Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Posts Tagged ‘Photographer

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.


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I wonder why our Congress can't seem to connect-to agree on anything.

I wonder why our Congress can’t seem to connect-to agree on anything.

I’ve watched as the recent antics of our endlessly bickering Congress nearly drove the country over a cliff. Putting aside the political differences—which will always be there—this whole sad business made we wonder what has happened to qualities like friendship and loyalty, but especially for concern about those who are outside of one’s immediate group.

If the behavior of our government is any guide, we seem to be having a lot of trouble seeing another person’s point of view. We don’t seem to be able to connect very well.

We’re bombarded with messages about how networks and gadgets will help us better connect and communicate—as long as we do so in less than 140 characters. Yet most of what is touted as communication in this manner seems to me like noise—brief and banal distractions, that perhaps erode the time needed to make deep and meaningful connections with other people.

This matters to me because connecting seems to be part of my DNA.

As a photographer I’ve spent most of my life traveling around the world, meeting strangers and establishing connections with them to tell a story. As a wife and mom, when I return home, I plunge back into the lives of my family.  I meet my friends for lunch or coffee.  As a freelancer, I try to touch base with colleagues and editors (who increasingly seem to be reachable only by text, email, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever new platform two kids in a Silicon Valley garage are still dreaming about—anything to avoid talking on the phone.)

Yet for me, connecting is all about talking—really listening to what someone has to say over a period of time. That seems to me that catalyst that can move a relationship from “connection” to “friend.” I take my friends seriously.  As I get older, I realized that I’ve had friends for as long as I’ve been alive, whether from my childhood, college years, post-college volunteer work, or my newspaper days at the Virginian Pilot Newspaper.

This year I visited Scotland and reconnected with old friends who I had met on an archeology dig years ago when I was still in college. I now measure my friendships in decades, not years.

My great regret is not keeping in touch with more of the many wonderful folks I’ve met along the way. Whether or not I’ve felt an assignment succeeded has to do with the quality of the pictures I bring back of course. But mostly I’ve felt that success has to do with whom I’ve met and whether or not I was able to make connections with anyone. My biggest thrill is being invited to someone’s home for dinner. When that happens I feel like I’ve hit the social jackpot.

Passing connections on.  My daughter getting to know her grandfather while he was still alive.

Passing connections on. My daughter getting to know her grandfather-my father-while he was still alive.

Over the past decade, the editorial photography business that I once imagined that I’d retire from from has been changing rapidly. Editors are being downsized or seeing the handwriting on the wall and departing on their own. Media companies no longer find value in maintaining staff photographers or experienced photo editors. Everyone is a contractor now. Few editors with whom I worked over the past two decades are still employed where I first met them.

So I wasn’t really surprised when Nikon World editor Barry Tannenbaum called me last week to let me know that I had written my last column for him. Nikon was shutting down their premier trade magazine. Phone cameras were eating up their small camera market and the company had to make cuts.

What did surprise me my reaction.

It didn’t trouble me too much that I lost my regular column-writing gig due to downsizing. Instead, I was filled with sadness that I had lost a friend. This may sound strange, since I’ve never actually met Barry. I don’t even know what he looks like.

Yet whenever a column was due, we’d chat on the phone, talking through what I could write about. Then the call would evolve into our thoughts on world events, observations about the photography industry, life in general and even my concerns of trying to raise good children in this crazy world. Stuff that friends talk about. Barry, an editor from the old school, knew that talking often leads to new ideas. Our conversations about one column frequently gave birth to another. Conversation is a creative and productive tool. Sadly, not many editors make time for that anymore.

Once my conversation with Barry ended I wouldn’t hear from him again until the next column was due. Twice each year I could count on him calling and telling me, “Karen, it’s time for the next column.”

Our professional relationship may have ended, but I hope to keep those wonderful chats with Barry going—that we stay connected. As a way to remind me of that, I’m reprinting  one of my (now historical) Nikon columns called “Diplomatic Relations” from winter 2013.  I’ll reprint others from time to time.

My Nikon World column on Sierra Leone

My Nikon World column on Sierra Leone

About ten years ago, CRS built houses in the Grafton neighborhood for people whose homes had been destroyed during the civil war

About ten years ago, CRS built houses in the Grafton neighborhood for people whose homes had been destroyed during the civil war

The first time I visited Sierra Leone I got arrested. If I’d been covering conflict or a corrupt government, I might have expected that result, but I was there to document the work of a Centers for Disease Control medical team. My coverage was part of a National Geographic assignment on viruses, and the CDC team was combating an outbreak of Lassa fever, the close cousin of the Ebola virus.

Sierra Leone’s civil war had already begun, but the CDC team was confident of their safety. I covered them treating patients and analyzing disease carriers, like mice, but I also needed scenic pictures to set the story’s location. Accompanied by two team members, I boarded one of the team’s trucks, which featured the Lassa fever logo, a large outline of a mouse, and we headed into the countryside so I could photograph the surrounding land and villages. There were checkpoints on the road every mile or two, but they were no problem—the guards saw the logo and waved us through. Then at one checkpoint I saw a lovely mountain, and one of the staff members said I should photograph it. My instincts, which I’ve since learned to listen to very carefully, told me that taking pictures near a checkpoint was not a good idea, but being young and inexperienced, I thought that being a photographer meant never being afraid to take a picture.

So I raised my camera, and within moments I was looking down the surprisingly large barrel of an AK-47 pointed at me by a very young soldier who was yelling at me and my CDC companions. He herded us into the front seat of our truck, then climbed into the back, still pointing his weapon at us. We drove to a police compound. I knew this was a very unstable situation; people, including Americans, had already been randomly shot and killed. The soldier ordered the CDC staffers inside; I was told to stay in the truck. For two hours I could hear periodic shouting from inside the building. Finally the police commander arrived and we were allowed to leave.

The District Education Committee Primary School in the chiefdom of Sulima is part of the CRS food program. Volunteers cook the food for the children who attend school.

The District Education Committee Primary School in the chiefdom of Sulima is part of the CRS food program.
Volunteers cook the food for the children who attend school.

We drove back to the CDC compound in silence, aware of how lucky we had been. Last year, 20 years after that incident, I returned to Sierra Leone when Catholic Relief Services (CRS) offered an assignment to photograph their maternal health, food and education programs. CRS had operated in Sierra Leone for 50 years and was one of the few nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that didn’t abandon the country when it deteriorated into war.

The war ended in 2002, leaving 50,000 dead and thousands more maimed. I was happy to take the assignment; I wanted to see how the country had changed. Twenty years ago, well-armed men inspected my bags at the airport. One suggested I might share some money with him. I said, indignantly, “Bribery is illegal in Sierra Leone.” He laughed, but waved me through. On the 2012 trip, I had CRS’s photo editor with me, and when we landed, the customs people immediately started hustling him for money. Well, I thought, some things can be slow to change.

Farmers meet once a week in the village of Mongo Kiridu to hand in money to a savings and loan club. The club then votes on who can borrow from the fund and for what projects.

Farmers meet once a week in the village of Mongo Kiridu to hand in money to a savings and loan club. The club then votes on who can borrow from the fund and for what projects.

The country was on a massive roadbuilding spree, yet few of the roads were finished. We drove mainly on dirt roads in various stages of construction. We traveled east to Kenema, the town where I’d worked on my first visit. I saw Chinese and Korean crews, grading and paving roads to connect the larger towns and the mines that dotted the countryside. There was an air of chaos around the projects. Traffic often swarmed alongside the road machinery, carving deep ruts in the carefully graded roadbeds, delaying paving efforts. Runoff from the roadwork spilled into ponds and wetlands, turning water to red mud. The new roads and power lines rarely reached the many small villages we visited.

The people in those villages live on very little. They grow rice that’s eaten with green leaf vegetables cooked in palm oil. If they’re lucky they’ll have fish; sometimes a chicken is killed. If electricity is available, it’s a luxury that few can afford. Almost no one has running water. Some villages have pumps to draw water from wells, but most villagers walk miles to get a bucket of water that probably is not safe to drink by western standards.

Yet despite their tragic past and intense poverty, most Sierra Leoneans are amazingly friendly to strangers. In each village I felt welcome. Of course, I was working with a respected NGO that had proven itself to the people by not leaving the country when the political situation became dangerous, but I remembered that same warmth from 20 years earlier. While friendliness is a gift for a photographer, gifts often come at a price.

When the villagers learned of the CRS team arriving to photograph a program, everyone wanted to be part of the scene, and at almost every location I encountered friendly chaos. Groups of people moved towards me, seeking my camera’s attention.

If I shifted to the right, the group shifted with me. Without intervention, every photo I shot would have shown 20 people or more crowded in front of my lens. My job was to get good pictures, but I didn’t want to insult anyone. Whether to a village, a clinic or a project, access depends on good relationships developed by the hosting organization with the community leaders. It’s extremely important to keep that relationship going.

I photographed an innovative program bringing in traditional birth attendants to assist and take the pressure off the nurse, who was juggling multiple responsibilities.

The program provides income to the attendants, who in turn encourage women in their communities to visit the clinic. I envisioned warm, loving pictures of a kindly birth attendant working with the nurse and helping women who had just given birth. When I arrived, the nurse was there—and so were all 12 of the birth attendants in the program. They all wanted to participate, trying to crowd into every situation that I photographed.

Near Kabala in the Northern Province, a farm family slashes and burns their property to clear the land for peas and cassava.

Near Kabala in the Northern Province, a farm family slashes and burns their property to clear the land for peas and cassava.

At one point four of them converged on a woman who was having labor pains. Surrounding her, they stayed focused on my camera, smiling at me as they walked her to the birthing room. To manage the situation, I divided the dozen into smaller groups and asked each to do different tasks in different parts of the clinic. Eventually, with patience, smiles and an enormous number of group shots, I got my work done.

This kind of experience is not unusual when working with NGOs. The challenge is to deal with a chaotic situation while preserving good relations and staying focused on making the good pictures that will show off the programs to donors and others interested in the good work being done; to be not only a photographer, but something of a diplomat as well.

Staying Flexible

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My parents, Steve and Emiko, in their 50th year of marriage.

My parents, Steve and Emiko, in their 50th year of marriage.

Some years back, my husband and I interviewed all of my family members for a video on my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary. I remember asking my father the secret of a successful marriage.  He smiled and said, “Be flexible.”

When we decided to have a child, our lives were transformed.  It was our turn to be flexible, adapting to the needs of our son and a few years later our daughter. Nurturing two small children was a wild ride, especially since I traveled so much for National Geographic and my husband was a full time editor.

Katie, 7, and Will, 9, posing for their annual Cherry tree portrait.

Katie, 7, and Will, 9, posing for their annual Cherry tree portrait.

But all good things must eventually end. Our kids grew up. The familiar chaos of responding to our children—whether hustling them out the door in the morning, or racing home at night to get them before day care closed, or following their college sports and performances—drew to a close.

Or so we thought.

With both kids in college my husband and I became empty nesters—except of course for our children’s monthly trips home to do laundry, raid the food supplies and meet old high school buddies.

Since they were out of the house—sort of—I decided to return to academia. I always wanted to get a masters degree for teaching or managing a visual department. That became possible when I was awarded a Knight Fellowship at Ohio University. I was apprehensive about the decision. While I’ve had a strong freelance career, I feared that disappearing for a year might not be a wise business move. But I approached it with a flexible attitude and my fellowship year turned into one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.

At the end of that year I graduated from Ohio and my son Will graduated from William & Mary within weeks of each other. Pictures of both of us in our caps and gowns are on the Facebook sites of our friends and family.

Katie, me, and Will at my Ohio University graduation in 2012.

Katie, me, and Will at my Ohio University graduation in 2012.

In the fall Will applied to the Peace Corps and was assigned to Uganda. He left this spring. At the same time Katie decided she wanted to come home to finish college. Our daughter, a smart gorgeous girl, turned out to be a homebody!! Go figure, but my husband and I were secretly pleased to have her back. We count ourselves lucky to have a daughter who wants to be near us. We love having children at home. The weekends are lively with their friends dropping by. Will leaving for two years left us deflated, but having Katie move back home pumped us back up again. We couldn’t be happier.

I guess full-fledged empty nesting will have to wait for a while. But we’re flexible.

Being flexible is one of the more important qualities for a successful career in photojournalism. I used to say if something could go wrong it will. I just need to deal with it since there are no second chances in the profession.  If I didn’t return with the pictures on an assignment, I wasn’t getting hired again.

Among other things, being flexible means changing direction if a job doesn’t materialize or a contract can’t be finalized. In the ever-changing profession of photojournalism, flexibility is a mantra. This week another newspaper, the Chicago Sun Times, dumped their staff of 28 hard working and talented photographers.  Hearing about such outrages saddens me and I pray that my fellow photographers who lost their jobs will be flexible and smart about finding something that can keep them in the business, or find something else that makes them productive and happy.

After all the years I’ve spent working as a photographer, I guess I once thought that at a certain point in the profession I wouldn’t need to constantly stay flexible. But I now see that isn’t true. I went back to school for a masters in visual communications to keep my skills competitive. I loved immersing myself in modern multimedia techniques and seeing the energy and creativity of the next generation of journalists.  Seeking out flexibility expanded my horizons.

Will and a few of his buddies at his Peace Corps going away party.

Will and a few of his buddies at his Peace Corps going away party.

I hope that I have passed that trait onto my son. He will need it.  Like a dutiful mother, I gave my son advice as I dropped him off in Philadelphia this spring to join his fellow Peace Corps volunteers. Of course I cried uncontrollably. I’m a crybaby. I admit it. Through my tears, I struggled to give my kind and handsome son a few pearls of wisdom for whatever they were worth. I’m sure he wasn’t listening. He was probably focused on the fear and excitement of embarking on an amazing adventure. But it made me feel useful.

My advice to him echoed what my father said to me years earlier:  Be safe, be kind and be patient. Most of all be flexible.


Written by kasmauski

June 4, 2013 at 4:30 am

Sudan Work in Communication Arts

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Sudan pictures published in Communication Arts Photography Annual

Last year I had a wonderful assignment to photograph life in Southern Sudan. I spent several weeks in that country, working to capture the warm spirit of the people.  So I felt honored when I learned that Communication Arts magazine would feature some of my Sudan pictures in their Photography Annual.  The pictures are in the July/August issue.  You can seem more of the Sudan pictures on my website.

Written by kasmauski

July 7, 2011 at 2:56 am

Nuclear Fears

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I got tested for radiation contamination at NIH-the National Institutes of Health.

In the fall of 1988, I was contaminated with Chernobyl radiation. It was two and a half years after the accident and I was nowhere near the nuclear facility. The contamination happened when I was sharing a meal with a Sami family in northern Sweden.

I had been photographing a story on radiation for National Geographic Magazine. I was in Sweden to look at the effects of radioactive fallout from Chernobyl on the animals and people who lived below the plume of radiation that swept over Europe soon after that catastrophic accident on April 24, 1986

I was a young photographer at the time. I had only worked a couple of years for the National Geographic. Radiation was my first international story and the first one where I dealt with complexities of science. I had little idea what I was getting myself into.

My contamination was found quite by accident. Several months later, I was at the Hartford nuclear plant in Washington State looking at their programs dealing with radiation detection. I photographed a woman receiving a precise radiation measurement called a whole body count.  Afterwards the technician asked if I wanted to go through the process for the experience. Always up for a new experience, I responded, “Why not?”

At the end of the procedure, the technician asked if I had been in Europe recently. In fact, I’d traveled a great deal that year, covering not only French nuclear power plants, but also Japanese A-Bomb survivors, workers at Chernobyl and in Sweden at nuclear waste storage facilities, radon gas leaks, and cleanup of a radiation accident in Brazil.  “Why do you ask?” I inquired.

“Because you are contaminated,” he replied. “You’re registering cesium-137 in your whole body count. The signature of the isotope is from Chernobyl.”

That long ago moment came back to me this week when I heard the news reports of fear sweeping through the Japanese populations living close to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

I know exactly what that fear felt like. I felt it—intensely—when I heard the technician utter those words, “you are contaminated”.

As a woman, several questions went through my mind all at once.  Would I get cancer? Would I die soon? Can I have children? What will they look like?

I knew I been exposed to radiation several times over the course of working on the story. After photographing in a Swedish nuclear storage sites located a mile under the ocean, I had to go through an isotope detector in order to leave.

Sweden’s nuclear facilities have strict standards. You are scanned as you go in, and you cannot leave if the scanners show more radiation than you had on entering.  As I attempted to exit through the scanner, alarms went off.  A display screen showed an outline of a human body.  There at the back of the head—my head—a light flashed as the alarm blared.

“You cannot leave. You have radon contamination in your hair,” the security people told me.

They escorted me to a decontamination shower. I scrubbed myself down–Karen Silkwood style—with a green soap. I got dressed and tried to leave. But once more, the alarms went off.

The security people said I could try one more time to scrub down, but after that, I’d have to have my hair cut off. So I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed.  I hated the thought of losing my hair. But the third time was the charm, and I walked out with my hair intact.

The damaged reactor at Chernobyl, two years after the 1986 disaster.

Soon after that event I was at Chernobyl on a media trip into the contaminated area. During the story, I carried a small radiation detector with me. It looked like a fat pen, and had a tiny digital readout. If the levels rose above normal the detector would begin to click. The bus carrying our group approached Chernobyl, entering a strange post-apocalyptic world. The earth was denuded of life. Only a single tree hung on and it too would soon be dead.

As we drove into the area, my detector started clicking. It began slowly, and then picked up the pace, clicking every few seconds, and finally erupting into an alarming cascade of “click-click-click-click-click-click-click.” This steady rhythm annoyed the Soviet official telling us media representatives that the area was now clean. He offered us cucumbers to eat that which been grown there. No one took a bite. We toured the plant and were allowed to photograph the so-called healthy workers. Then we walked on the edge of Pipyat.  Once home to 45,000 people, it was now a ghost city, uninhabitable for future generations.

The official said that all children in the region were healthy. Just a few years later the lie was exposed as children began dying of leukemia and babies were born with serious birth defects.

But I wasn’t contaminated on that trip–at least not in any way measured by the whole body counter at Hanford.

Swedish health workers test reindeer for radiation contamination following the Chernobyl disaster.

I returned to Sweden to cover the reindeer roundup conducted each year by the Sami people living in the far north of the country. I accompanied a health worker from Sweden’s public health department.  The first plumes of Chernobyl had swept across Sweden, settling into vegetation that reindeer and other animals ate.  The health department monitored radiation levels of the reindeer being slaughtered that year. The government set a level of radiation acceptable for human consumption of reindeer meet. But if the reindeer were above that level they were fed to minks.

I often wondered how that level was set.  And would the radioactive meat consumed by the minks eventually be transferred into the coats created by their fur when they were slaughtered?  I never found out.

I got to know the Sami who herded reindeers for food and income. They invited me to share their meals, so for two days, I ate with the people I was photographing. Because I knew of the reindeer contamination, I nibbled on reindeer jerky, but I consumed the main meal of moose meat. I have no idea why I didn’t think the moose would also be contaminated along with the reindeer.  I didn’t think much about it until my editor and I started to think about where I might have gotten contaminated.

When I came home from Hanford my husband took me immediately to the National Institutes of Health. They have one of the most sensitive radiation detectors in the world there, a chamber lined with thick steel from pre-World War II battleship that contain none of the trace radioactive particles released into the environment after atom bombs were developed in 1945. I was tested again, and indeed, I had internal contamination from Cesium 137.

The writer also received a whole body count at NIH, but was not contaminated.  We both visited Chernobyl together and ate the same foods. In fact, he had been to most of the places I had, except for Sweden. I deduced that I had been contaminated there.

What did that mean?

Nobody really knew for sure. The NIH officials told me the dose I had received would not kill me, nor would it strongly increase my chances of getting cancer. I had to believe them. They tried to reassure me, telling me that they found Cesium 137 in people who never had been to Europe but had eaten imported French cheese.  The cheese came from goats and sheep eating grass contaminated with fallout from Chernobyl.  I often wondered why knowing that would reassure me.

My husband and I went on to have two children. Through both pregnancies I worried about the potential health of my children. If they had been born with any defect or developed cancers as young children I would never have been able to forgive myself. If I had known what was going to happen on the radiation story, I would never have accepted it.

When I heard about the possible contamination in Japan, my first thought was they needed to get all the children and young women who hope to be pregnant out of there.  Then I heard the radiation had gotten into the food chain; vegetables, milk and water are contaminated.

No matter if the contamination levels from this accident are small, I have to wonder why we don’t learn from the mistakes of the past. I think of all the reindeer who had became contaminated because they ate lichen made radioactive from particles drifting slowly down from the Chernobyl disaster.

How much radiation exposure does it take to increase cancer rates?  I have no idea.  It seems that no one really wants to declare specific numbers.

Craters from nuclear tests dot the landscape of Frenchman Flats at the Nevada Test Site.

The U.S. tested nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert from 1951 to 1962.  There were sad statistics about those unfortunate enough to live down wind of the test sites.  In some cases entire families died from various cancers.  The connection was so uncontestable that in 1990, the US passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) to compensate individuals who suffered from one of 20 diseases, mostly cancers, that the U.S government connected to exposure from the testing and other activities related to the nuclear testing.

The Centers for Disease Control reported that they expected to see over 212,000 additional cases of thyroid cancers from fallout caused by nuclear tests in Nevada.

So yes, Japan should be fearful of what may follow. The long-term consequences and hidden costs of nuclear power are a burden they will have to bear long after the cataclysmic events in Fukushima.

Sudan Photo Exhibit at U.S. Capitol

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Catholic Relief Services is staging an exhibit of my pictures from southern Sudan on March 10 and March 11.  The exhibit is on the U.S. Capitol grounds, at the Rayburn House Office Building, Independence Avenue and South Capitol Street SW, Washington D.C.  I’ll be at the opening reception from 4:00 to 6:00 PM on March 10.  I hope you have the chance to come by.

Written by kasmauski

March 5, 2011 at 4:17 pm

Is Anything as Permanent as the Pyramids?

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The pyramids have endured for 5000 years. How long will records of our civilization remain?

As events unfolded in Egypt I watched with great interest.  Seeing civil resistance transforming a government that has ruled with an iron fist for over 30 years is exciting.  But Egypt represents something else to me—the idea of permanence.

I loved being in Egypt.  Standing in front of the massive 5000 years old pyramids was exhilarating.  These stones stood sentinel as hundreds of generations were born, grew up and died.  Upriver on the Nile we visited the Valley of the Kings. The tombs there date back to 16th century B.C.  Though they were over 3700 years old, many of the writings and colors in the tombs remain vivid and readable today (if I could read hieroglyphics.)

The permanence of Egypt’s ancient objects started me thinking about how we preserve information today.  As a photographer, I’m concerned about permanence, particularly in our digital world where images seem so ephemeral.  Would the thousands of pictures I’ve created over my lifetime survive, even to the next generation?  Would my children, when they become adults, make any effort to preserve my work— especially those in digital form?  Would they try to migrate my life’s work to whatever medium will be used 30 or 40 years from now?  And when they’re gone, and their children are gone, will that be it?  Could my images survive a full century, let alone 37 centuries?

I have a girlfriend, Stacy, who is a brilliant writer.  Tragically, her husband had brain cancer and passed away early last year.  Just before he went in for his initial surgery he was still looking good and vital.  I took two frames of Stacy with him in the hospital room.  They were last pictures showing him as a healthy person, before he started his plunge into depths from which he could never return.

After he was gone Stacy wrote an article for her newspaper about this horrible period in her life and the biological meaning of death.  Her editor wanted an image of her and her husband together during his illness.  Stacy remembered that I had sent jpegs of the two images to her at work.  But in the chaos of her husband’s illness she had forgotten to save the images.  Her company periodically eliminates older emails, so when she looked for them, the pictures were lost, wiped out with the click of a button.  Luckily, as a professional photographer, I keep almost all my images.  Stacy emailed me the date of the surgery and I found the missing pictures.  She wanted them not only for her editor, but also as a reminder of her vital husband.  In his drugged state he was smiling, almost happy, not really focused on what was about to happen. I was glad—it made for a warm and poignant moment.

The photographs helped my friend preserve a memory of her husband.  But like memories, photographs—even digital ones—can fade.

Hard drives keep all of our records today. In 10 or 20 years, no one will know how to access devices like these. Can our records have anything like the permanence of the Egypt’s pyramids?

I feel like I’m constantly fighting against that fading, constantly pursuing permanence.  My computer links to an array of hard drives holding most of my professional and personal images.  Those drives have backups, and the backups have backups.  Some days, it seems like all I do is tend to this technology, in a never-ending ritual of back up trying to secure some sense of permanence.  I’m a worrier, so my nightmare vision is that some disaster like a major solar flare will wipe out my hard drives and all my life’s work.  So I make DVD back ups of all my assignments AND my family images, which frankly are more important to me than my assignments.

In our digital world where everything is impermanent, I spend much of my time trying to create and preserve a permanent record of my work.

During most of her life Vivian Major was a nannie for wealthy New York City families.  On her days off, she photographed life in the city, using a 2 ¼ camera.  She died an unknown, her negatives neatly filed in boxes.  After her death, she was “discovered.”  A young man researching a history book on Chicago bought 30,000 prints and negatives from an auction house that acquired the photographs from the storage locker that had sold off Majer’s goods. http://vivianmaier.blogspot.com/

This woman had boxes of negatives holding images that were extraordinarily fresh in their observational power.  Of course they could easily have been tossed out.  After all, who has the patience to go through 30,000 negatives?  Vivian Majer’s life work might have gone into the trash and she would have been just another photographer passing gently into that good night.

Since her “discovery” this woman who died alone without family or friends has become famous.  Through digital marketing her images have attracted a following.  She has thousands of admirers (including myself) who love the honesty and vision of her work.

So here’s the question:  If her work was on a hard drive rather than in boxes, would Vivian Majer have been discovered?  Would the buyer of that hard drive take the time and pay whatever costs were required to find out what it held?  Or would the buyer simply erase it, and store other information on the device?

I think of the Egyptians and the amazing staying power of the cultural monuments they built 5000 years ago.  In our time, we’ve moved from the permanence of stone or paper records to having nearly all information stored as fragile bits of magnetic data.  Of course the digital records from this era will need regular updating and transfer to new storage systems as hardware and software become obsolete.  With all these concerns, I doubt that many folks in the far future will accidently find a treasure of prize images at a country flea market, left behind by an unknown talent like photographer Vivian Major

Unless we’re rich enough to pay for a company continually migrating our image files to future storage systems, within a generation or two, most of us will have our work trapped on archaic devices that no one will know how to access.  There are many wonderful things about the digital world.  Yet as it becomes the only home for more and more of our culture, I have to wonder if the humans 5000 years from now will know more about the Egyptians, with their stories saved in stone, than about us.

Written by kasmauski

February 25, 2011 at 2:07 pm