having now confessed my sins, I’m going to ignore them and return to global warming. This is something we can’t ignore. During my National Geographic career I saw examples of weather patterns changing in major ways

Mali farmer walks across  the devastated soil that use to be his garden during  the height of a drought.

Mali farmer walks across the devastated soil that use to be his garden during the height of a drought.

Viruses, my first Geographic health story, took me to areas where epidemics were raging. I wondered why each place I visited was also stressed environmentally or socially. I began to realize how environment contributed to disease—that epidemics didn’t just appear out of nowhere.

I don’t pretend to be a scientist, but I’ve seen a lot of changes over the past two decades, especially with weather. In the 1990’s I worked in remote areas of Africa and was often stranded by heavy rains and flooding during the so-called dry season. Yet in other locations, rains didn’t come for years. Crops failed, soil eroded and people went hungry.

A young boy walks atop a brick wall surrounding a health clinic in Niger.  Due to continually shifting sands and other environmental factors, the clinic has never been able to officially open.

A young boy walks atop a brick wall surrounding a health clinic in Niger. Due to continually shifting sands and other environmental factors, the clinic has never been able to officially open.

In Niger I photographed a partially built health clinic in a once fertile area. It sat unfinished because weather changes brought severe drought to the region. Sand swept through millet fields and water sources dried up, leaving a wasteland of cracked mud.

Once, in eastern Kenya, I came upon a town. From the distance it looked like pale flowers covered the fences lining the road, but drawing closer, I was stunned to see they were thousands upon thousands of plastic bags, blowing about, trapped in fences or caught in tree branches. My first thought was why didn’t anyone pick them up? My second thought was how did they get here and why here? Why were they drifting on this particular road? Since they’re made from petroleum, it was like watching precious oil flying in the wind.

I began looking at ways environments were stressed, from overusing agricultural chemicals and polluting water to political corruption and changing weather. As I gathered threads from my observations I began thinking about a project I called “Ecology of Disease.” It looked at the connections between the rise of disease with environment and poverty. Eventually that became a National Geographic story and later formed the foundation of my first book “IMPACT: From the Front Lines of Global Health.”

I didn’t consider the role of religion in that project, but perhaps faith can persuade in ways that books and videos and websites can’t. We don’t have a lot of time left and I can’t visualize a world where safe water is no longer easy to find, where the ice caps have melted and useable land is as rare as gold. The Pope has called on us to stop the destruction of ecosystems or else face terrible consequences. Those may not affect us older folks, but they will affect our children and all the children that follow. What sort of legacy are we leaving them?

Mali boy in shallow lake in the Tessit area takes water to drink at twilight. This lake is shrinking due to drought.

Mali boy in shallow lake in the Tessit area takes water to drink at twilight. This lake is shrinking due to drought.

Pope Frances writes (I am quoting from other media articles who have summarized the encyclical): “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, and political. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

He adds: Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures…the proper relationship between humanity and earth has been broken by the fall, both outwardly and within us. This rupture constitutes what we call sin…the church must introduce in its teaching the sin against the environment. The ecological sin.”

I can’t say it any clearer.

Written by kasmauski

June 29, 2015 at 3:44 am

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.

Dad

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I took this picture of my father in Michigan about 1975 with an old Nikon FTN.

I got the phone call that I’ve dreaded for years.

My father had a stroke.

Though he was 84, and I knew he wasn’t going to live forever I could never visualize a time when he would not be here.  He was vital, active and living a full life with my mother until the moment of the stroke.  After struggling to live for several weeks, he finally died peacefully at home, comfortable and without pain.

For his family, those weeks were harrowing, with tensions that can occur in even the best of families.  But that’s not what this blog is about.  Here I want to remember my father.

During World War II he joined the Navy.  That was his ticket off the family farm in Michigan.  Just 17 years old, he was sent to the Pacific and built airstrips in the Philippines.  After the war he returned to Michigan, finishing high school and attending college.  But he was restless and started thinking about the Navy again.  His girlfriend didn’t like that, and gave him an ultimatum—“the Navy or me.”  Luckily for my siblings and I, he decided to set sail.  I sometimes wonder what happened to that woman.

The Navy opened the world to him.  His enlistment stretched to 30 years.  He traveled through the Far East, served in the Korean and Vietnam wars.  In the 1950s, he was stationed in Yokosuka, Japan.   There he met Emiko Fukumoto, a cute, smartly dressed 19 year old who worked on the base.  They got married and nine months later I arrived.  My three siblings soon followed.

Our life was that of a military family.  Dad was frequently at sea.  Without email, video conferencing, or Facebook, those long months when he was gone seemed to last forever.  We loved opening the packages he sent, filled with gifts from places we barely knew existed. He had purchased a Nikon S rangefinder (yes Nikon did make a rangefinder) while stationed at Yokosuka Naval Base.  He photographed everything in his world during that time including his young family.

Dad used an old Nikon S rangefinder to take this winning picture of Nikko Lake in Japan. He took it on his honeymoon with my mother in 1952.

On my parent’s honeymoon he photographed Lake Nikko, north of Tokyo.  The image is a stark one, framed by the bare tree limbs of winter.  The scene must have reminded him of rural Michigan, where he spent much of his childhood.  He was very proud that the image took first place in the “Far East Photo Contest.”  He became an avid amateur photographer and shot rolls of vintage Kodachrome 25 film.  When he was home, we’d spend evenings watching slides or super 8 film clips of his travels. I’m sure my own love of travel began during those evenings.

Dad loved tasting different foods.

As an enlisted man with a growing family, he had to moonlight to make ends meet.   But on payday, he would often bring home a box overflowing with enough goodies to make a Polish grandmother proud; huge cream puffs, delectable cheeses, flavorful sausages, firm and chewy breads.  Since our normal fare was Velveeta cheese, Wonder bread and canned pork and beans, that box was a magic treasure trove.  Growing up during the Great Depression, such treats were out of reach for him.  He wanted his children to taste and experience what he never could in his youth.

Dad was also an early “foodie”, before anyone used that term.  He ate locally, whether he was stationed in Japan, Vietnam or Boston.  By then we lived in Norfolk Virginia.  I would get his letters filled with tales of grilled seafood, chowders, and a strange noodle soup called “Pho.”   Despite being a port city, Norfolk was not much of a culinary center in those days and my knowledge of “unusual” foods was confined to his letters.

Now I live in the Washington D.C. area and finding a bowl of Pho is almost as easy as going for a burger.  When my parents came up to visit, they’d time their arrival for lunch. We’d head over to the “Four Sisters” a popular Vietnamese place that my parents enjoyed.  Dad always ordered the grilled pork cooked with lemongrass. They timed their return home so they could stop for lunch at Pierce’s Barbeque in Williamsburg, Virginia.  My father loved pork.

In a way, I’ve become my father.   Like him, I’m a photographer, a traveler and a “foodie.”

As my life unfolded, I started a career similar to his.  Instead of the military, my ticket to the world was National Geographic Magazine, where I worked as a contract photographer for twenty years.  My husband always knew where I had been by the style of food I’d cook soon after returning from an assignment.  Coming home after a trip to New Mexico, I made posole using peppers I purchased there.  It may be I added a tad too many.  My father dutifully forced down a few bites and then screamed out in protest for water!!!   I loved bringing back foods, recipes, and different liquors for him to taste so he could experience my travels through food and drink.  He was such a sport, tasting everything even if it meant a night of running back and forth to the bathroom.

Dad in late 2009, patiently being my subject while I test two Nikon SB-900 speedlights.

He was also my willing victim when I tried out new photography gear, patiently sitting through photo sessions.  Last winter, his knees were aching, but he stood patiently outside until I finished testing a couple of new strobes.

What I inherited from him that I treasure the most was his curiosity and engagement in the world.  He was an avid newspaper reader.  He not only read the news but thought about it.  He had a great sense of morality and justice, which he passed on to me.  When a topic engaged him, he wrote letters to the editorial page, many of which were published.  He instilled in me a sense of humanity, to judge a person not by the color, religion or ethnicity or what they might pontificate on but rather how they actually lived their lives.

My most enjoyable times were the long phone calls we often shared.  Some lasted for hours, as we solved the world’s problems.  The last one was the Monday before the stroke; ironically, we were talking about the need for health care reform.

I will miss those lively phone calls and the joy he took in the small pleasures of life whether it was working in his beloved garden, tasting a perfectly cooked steak or sipping a Manhattan that I took pleasure in making for him, adding a extra drop or two of cherry juice so it could be perfect.  Not that he would ever complain if it weren’t.

I was testing the Nikon D2X when I took this picture of my mom and dad on a walk through Maine’s Acadia National Park in 2005.

Written by kasmauski

April 3, 2010 at 5:52 pm