Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Posts Tagged ‘National Geographic

Making America Great Again

with 2 comments

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.

 

Reflections From An Icy Realm

with one comment

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

with one comment

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

NGM_2002_02-WAR_ON_DISEASE-01

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.

When in Doubt, Improvise

leave a comment »

Cold branding involves using dry ice to cool and then freeze brands on the cattle. I used four speed lights to focus attention on this activity, particularly with the glaring daylight from the open barn door.

Cold branding involves using dry ice to cool and then freeze brands on the cattle. I used four speed lights to focus attention on this activity, particularly with the glaring daylight from the open barn door.

I’m in Myanmar most of this month, leading a National Geographic Photo Expedition and photographing for an NGO. It’s fascinating—I’ve been coming here since 2007 and the country is rapidly changing. I’ll write more about that about in a future post. One thing that hasn’t changed is that in Myanmar, just as in other places, you must often improvise to make good pictures.

Actually, you could make the case that photojournalism is largely about improvising and problem solving. At least, that’s what we photojournalists seem to spend most of our days doing. We find the stories, secure access to people and places, work out logistics; only then do we make pictures. When shooting an assignment, the problems we face depend on the needs of the client for whom we’re making the pictures.

With documentary photography, often the biggest problem is to deliver a publishable memorial picture without influencing the situation. When I began my newspaper career the documentary approach was very influential. You couldn’t move the furniture; you couldn’t tell the subject what to do or where to stand. Artificial lighting was suspect. The idea was to make pictures was with minimal intrusion.

I didn’t quite buy that approach. I always carried a small flash and I’d bounce the light from any available surface to add a bit more needed illumination. I liked what the eminent photojournalist, Eugene Smith said: “My attitude towards available light is that I use whatever light is available.”

These days, much of my work is for magazines and nonprofit organizations. Whether the need is a documentary-style image or something more illustrative, I have to produce the best possible picture that accurately tells the story and I’ll use whatever lighting I can to solve problems.

I had a Smithsonian magazine assignment on breeding cattle for the consumer meat market that was all about improvision. I was told that much of the work would take place in a barn. I anticipated I would have to light the situation to get the necessary pictures

I am not what you’d call a heavy lighter. I prefer to work with whatever ambient sources available— daylight, florescent, incandescent, sodium vapor–and use Speed lights placed strategically around the subject to create emphasis. My lighting kit is four SB-800s, a couple of softboxes and umbrellas, Omini-Bounce domes and a few light stands.

For the Smithsonian job, I flew to Dallas, then drove four hours northwest to a small cattle ranching community. After a quick scout of the ranch, I realized that four Speedlights wouldn’t be enough. I’d imagined the barn to be a wooden structure with light filtering in through doors and windows. In reality it was a huge construction shed, with high ceilings, metal walls and no windows.

Here I again used four Speedlights to brighten the scene, along with a small handheld strobe on the shadowed face of the hat-wearing cowboy in the foreground.

Here I again used four Speedlights to brighten the scene, along with a small handheld strobe on the shadowed face of the hat-wearing cowboy in the foreground.

Maybe daylight would help. The barn had two large double doors opening to the outside and an overcast sky would give me some nice soft light.  Unfortunately the day was bright and sunny, and the open doors admitted a glaring shaft of daylight that cut right across the work area, creating a situation that was impossible to balance with the dark interior.

I ran tests for my original plan to mix Speedlights with the barn’s dim sodium vapor lights, but I wasn’t getting results that I liked and my four Speedlights didn’t have the power to replace the sodium vapor lights.

Well, if the lights won’t suit the original plan, I’d change the plan and work on a smaller scale to get the photos I needed. The cattle would be herded through a series of pens and gates, ending up in a chute that closed like a large clamp around the animals and immobilized them while they were branded and ultrasounds were performed on inseminated females to check the health of their fetuses. I’d photograph the animals while they were in the chutes; that way I’d limit the area I had to light.

I hung two speed lights upside down over the chute to backlight the animals.  The branding irons were cooled with dry ice and the lights emphasized bursts of steam released by the irons as they touched the animals. Away from the scene I set a third light with an OmniBounce on top, on a stand to light up the area where the branding equipment was placed.  I held the fourth SB-800 in my hand, off camera, to light up the cowboy doing the work. This Speedlight triggered the other three SB-800s, as all were set for wireless remote. The situation was a bit tricky since the cowboys naturally wore cowboy hats that shadowed their faces, and I had to continually move my handheld strobe to illuminate them.

This setup gave me a good picture of the activity, but the background remained dark. I wanted more of a sense of the place, and providing that required more light than I had with me. I asked the ranch manager, “You wouldn’t happen to have any floodlights?”

Luck was with me. The ranch had a couple of large commercial flood, the kind often used for night road construction. I placed one of them behind the chute area, bounced one of its heads off the ceiling to light the background and aimed its other head at the back of the chute to provide just enough rim lighting to make the images interesting. It wasn’t the slickest lighting job, but I liked the drama the floods gave the scene.

Of course, not every photo required an improvised lighting setup.  Here cowboys round up the cattle on the breeding stock ranch.

Of course, not every photo required an improvised lighting setup. Here cowboys round up the cattle on the breeding stock ranch.

I had to guess at my exposures for the floods, but with digital I was able to see the scene immediately and make necessary adjustments to exposure and white balances to handle the mix of flash, glaring daylight, overhead sodium vapor and halogen floodlights that comprised my improvised “available” light

Teamwork

with 2 comments

Fuergo and Atitlan volcanoes in Guatemala.

Fuergo and Atitlan volcanoes in Guatemala.

For most of my career I’ve been a free-lance editorial shooter. I photographed for National Geographic magazine for 20 years, 12 of those as a contract photographer. During my time there I did many of the large picture stories that used to be the signature of the magazine. For most of those assignments I worked alone. I’ve never covered breaking news, press conferences or the kinds of social events where I’d likely encounter other photographers and my schedule rarely matched that of the stories’ writers.

 Most of the stories I cover concern the consequences of events or conditions. I photograph people carrying on with their daily lives in the face of tragedy; fathers living with AIDS, mothers hauling water during a drought, children seeking education under the burden of extreme poverty.

Many of my stories take big themes—migration, aging, radiation— and narrow them down to make them accessible and understandable. Often the people I meet on these stories are poor and live in remote areas. It’s hard to contact them ahead of time and as a result I often find my stories as I travel through them.  I began my career as a newspaper photographer and I’m grateful for the lessons I learned from that job; act like a journalist as well as an image maker, seek out stories, think on your feet, work quickly.

A woman at noon prayer in a Catholic church in Santiago Atitlan Guatemala

A woman at noon prayer in a Catholic church in Santiago Atitlan Guatemala

An earlier assignment tested my journalistic skills and challenged my solitary working style. A former student of mine who I’d taught at the Maine Media Workshops made me an offer I couldn’t refuse; she asked me to be the chief photographer on a project that would take me to Guatemala and Nicaragua to cover the impact of certain environmental conditions on peoples’ health and culture.  With three of my major interests in play—environment, health and culture—I accepted the assignment. Then my former student asked me to find a videographer.  Slowly I began to realize that the project was actually centered on making a video. My former student would be the producer and my role was to shoot still pictures for promotion and an accompanying exhibit.

I had to check my ego at the door.  For the first time in my freelance career I was going to work as part of a time, which represented a pretty big adjustment for me.  When I’m working, even if I’m present for only a day, even just an hour, I try to photograph the people I encounter with an in the moment intimacy. I find the best pictures come from intense, focused interactions.  Now I would have to share those interactions and those relationships with a producer and a videographer.  I had mixed feelings about that. I had heard from other photographers who had worked with videographers that tensions between the needs of still and video seemed to be a given.  So I needed to find someone who would complement my reportage style of shooting and—this was critical—have a sense of humor.

This farmer's child works in the shadow of the Masaya volcano in Nicaragua.

This farmer’s child works in the shadow of the Masaya volcano in Nicaragua.

I turned to a friend, the only person I knew who shot video in a style that I was certain the producer would like, a style best described as journalism mixed with lush dreamy landscapes. We had both worked for National Geographic. He knew my shooting style and I was confident he could contribute to the fast paced reporting we were going to have to do.

The shoot was three-weeks of frenzied travel.  The videographer and I quickly developed a way of working that we called “Navy Seal” journalism.” It was brutally simple: We arrived without warning and with few preliminaries began shooting stills and video; we got the job done quickly and moved on to the next location.

Despite our pace, we kept looking for stories.  When we found them, both the videographer and I presented a united front to the producer, convincing her to change her logistical schedule. Months later, when I saw the finished video and the exhibit, I was gratified to see that our insistence was not just egos on overdrive.  Most of the more evocative pictures came from situations we found on the run and for which we’d lobbied for more shooting time. I found that working with a team was more fun than I could have anticipated. Being able to review the day’s work and then talk about the next day’s plans and hopes helped me sort out what I was doing and helped me determine that my pictures were going in a direction that was appropriate to the storytelling mission of the project.

Horse drawn carriages are a popular means of transport in the town of Antiqua Guatemala.

Horse drawn carriages are a popular means of transport in the town of Antiqua Guatemala.

I found that the key to working successfully as part of a team is to set up ground rules before anyone gets onto the plane.  Time in the field needs to be parceled out and a hierarchy of need has to be determined. When I’m alone, I’m in charge; everything is according to my agenda.  As part of a team I have to consider the needs of others—and still get the story.

Ultimately this assignment reinforced how much the landscape is changing for photojournalists. Now it’s a web and mobile driven world, a world of images in motion with accompanying soundtracks, and our success as journalists lies in learning to work in that world.

Photo Expeditions

with one comment

Vietnamese woman working on a golf course outside of Ho Chi Minh city.

Vietnamese woman working on a golf course outside of Ho Chi Minh city.

I’m on my way to lead an amazing Photo Expedition to Myanmar for National Geographic. With a major snow and ice storm coming up from the south, I feel lucky to be escaping to a warm and beautiful location. While I’m traveling I’ll be uploading a few historical columns I wrote for Nikon Magazine before that publication folded a few months ago.

Here are my other expeditions and classes for this this year:

An additional Photo Expedition to Myanmar for National Geographic on November 11-13, 2014. If you’re interested in improving your photography, this amazing country provides a great place to hone your skills. http://www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com/expeditions/myanmar-photo-tour/experts

Over the Christmas and New Years holidays I will be leading a photo expedition to Antarctica, again for National Geographic.  I’ll do two expeditions back to back: Dec. 18-Dec. 31, 2014 and Dec. 28. 2014 to Jan. 10, 2015.  This will fulfill my dream of visiting Antarctica. I can’t believe that I will be able to spend the holidays in such an amazing place. We will celebrate on ice!! http://www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com/expeditions/antarctica-cruise/experts

Young Vietnamese girl in the Gio Linh district

Young Vietnamese girl in the Gio Linh district

If you’re a college student interested in going to Vietnam and Myanmar and get six college credits at the same time, you should sign up for a travel abroad course that I am teaching for George Mason University called “Visualizing the Post Conflict World, Vietnam and Myanmar.” As a student you’ll participate through experiential learning, interacting with families and communities while traveling through a post war environment. You’ll do a multi-media project for your final grade. I am the academic director for this four-week program, which is sponsored by George Mason University. It’ll be an amazing experience. Travel is May 22 to June 18, 2014. GMU Center For Global Education:  Visualizing a Post Conflict World http://globaled.gmu.edu/programs/facultyled/summerstudy/south-east-asia.html

George Washington University will again offer my two-week photojournalism class for high schoolers as a key feature of their pre-college summer program. I created this program nine years ago and have had a great time teaching it, learning as much from my students as I hope they learn from me. Photojournalism:  Media in Focus introduces students to photojournalism in the DC area, giving them the opportunity to sharpen their photography skills while producing an exhibit and a class photo booklet. The class is scheduled from July 13 to July 25, 2014. https://precollege.gwu.edu/photojournalism-media-focus

Complexities of a Simple Weapon

with 3 comments

I was arrested in Zaire moments after taking this picture of a woman helping her grandson. Both were refugees, returning to their home country of Zaire after fleeing to Tanzania.

I was arrested in Zaire moments after taking this picture of a woman helping her grandson. Both were refugees, returning to their home country of Zaire after fleeing to Tanzania.

The death this week of Mikhail Kalashnikov, creator of the AK-47, which the Washington Post calls “the world’s most omnipresent weapon, used by national armies, terrorists, drug gangs, bank robbers, revolutionaries and Jihadists” made me think about my own three encounters with this gun.

The last time I saw an AK-47 it was pointed at me.

It was the late 1990s. I was in Zaire for National Geographic and I was getting arrested. I was accompanying a group of Zairian refugees who were being repatriated to their homeland (Zaire is now called Congo). The writer, his wife and I were on a UN ship traveling from Tanzania. We carried papers signed by the proper authorities. But as white journalists we stood out like sore thumbs. The ship docked, we walked ashore and Zairian soldiers, all carrying AK-47s, surrounded us.

The soldier performing the arrest was not a large person. But he suffered from what I call the “small man with big gun” syndrome. I see that affliction not only in Africa but also here in the United States. It affects people who feel insecure. They use guns to show the world how big they are. In some situations this behavior might seem pitiful or even ridiculous. This wasn’t that kind of situation—I was facing a small and agitated man who was yelling at me in a language I didn’t understand and waving what looked like a well-used automatic weapon in my face.

Actually, that was the second time I’d had an AK-47 pointed at me. A few years earlier, in 1993, I was working in Sierra Leone on a story about Lassa Fever. I was traveling with a medical team when our vehicle reached a checkpoint. This one happened to be in a beautiful location offering an incredible view of nearby mountains. One of the staffers suggested that I take a picture. I’m not sure why I agreed. At checkpoints, it’s always a bad idea to take pictures. But moving in a kind of idiotic trance I raised my camera. Within seconds, I had the barrel of a gun in my face and I was arrested, along with the two medical staffers. We drove to police headquarters with the solider arresting us—another small man—sitting in the back seat. I stole occasional glances behind me and could see him alternately pointing his AK-47 at the back of my head or the back of the driver’s head. Thankfully as we bounced along the rough dirt road he kept his finger off the trigger. At the police station he marched us before his commander, eager to show off his prize. Luckily for my two African colleagues and me his commander was not interested in us. As in Zaire, we were eventually released, grateful that we had literally dodged the bullet.

In Vietnam I fired one shot from an AK-47 at a tourist attraction operated by the Vietnamese Army.

In Vietnam I fired one shot from an AK-47 at a tourist attraction operated by the Vietnamese Army.

My third AK-47 encounter fell between the two frightening African episodes. In 1994 I was in Saigon, photographing a story on the Vietnamese economy, which at the time was just opening up to foreign investment. The Vietnamese Army held a fundraiser. For $1.00 per bullet, foreigners could fire an AK-47. I bought one bullet. Under the watchful of a soldier I shouldered the weapon aiming at the target. I lightly squeezed the trigger. There was a loud bang and a slight kick to my shoulder. I missed the target.

Of course, most AK-47s aren’t used for fundraisers. More that 100 million of these automatic weapons have been built in countries around the world since Mikhail Kalashnikov first developed it in the 1940s for the Russian Army.  With only eight moving parts, the Kalashnikov earned a reputation for simplicity and effectiveness, offering the fully automatic fire of a machine gun and requiring minimal care. The North Vietnamese used AK-47s like the one I fired when they fought US troops in the Vietnam War. It was considered a more reliable weapon than the M-16s issued to Americans.

Yet while it is an impressive feat of military engineering, I have to believe that easy access to cheap, reliable and extremely deadly weapons like the AK-47 is a big contributor to the decades-long conflicts plaguing the developing world.  It’s ironic that Mr. Kalashnikov made a sturdy easy to use weapon to help the soldiers of his Russian homeland, but in the end, that became the weapon of choice for warring parties in underdeveloped countries. Would post-Cold War conflicts scattered around the globe continue as long, with casualties as high if efficient killing devices like the AK-47 were complex, unreliable and expensive?

In the South Sudan village of Palotaka, Jonas James who is a nurse, hopes for peace, so that a priest might return to the village church.

In the South Sudan village of Palotaka, Mr. Jade, the church caretaker, hopes for peace, so that a priest might return to the village church.

Sadly, another developing world conflict is unfolding right now in South Sudan. Almost three years ago, shortly before the vote that established South Sudan as a country, Catholic Relief Services sent me there to photograph peace. The assignment was both simple and complicated. Could I show “What does peace look like in South Sudan?”

Kindergardeners happily greet visitors to their school in Magwi, a village in South Sudan.

Kindergardeners happily greet visitors to their school in Magwi, a village in South Sudan.

It was one of the best assignments I ever had, not because it produced award-winning photos (though several did win awards), but because I had the opportunity to capture the lives of people who hoped they could finally live in peace once the new country of South Sudan was created. It was a wonderful and exciting time to be there. People felt that fear of conflict was finally behind them. Refugees were returning to reclaim their lands and restart their lives. I met some of the nicest people I have ever photographed, warm and open to my camera. Being there seemed like a gift from God. I felt transformed.

So during this holiday season of peace and good will, to hear that South Sudan is again falling into conflict and bloodshed is highly distressing. What will happen to the many wonderful people I met?  The young boy helping his mother wash clothes in a roadside ditch. Little Sandy whose mother is learning how to sew so she can support the family. The female community leader helping her village recover from the last conflict. The laughing girls getting water from the village pump without fear of being brutalized. The kindergarten children who warmly greet visitors while drinking their morning tea.

Sandy and her mother at day care in Avumadrici village.  Sandy's mother had hoped that peace would allow her to continue classes at a technical school where she was learning to sew.

Sandy and her mother at day care in Avumadrici village. Sandy’s mother had hoped that peace would allow her to continue classes at a technical school where she was learning to sew.

Of course, the causes of conflicts are complex and rooted in many issues, but again I can’t help but think that if Mr. Kalashnikov had not invented that sturdy, cheap and reliable weapon of choice of poor armies and rogue groups, these types of conflicts would be slower to start and harder to carry out. Mr. Kalashnikov once said if there had not been a war at the time he invented his legendary gun, he might have gone on to improve farm equipment. I wonder how the world might be different had he done that. At the end of the Washington Post article he says, “I created a weapon…it’s not my fault that it was sometimes used where it should have not have been. That is the fault of politicians.” That same tired old line that “guns don’t kill—people do.” Humans have always found ways to kill each other. But can you imagine how the dynamics of warfare in places like South Sudan would be if people only had hoes or clubs rather than a weapon that reliably fires and kills multiple times within seconds.

Written by kasmauski

December 27, 2013 at 5:51 pm