Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Posts Tagged ‘War

Japanese War Brides Film

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Cover package for Japanese War Bride DVD

Cover package for Japanese War Bride DVD

Four years ago I began working with two other women on a wonderful project that has finally come to life. In partnership with Lucy Craft, a Tokyo based reporter for National Public Radio, and Kathryn Tolbert, an editor for the Washington Post, we set out to tell our shared story. Our mothers were Japanese War Brides. After World War II, each of them met and married an American serviceman.  All were part of a movement of almost 50,000 Japanese women who followed their husbands to the United States to live and raise families.

Their story has rarely been told, so we set out to make a documentary about their journey.  To fund the project, we ran a Kickstarter campaign, allowing us to hire Blue Chalk Media, a wonderful Brooklyn based production company to shoot the film. The result, combining interviews, historical film and family photographs, is a 26 minute documentary, titled “Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight: The Japanese War Brides,” airing between August 14 and 20 on BBC World News.  Blue Chalk also created a great War Bride trailer for the film.  This is a little known piece of American history.  Its a story of tolerance, forgiveness and perseverance, about making piece with one’s former enemy. An elegantly packaged DVD will be available later this year on the War Bride Project Website website. I hope you are able to see it.

Written by kasmauski

August 15, 2015 at 4:36 am

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.

Using Common Sense and Kindness

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Showing kindness during the 1995 Kobe Earthquake

Showing kindness in the aftermath of the 1995 Kobe Earthquake

My blog, like my life, doesn’t always travel in a straight line.

I started to write about my recent trip to Africa. But then I read a column by Petula Dvorak of the Washington Post about movie theater security people evicting a disabled man from the theater in Frederick Maryland—an action that resulted in the man’s death.  This event happened in the greater  Washington DC area, but it could have occurred anywhere.

That tragedy—over a ten-dollar movie ticket—was just one one of several events in the past month where unnecessary force resulted in death.  During this Easter Sunday—the most important Christian holiday—I’m wondering about what seems like a shift in our society towards such violence.

According to current United Nations data, the gun murder rate in the United States is 20 times the average for all other countries in the world.

These tragedies—whether using violence on a disabled man for a trivial issue, shooting and killing a neighborhood teenage that drunkenly wanders into the wrong house or the far too familiar mass killings of school children—leave me wondering how we got to this point.  Why is there an increased use of force when problems are encountered? Why do we seem to think it okay to “stand your ground,” shoot first and talk later?

Our films, television, music and especially our games are saturated with violence.  Much of it is delivered without consequence—someone gets shot and the shooter just walks away.  Has this glut of graphic imagery and action contributed to making us a more violent culture?

Are we training a generation to be so overworked and overstressed that they don’t think their actions through, “using common sense” as my father use to say? Did that movie theater clerk fear that he or she would be fired for allowing a handicapped person to stay on for a second sitting?  Did he or she think through the consequences of calling security?

More disturbingly the security team—all of them off-duty sheriff deputies—showed a similar lack of common sense. Could they not assess the situation and realize this was a disabled man who was not acting logically?  Why did they need to move immediately to physical force?

I’m no pacifist and no stranger to conflict. I know that force is sometimes required. I come from a military family. My father served for 35 years in WW II, Korea and Vietnam. My husband’s father was a career military office, a Green Beret who served in Korea and Vietnam. My brother served in the first Gulf War and my niece served in Bosnia. I have looked down a barrel of a gun three times in my life–once when a gas station where I worked and got robbed and twice when rogue soldiers arrested me in Africa. There is nothing more life altering than looking down a barrel of a loaded AK-47.  It makes you aware of just how final the use of force can be.

But for my father, or my father in law, both combat veterans, force was always the position of last resort.  Today as a nation, we seem to forget that lesson. There is a fierce determination among many to be armed with weapons that would have astounded the Second Amendment authors with their power.  Yet the determination to educate our children—and adults—away from violence and force seems far less fierce in our culture.

Workmen moving goods at the Port of Rotterdam

Workmen moving goods at the Port of Rotterdam

You can find other ways of coping with stressful situations. Years ago, I photographed a story on the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands.  I spent time with the Port security force. I was surprised that the guards had no weapons. I asked one guard what he would do if he caught someone stealing cargo.  “We would try to arrest them,” he replied, “but is it really worth taking the life of a person over stolen goods? A life can never be replaced, but the property can.” I’m not sure how much of that I could live by but it’s a useful perspective to think about the role of force in our country.

Thousands found shelter in public schools after the Kobe Earthquake.

Thousands found shelter in public schools after the Kobe Earthquake.

A few years after Rotterdam I covered the 1995 Kobe Earthquake in Japan. Over 5500 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were homeless. Many found shelter in large school gymnasiums, sleeping side by side next to strangers. Yet the Japanese persevered, knowing they were all in it together and also that whatever was left of their homes would not be vandalized. I saw jewelry stores with rings still displayed in broken windows and liquor stores that placed all their bottles on the street, ringed with yellow police tape. As far as I know, nothing was stolen.  Theft was unthinkable.

For the survivors of the Kobe quake a bowl of soup may have been their only hot meal each day.

For the survivors of the Kobe quake a bowl of soup may have been their only hot meal each day.

But what I remember most from that earthquake was a situation similar in some ways to the theater in Frederick, but with a very different outcome.  A food truck arrived at one of the shelters. People lined up.  Everyone was hungry and on edge.  When the kettle of hot soup arrived, an older man began yelling and pushing to the front of the line. Not speaking Japanese I had no idea what he was saying, but I could see everyone around him becoming alarmed and agitated. Then a shelter worker came up to the man. He spoke softly to him, not raising his voice. The worker hugged the older man, keeping his arms around him and calming him down. Finally the shelter worker walked him to the front of the line and gave him soup. I could feel the tension in the shelter fade away. Although it seemed like the episode lasted a long time, it was probably over in two minutes.

That simple act of kindness affected everyone, including me. The shelter worker recognized that anger from one man could infect a whole crowd. He had the training and common sense to properly defuse it. With the young man in the movie theater, if the security officers had taken the time to find his caregiver and talk, they would have learned that he didn’t like to be touched and might have altered their response.

Common sense can be found closer to home. In Dvorak’s column, she mentions another security guard who responded to a mentally ill woman at a CVS. The woman had eaten food for which she had no money and was yelling loudly about it in the checkout line. Unlike those officers in the movie theater, this security officer diffused the potential violence by speaking calmly to the woman and leading her outside. She made the decision that the well-being and security of the other customers was more important than the few dollars worth of food the woman had eaten.

Isn’t the safety and well being of individuals more important than the price of food—or a movie ticket? That seems like common sense.

Written by kasmauski

April 2, 2013 at 7:57 pm