Before the pandemic, watching the news felt less overwhelming—there was distance between us and global crisis. COVID-19 changed all this, suddenly we all faced the same the threat—for survival. For many of us, the personal undertone and prolonged nature of this pandemic has heightened our sensitivity to confronting issues, wearing down our resolve and empathy.

Still, if we are to create solutions for the future—these challenges facing us all, need our attention.

How then, can we create a safe space to explore vital but confronting issues?

One solution could be to change our perspective, to offer people a different way of interacting with stories.

The International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) are embracing the opportunity to communicate current events through virtual festivals, exhibits and other live/online presentations. ‘The Atlantic Coast Pipeline Virtual Exhibit’, launched earlier this year, displays the images from an iLCP Expedition led by Karen Kasmauski. Creating a visual-storytelling platform that enables people to explore and interact with an important topic from the safety of their homes.

Aerial image of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, from the iLCP virtual exhibit. © Karen Kasmauski / iLCP. All Rights Reserved.

“The fight against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) project had been going on for years. Living in northern Virginia I had heard about it but hadn’t focused on it. Because of a small grant from ILCP I was able to travel to two of the affected Virginia counties, Nelson and Buckingham to see the impact both physically and emotionally on the communities through which the ACP would traverse. Little had actually been built in either county, but the emotional impact was huge. Nelson, a dramatic mountainous county with an economy heavily dependent on a tourism tied to the beauty of area and to which many people chose to retire, had a well-organized group of volunteers fighting the ACP. The ACP compression station, a large structure with security lighting system and compression engines running 24 hours a day was scheduled to be built in Union Hill, a historical black community of freemen in Buckingham county. Many living in Union Hill had been raised in the area, left for work and then came back to retire. They were not going to let this happen if they could help it. These retirees and others organized, working with Nelson to stop the ACP. The Alleghany Blue-Ridge Alliance adapted a mapping technology which recorded the progression of the pipeline and make records of the area through which it was to be built. This technology was invaluable to communities fighting against the ACP. In July of 2020, the partners for the pipeline decided to cancel it, a rare victory to a grassroots movement confirming cooperation, perseverance and stubbornness can help a community win.” – iLCP Senior Fellow Karen Kasmauski

How the Pandemic has created space for a new Perspective!

Karen Kasmauski is a filmmaker, photographer, project manager and educator. Together with her husband, Bill Douthitt, they started Little Black Dog Productions to advise companies and NGO’s on producing visual communication strategies and effective storytelling on global health and change issues. 

In this interview, Karen talks to BEJournal about her virtual exhibit and explores the future of visual reporting.

How do you vet story ideas?

I’ve always been a curious person. I do stories that interest me. I tell my students I can find a fascinating story anywhere and can get excited about almost anything. That can be overwhelming. But once I get focused, I do a lot of research before I ever take any pictures. I call experts, read stories and reports and learn as much as I can to be sure the situation exists and is something that I continue to be interested in. 

When I was an undergraduate, my classes ranged from medieval British history, reading Beowulf in the original old English, German, civil religion, sociology of poverty, pre-med biology, African dance, etc. etc. For me, going to college was like hitting the jackpot for my curious nature, but that didn’t lead to a practical job. So, I became a photographer.

But I have to earn a living, so the stories that get my attention are the ones that have money attached to them—in other words, assignment work. I come from a working-class background and don’t have the resources to self-fund projects. For me to spend time away from my family, I need to at least have my expenses covered. I find it fascinating and disturbing that so many photographers, especially in the conservation field seem to have resources to self-fund. But I often wonder where such stories will be placed if there is no publication. How will enough people will see them to generate an impact?

Which values are core to your creative process?

The core values of my creative process are honesty and compassion. I try to put myself in the shoes of my subjects and avoid making any judgements. To me, it is disturbing that so many “photojournalists” seem increasingly focused on personal interpretation of a situation, emphasizing their own feelings about a story. There is a recent trend towards merging photojournalism and art. To me these are two very different and non-compatible kinds of visual expression.  

We’re in a world of misinformation where the public barely trusts the media. Treating events as vehicles for personal interpretation rather than as situations requiring (as much as possible) objective documentation seems like a dangerous trend. Photography at one point was regarded as a vehicle to truthfully communicate events. I’m not sure that trust is still there.

When communicating confronting and conflicting topics, is it necessary to find an innocuous angle or is empathy through vivid documentary more effective?

People need to report what they see without putting too much of their own emotional baggage into it. I have students who passionately feel they need to edit themselves before even taking a picture, especially when covering events like protests. They are concerned that police might use their images to identify and arrest protestors. That is a legitimate concern but for photojournalists that can also be a dangerous approach to take, especially when one doesn’t know the backstory of the people being photographed.   

Over the last decade, most of my work has been on advocacy issues rather than photojournalism. When I do those stories, I, again, try to put myself in the place of my subject. How would I want to be covered in such a situation?  What does the organization assigning me want me to communicate about their mission?  How can my images get that message across in the most effective way?

Has the enduring presence of a global pandemic desensitized people to environmental and humanitarian issues, making it harder to engage audiences—how can storytellers adapt to overcome this?

The pandemic has nothing to do with it. People have become desensitized way before Covid arrived. In my opinion, social media and the endless churn of online news play leading roles in desensitizing many in our society. We are constantly bombarded with images throughout. I’ve read that the average person sees between 4,000 to 10,000 images a day. News stories are replaced by the hour if not by the minute. The degree to which we are visually stimulated is something no previous generation has encountered, so we really don’t know what the long-ranging effects might be.  

Before we can register outrage at seeing yet another baby dead on the beach or child shot on the street or elephant killed by poachers, we are hit with another image, another news story. This barrage makes it hard to focus on any one issue. We have become a society of continuous partial attention, always looking at multiple things at once. As a result, we find it increasingly challenging to cope with the very complex problems that go with living in a technological society.

Along with that oversupply of images is an under supply of effective media organizations. By that, I mean ones with the resources to explain complexity in ways that connect with large numbers of people. Facebook and Google have gutted the newspapers that once helped play that role. Many photographers now cover what I called “the shiny object.” Easy visuals—people putting flowers at the memorial of shooting victims, overworked health workers tending to dying patients, hillsides burning, demonstrators marching in the streets. They’re all events with little context. What we lack is coverage on why such events are happening. What are the forces culminating in that demonstration? Why are we unable to cope with gun violence? Why has our Covid response been so uneven? How can we deal with such questions if we don’t actually understand why they’re happening? 

Effective visual storytelling needs time and money to deeply explore such issues. They need to be able to research, finding information that can bring stories forward in ways that explain why these events are happening. I don’t need to see another worn out health worker or another vigil for gun violence; I want to understand how those came about. With the shortage of thoughtful media outlets, who will fund such work? So far, the solution seems for news outlets to seek partners who can support this deeper kind of reporting.

From photography and film to virtual galleries, you have found a way to strengthen the interactivity and potency of stories. Can you share any advice for emerging storytellers on innovating the craft for future generations?

There is strength in working with partners. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) coverage was made possible with a grant given to the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP). That paid for the expenses and a fee to do this work. I am a senior fellow with ILCP and the leadership has been aggressive in trying to find money to support conservation photographers in the work they are doing. Funders are more likely to give money to projects which have partners. With this partnership ILCP can develop and promote the final product such a gallery showing, or in times of COVID a virtual gallery shared online. I don’t have the skills to do that, but they do. In a fateful way, the epidemic came at a time where technology has developed to where virtual galleries and zoom calls are practical and easy to share. Even five years ago this would not have been possible. As technologies evolve, I imagine that we’ll soon have even more immersive media, such as 3-D galleries projected directly on the walls of our homes.

One sign of a stable civilization is its ability to support creative endeavors that speak to the human spirit and shared concerns. Storytelling has been with us since we became human—it’s the way we passed knowledge from one generation to the next. There will always be good storytellers. But we’re in a time of technological transitions and what is now missing are the venues where these stories can be shown and the cost of creating them supported. It all takes work and the people creating the content have to be paid in order to keep creating. So, looking ahead, we have to figure this out. If we only see stories created by those with the resources to fund themselves, then we end up with viewpoints created by a privileged class. We need people from a broad range of diversity, not only ethnic but also economic. To attain that diversity, organizations need to financially support storytellers with livable wages. 

What skills and resources do you recommend as essential for this new frontier of reporting?

Frankly, money. If we think storytelling is important to the well-being of society, then industry needs to better support it. The skills are there—you see them on display in the corporate and commercial worlds, where, where advertising creates amazing stories that manage to both sell products and deeply engage human emotions. How do we create incentives to better apply that kind of high-level communication to explaining many issues before us? One hopeful trend is that the tools to do this become steadily better and cheaper. That opens doors for many more people to grow their storytelling skills, giving us more of the diversity in media that we need.

How would you describe the iLCP virtual gallery and what do you hope people will take from the experience?

There is an undeniable quality about visiting a physical gallery and spending time with original photographs, paintings or other art forms. But the virtual gallery goes a long way towards evoking the elegance of that physical experience. I found it a much more effective way to present work than just seeing the photographs as a simple slide show. I hope that perception is shared by others, and that they will enjoy exploring the photographs within the gallery’s contemplative environment. 

Karen in a small village (of approximately 200 people) near the Ganda Birra area of Ethiopia. © Karen Kasmauski / iLCP. All Rights Reserved.

Click here to explore Karen’s virtual exhibit and find her @karenkayphoto.

Explorer and media producer, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide resources and opportunities for creative exploration.