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March 10th, 2009

Ed Kashi: Travels in India 5

Posted by Ed Kashi

Ed Kashi’s recent trip to Rajasthan, India, got him thinking about humans’ unfair and unsustainable practices. But it also reminded him of the privileges and responsibilities he carries as a photojournalist — and hopes to pass on to his children and students. Don’t miss Ed’s earlier posts (1, 2, 3, 4) about juggling family and work as well as the importance of education to his work.
Eli Kashi, Isabel Kashi and Julie Winokur on vacation, in Jaipur, at the Amber Fort.  A local woman poses for money, such a bummer and reminds me of how the world has become spoiled.

A local woman at the Amber Fort in Jaipur poses for money. "Such a bummer," Ed says. "It reminds me of how the world has become spoiled." ©Ed Kashi


What strikes me about being in India is the growing gap between village and city life. City life is dirtier and more chaotic. People are drowning in their own excrement and sullied air. The calm of silence is hard to find, and the constant blaring of horns and the sounds of a civilization on it’s out-of-control march towards modernization leave me questioning the future of mankind.

Rural life is simpler, often set in magnificent landscapes and rich environments, yet impossibly poor by first-world standards. There are too many children, not enough education and health care, and a toughness to daily life that leaves me feeling as uncertain about the fate of man as the city does. If India represents the future of human civilization, an emerging economic superpower, I fear mankind is doomed on this earth. The common denominator between this imbalance and the one I’ve witnessed so graphically in the Niger Delta is a clear lack of sustainability. The more I travel the world with my peering eye and my questioning mind, accruing a privileged wealth of firsthand knowledge, this lack of sustainability is my overwhelming impression.

A Hindu god immersed in rose petaled water.

A Hindu god immersed in rose petaled water. ©Ed Kashi

From my upper-middle-class-but-progressive New Jersery neighborhood to the oil-spoiled countries of Africa and the Middle East, to the overpopulated India and China, to the dirt poor communities across the globe, particularly in the southern hemispheres, we have created an international human community that is in imbalance and cannot possibly sustain itself from the point of view of resources, pollution, overpopulation, and the associated social, economic, and environmental strains. Unless we change our ways fast, failure seems to be the only outcome. Maybe not in my lifetime, but eventually.

These thoughts leave me less than sanguine about life, yet on a daily basis I also witness the spirit of human ingenuity, the life-sustaining power of people’s survival instincts and the glimpses of solutions, both on a small community level and at a global level as practiced by the most progressive corporations and institutions. Take for instance an initiative we learned about, which preserved and developed medicinal plants and herbs native to this Rajasthani community. They have created a nature preserve dedicated to this cause, thereby providing income for the community. While being a photojournalist can be damaging to one’s sense of hope and drive you into a deep hole of despair, there are also uplifting moments and glimpses into how people survive and help one another. It’s this constant cycle of destruction and renewal, part of the life cycle, which I get to witness on a constant basis through the privilege of my roving observations.

Scenes from the National Geographic Photo Camp held in Rajasthan, India.

Students on assignment at the National Geographic Photo Camp in Rajasthan, India. ©Ed Kashi

Every National Geographic Photo Camp I’ve worked on has impressed these notions upon me, and as I get older, the need to receive and give nourishment and cross pollination becomes essential. Being in this rural community in Rajasthan makes me wonder if the future of sustainability, or at least any hopes of survival, will come from the simple, centuries-old agrarian lives people here live. They are not greedy, they live within their means, eat fresh food and all seem to have one need. Yes they could use surer, cleaner sources of water, more reliable electricity, stronger houses, much better education and health care….all the extraordinarily important elements of a healthy life. But at least they live within their means while the developed world lives far outside of theirs, relying on a structure that is unfair, destructive to the earth’s environment, and self-serving.

I am eager to teach, give information to, even lecture my children because I want them to learn what I’ve learned — sooner rather than later. Maybe they’ll be able to take advantage of the information and avoid some of the mistakes I made growing up. This desire also holds true for the photo students I encounter in my workshops. Photography is so much more than image making, particularly photojournalism and documentary work. There are deeper responsibilities and moral and ethical issues connected to your work when you are given permission to enter people’s lives intimately to witness their pain and joy. We photographers become agents of communication, bridging worlds, charged with healing as well as slapping our viewers in the face with information they must know. Students and young photographers must learn this as early as possible to better serve the purpose of this work. We must learn to make the world a better place by shedding light on dark places but also by providing solutions and hope. It took me years to understand this, having spent so much time just trying to make my mark in this profession and struggle with making a living and gaining influence to get my stories out. I want my students to understand these critical elements sooner rather than later.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: What responsibilities do photojournalists have to their subjects? Is communication the final goal of this work? Education? Influence?

March 3rd, 2009

Ed Kashi: Travels in India 4

Posted by Ed Kashi

During Ed Kashi’s recent travels in Rajasthan, India, he pondered the significance of family and teaching in his photography career. Here he talks about the difficult but rewarding experience of teaching a National Geographic Photo Camp. Don’t miss his next post where he talks openly about his struggle to see his work as important in the face of so many dire situations around the world.
Students at the National Geographic Photo Camp in Rajasthan, India, learning to use a camera for the first time. © Ed Kashi

Students at the National Geographic Photo Camp in Rajasthan, India, learning to use a camera for the first time. © Ed Kashi


The first day of the workshop was frustrating due to a selfish teaching assistant. I was tired and cold and wanted to go home. Until then the workshop had not been satisfying; the kids were too timid, unengaged with us, and the conceit of the structure of the workshop began to show through for me. The power and importance of education is what I learn from these experiences, not always smooth or easy.

This workshop was a challenge, to bridge the gaps between us and the students, as well as between the city and rural kids. By day three the magic had begun, with the shy and nervous rural kids finding their voices and comfort levels, expressing themselves more openly to the instructors as well as their urban workshop mates. Likewise, the city kids began to shed their pretensions and superiority complexes, opening up and letting themselves just have fun.

By the end of the workshop the kids had made new friends, the shy had come out of their shells and the smart city kids had shown tremendous teamwork and supported their non-English-speaking rural peers. It was heart warming to see how well the two groups coalesced to support one another, had fun by sharing music and other teenage things, and ultimately moved past their previous stereotypical impressions of one another. Breaking down barriers is what this workshop and my life are dedicated to.

During the workshop’s graduation ceremony, my team of 5 students created and presented me with a poster; I’ve included a few of my favorite comments from it below. I love the first one, written by a stick-thin and very shy village girl named Deepika, who was crying the first day trying to hold a camera to her face and close one eye, something we photographers take for granted but for her was an impossibly weird and discomfiting thing to do.

Deepika…“I like your nature and behavior. I love the way you talk. We were able to learn lot from you and I even like you.”

From another student…“You teach us really nicely. You are very joyful person, which keep us energetic.”

Darhmendra….”I love your style of photography and how you solve our problems.”

February 24th, 2009

New work: Newsha Tavakolian – Hajj

Posted by liveBooks

I met Newsha Tavakolian through Eve, a collective of international women photojournalists we are in close contact with. She’s a talented young Iranian photojournalist who has been working for the Iranian press since she was 16 and is currently represented by Polaris Images. Newsha was one of a handful of photographers given permission to photograph during November’s Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Her photographs are subtler and more personal than those we usually see, and — as I discovered when we chatted for this and her second post — that was no accident.

Newsha reflected in a window during her Hajj pilgrimage. © Newsha Tavakolian

Miki Johnson: Tell me about why you wanted to do photograph Hajj.

Newsha Tavakolian: I always wanted to go to to the holy city of Mecca. So then when I went there in 2006 for a reportage on the death of the late Saudi king, I said to myself, “It would be such amazing place to photograph, I should come back to take pictures during the annual Hajj pilgrimage.” So for two or three years, I was applying for the visa. And I could never get it. But in 2008, I applied just five months before, and I was pushing hard because I really wanted to go there to take pictures. This time they gave me the visa and in a couple of days  I had to be ready to go.

"Please forgive me if I have done you wrong in any way. I am going on Hajj." Newsha wrote that text message to all her family and friends before the pilgramage. She received 100 messages back, plus gifts like this white Hajj dress.

"Please forgive me if I have done you wrong in any way. I am going on Hajj." Newsha wrote that text message to all her family and friends before the pilgramage. She received 100 messages back, plus gifts like this white Hajj dress. © Newsha Tavakolian

MJ: You mentioned that it was very important for your pictures to be personal. Why was that?

NT: If you look at the first picture [above], I was preparing my Hajj dress. It’s a custom when you go to Hajj, you have to ask all the people around you, family members and friends, for forgiveness, because in Muslim culture, when someone comes back from Hajj, no one should be sad with them. If you had a fight with someone, or you hurt someone, and you go to Hajj, your Hajj is not accepted. So everybody should have good feeling about you.

So I did that. I sent a text message to all my family members and friends. I said I’m going to Hajj…you can read the text in the first picture in the caption. Many of my family members and friends texted me back. My cousin brought me a Hajj dress. My aunt brought me prayer beads, and other relatives came, and they said, “Please pray for us. I want a good husband.” Another one said, “I want a good wife. I want a house.”  Because when you go for the first time to Hajj, they say if you pray for someone, it’ll be accepted by God. So I had to prepare myself before I went to Hajj — from a photographic standpoint as well. Because for me, the pictures should show the emotion in such a spritual place, show how people are, and where they are sleeping, and small details. Because many photographers who go there, they are too newsy. But I wanted to take pictures of the journey I’m going through myself.

But of course Hajj is one of the most difficult places to take pictures. Because it’s so crowded. There are too many people there. It’s hot. You have to walk 10 hours…normally it takes half an hour, but because there are so many people, it’ll take 7 or 10 hours to walk between the religious sites. And I had two heavy cameras.

Also it was hard because I was constantly receiving calls from my family and friends. Did I already pray for them? What was it like? My parents’ neighbor even asked me to buy her prayer beads and lay them next to the Holy Ka’ba, the place that thousands of people circle around during the Hajj. I had to take pictures, but i felt guilty because I didn’t have time to do those kinds of things.

Men are required to shave their heads during Hajj. © Newsha Tavakolian

MJ: Tell me about being there, taking pictures. How did people react to you?

NT: Before I went there, I was thinking it was going to be hard. Maybe they won’t let me go to a certain area to take pictures. But in Saudi Arabia, when you go to Hajj, you have a minder with you, a rule which goes for all journalists visiting Saudi Arabia. They bussed all the journalists and photographers around in a group, which was a problem for me since I wanted to avoid having the same angles as the news wire photographers. I had to go out of my way to visit other places or shoot from different perspectives. To capture the feeling, the emotions of the Hajj, you cant be like a Japanese tourist traveling through Europe. I wanted to spend time in certain places, hang out with pilgrims. The high point of the Hajj is only four days so you cannot waste any time.

I was thinking many Muslims wouldn’t want to be photographed. As a photographer, I went to many different places; I covered different things. I know how to deal with people. I try focus on faces of people to see if they are ok with being photographed or not. It’s a spritual trip, so you don’t want to go around destroying people’s private moments too much. I try to be like a fly on the wall and don’t attract too much attention to my camera. Everyone needs to wear white, and in order not to stand out, I wore the same with clothes as everyone else.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: We would love to hear what you think of this new project from Newsha. Leave your thoughts/questions in the comments and she’ll respond when she can.

February 17th, 2009

Ed Kashi: Travels in India 2

Posted by Ed Kashi

In Ed’s first post, he tells us how a chance encounter during a family vacation in India led to a possible new photo project. Here he reflects on a common struggle for many photojournalists: finding quality family time amid a hectic work schedule. Also check out Ed’s third post about the rejuvenating effect that teaching has on him.
Ed Kashi and his family on vacation, in Jaipur, India. © Ed Kashi

Ed Kashi and his family on vacation, in Jaipur, India. © Ed Kashi


Being on the road half the year away from my family is probably the hardest part of being a photojournalist at this point in my life. The challenge of balancing these two vitally important parts of my whole being is essential, because without one or the other, my life would dissolve into an abyss I prefer to avoid. I’m constantly in dialogue with myself to keep in check my compulsion to create and push my boundaries, while maintaining my family’s tight bonds, making sure my children feel loved, continuing to be a vital participant in their lives, and providing my wife with enough support and love. At times, when I’m far away for long stretches, I wonder how I can continue to make it all work.  My wife and kids are tremendously supportive and understanding, yet it’s my sense of loss and longing for their companionship that causes my heartache. What I find so interesting is how both elements of this weird life feed into one another.

It used to be, when the kids were younger, that I couldn’t wait to leave again, within days of getting home. Now I battle with the need and desire to be home and not miss all the amazing things my children are up to, while I also feed off of the engagement with the world my work and travels provide. I couldn’t do this without the unconditional support of my wife, Julie Winokur. She is an incredible woman: a great mother, a talented writer and multimedia producer, and an excellent storyteller. She has that rare quality of the common touch, the artist’s sense of how to put a story together and the writer’s ability to construct narratives. We are so fortunate to have one another. It is rare to be able to combine work, family, and friendship. Not that it’s always easy or fun or loving, but, at the end of the day, we recognize our good fortune. Finding a teammate or collaborator in life is not easy.

Of course, Julie and I constantly imagine how much easier our work life could be without the responsibilities of the children, being able to travel freely, have her join me on my more dangerous and risky projects. But what I’ve come to realize is the vital importance our children have in our work lives. The daily minutiae — making a school lunch, eating a home cooked meal, giving love and support to a sad child, sharing a movie together — help buffer us from our obsessive ambitions. And such simple family pleasures, which make us human and reaffirm our love and commitment to one another, remind us of the most important aspects of our work: new-found sensitivities to other people’s lives and a deeper understanding of what it means to come through for another person who is depending on you.

And what is even more exciting now, as the kids mature and grow up, is that we’re increasingly able to include them in our work. Last year my son Eli, who is 14, assisted Julie and I on two shoots, which gives him a better understanding of what we do, as well as boosting his income dramatically :-)  And at the moment we’re working with Isabel to produce a musical score for an upcoming multimedia piece to accompany my next book, THREE, due out in April.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: Are there other photographers who are frequently on the road for long stretches of time and have a strategy to maintain the balance between work and personal relationships?


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