Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Posts Tagged ‘photography

Making America Great Again

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

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

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

I didn’t know what to expect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This I wasn’t expecting.

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Global Health Photo Exhibit

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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.

Images on My Mother’s Day

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At 17 my father Steven Kasmauski was far from his home on a Michigan farm. As World War II began, he joined the Navy, became a Seabee and worked in the jungles of the Philippines building runways and camps for our troops.

During this time, he bought a small camera and began photographing his life. He continued photographing throughout his 35 year-long Navy career.

Left my father Steve on a street corner in Tokyo's Ginza district.  Right, the same area today.

Left my father Steve on a street corner in Tokyo’s Ginza district. Right, the same area today.

In the early1950’s when Japan was still recovering from the devastation of war Steve was assigned to Yokosuka Naval Base. He was in his mid-20’s. Not long after arriving, he met a young Japanese woman named Emiko. They eventually married and became my parents.

Left, my father, Steve Kasmauski with three brothers in law, by the beach in Sajima. Right, the same scene today.

Left, my father, Steve Kasmauski with three brothers in law, by the beach in Sajima. Right, the same scene today.

By this time my father had upgraded to a professional camera—a Nikon S rangefinder. He recorded the exotic life around the coastal city of Yokosuka and in the small fishing village of Saijima—my mother’s home.

Left, the beach at Sajima, right, the same area today.

Left, the beach at Sajima, right, the same area today.

I grew up looking at those images. I often wondered what it was like for a Michigan farm boy to have arrived in such a place. Sometimes, I think he might have said it was quite familiar, perhaps like Spring Lake, the small fishing town where he grew up.

Nikon no longer makes a rangefinder camera like the one my father used. The locations he photographed have changed so radically that trying to find a few of them this past spring proved extraordinarily difficult.

Left, Yokosuka Naval Base in the early 1950s where I was born. Right, me in front of the Naval hospital today.

Left, Yokosuka Naval Base in the early 1950s where I was born. Right, me in front of the Naval hospital today.

In April I led a photography expedition in Japan for National Geographic. After the trip ended, I spent two days with my cousin Kazuo. His mother was the oldest of six sisters. My mother was the youngest. Kazuo drove me around Tokyo, Yokosuka and Saijima, trying to find the locations my father photographed 60 years ago.

Hardest to find was the place where my father did a “selfie” (with the help of a buddy) under a Ginza road sign.

Left, my mother overlooking her family home in the early 1950s.  Right, the same location today, blocked by a huge concrete wall

Left, my mother overlooking her family home in the early 1950s. Right, the same location today, blocked by a huge concrete wall

It was a melancholy journey for me. The locations were beyond recognition. The hill where my mother stood looking over the roof tops of her family home was replaced by a concrete wall.

Since I started working on the War Bride film, I’ve journeyed though that world my mother lived in as a young girl. My road map has been the still images my father created. They speak to me across half a century, connecting me to my roots, my mother and my father.

Written by kasmauski

May 11, 2015 at 2:36 am

When Assignments Disappear, Do a Film

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My mother being filmed for the documentary "Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight."

My mother being filmed for the documentary “Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight.”

This year is an odd blend of short adrenaline-driven adventure and long periods of inactivity. (Future blogs on those adventurous moments to follow!) But my roller coaster career anxieties are overshadowed by the tragedies of this sad year including the disappearance of one Malaysian airliner and the downing of another, continual fighting in Syria, murder of Palestinian and Israel teenagers, bombing of Gaza, kidnapping of Nigerian girls, the Ebola outbreak and the barbaric beheading of journalists. So far, 2014 seems like one of those years where evil dominates. I could barely think about anything. Feeling overwhelmed by the unceasing flow of information through web, television and even print, I felt at times like becoming one of those “end-of-the-roaders,” not caring about anything as long as I’m not bothered.

I can’t do that.

I have skin in this game. My son, a wonderful kind-hearted young man, is serving in Africa in the Peace Corps. He’s far from the Ebola epidemic but closer to some of the terrorist activities than I’m comfortable with. I have a sense of how dangerous things have gotten. Covering global health issues, I’ve been arrested twice by rouge elements who saw a light skinned person with a camera as a good catch to bring back to their leaders. In those situations reasonable minds prevailed and I was released. Kidnapping journalists for public beheadings had not yet become a terrorists tactic when I was working in those regions.

With all this tragedy the need to understand the underlying causes is greater than ever, but it seems that news organizations and non-government organizations are cutting back on hiring visual reporters, relying instead on overworked staff or even, (OMG!) poverty-tourists—those who want to experience the developing world and take a few snaps with that fancy new camera they bought. As a result, I—and many of my colleagues who won’t work for free—find paid work declining.

Assignments allowing the photographer to develop a story and a style seem to be ever fewer and further between. Editorial photography is one of those professions where the day rate hasn’t changed in nearly 20 years. I was paid more per day back in the 1990’s than I am now. This might be generational. Young photographers willing to work for less to pump up their portfolio may be getting more assignments. But I suspect that most photographers struggle for every paid assignment.

So where does that leave those of us who built our careers on long-form storytelling and editorial assignments? I’m still trying to figure that out, but in the meanwhile I started working with two colleagues on a film about Japanese War Brides. Our film explores the seldom-told stories of these women through our relations with our mothers.

My mother looking over photographs of the time when she met my father.

My mother looking over photographs of the time when she met my father.

To say that my mother and I have a complex relationship is about as big an understatement as I can make. Motherhood was a duty to her. I guess many women saw it that way back in the 1950’s since so few had control over their reproductive system. I’m convinced my mother was born several decades too early. She would have been amazing as a businesswoman. I think she would have bypassed parenthood completely if she had the choice.

But she didn’t and her children paid for that.

From the 1990, National Geographic story,  Japanese  Woman, a young bride is on  display to her neighbors before she marries.

From the 1990, National Geographic story, Japanese Woman, a young bride is on display to her neighbors before she marries.

I spent all of my life wondering who this woman was. To help find out, I pitched a story on Japanese Women to National Geographic in the early 1990’s. I hoped to uncover a truth or two that could help explain her. The story was accepted and my search for understanding began. Along the way I met Lucy Craft, presently a CBS producer and National Public Radio reporter from Tokyo and Kathryn Tolbert, a senior editor at the Washington Post. These brilliant women share one important element with me. We are all the eldest daughters of Japanese War Brides. Our relationships with our mothers had similarities but our individual stories are very different.

Jump forward two decades.

A housewife carries her children to a tutoring class, from the 1990, National Geographic story on Japanese Women.

A housewife carries her children to a tutoring class, from the 1990, National Geographic story on Japanese Women.

Lucy suggested we work on a film about Japanese War Brides—a very under-reported segment of American history. I agreed to help her, as did Kathryn. For the next two years, we collected information, interviewed our mothers and acquired B-roll and archival materials. We did frequent video chats on Skype, but we all were busy with paying projects and really needed a full time producer to get the film underway. With children still in college I needed income and couldn’t afford to spend too much time on this. Hunting work in the shrinking world of journalism took most of my time.

Things sped up when several colleagues of mine in the video world formed a new production company called Blue Chalk. I had worked with their Director of Photography, Rob Finch at a multi-media workshop. After talking to him about our project Blue Chalk agreed to create a trailer for us to use for a Kickstarter campaign. If that were successful, we’d use the proceeds to hire Blue Chalk to do a 10 to 15 minute film. We’d then shop that film around as the basis to fund a full-length documentary.

Lucy, Kathryn and myself (far left) being interviewed for the Kickstarter campaign. (Screen grab from the film)

Lucy, Kathryn and myself (far left) being interviewed for the Kickstarter campaign. (Screen grab from the film)

To our surprise, the Kickstarter campaign was highly successful. Along with the amazing financial support we connected with a community of people who were either children or grandchildren of Japanese war brides who wanted to share their stories. We reached our Kickstarter goal within the first four days of the campaign, but vowed we’d keep going to make connections with the other War Bride children. The campaign has been over for almost a month and we’re still getting emails from those wanting to share their stories with us. The most exciting part of this Kickstarter campaign is this realization that we three are part of a larger community of kindred souls.

Two weeks ago, on the eve of a partial solar eclipse, shooting began for the short film version of “Fall Down Seven, Get Up Eight: The Japanese War Brides.” The Blue Chalk film crew spent the next week interviewing our mothers and us and collecting massive amounts of B-roll. Looking over the shoulder of Jamie Francis, the new director of Photography for Blue Chalk, I was thrilled to see the beautifully crafted scenes he was recording.

Over the next couple of months, I will post updates on this effort. Eventually we will have a finished long form documentary suitable for broadcast. This exciting project is keeping me engaged and inspired in the breaks between those adventures that are part of the now too-infrequent traditional assignments.

The shooting for the War Bride short film began on the day of a partial solar eclipse in Norfolk, Virginia

The shooting for the War Bride short film began on the day of a partial solar eclipse in Norfolk, Virginia

 

 

When in Doubt, Improvise

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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