Updated: Oct 30, 2018
Author Jenn Mishra
This week, I talked with National Geographic photographer Karen Kasmauski about how she makes connections through her photography, photographing mindfully, and the ethical questions all photographers should ask.
When photographing, Karen tries to be a fly on the wall, capturing people living their lives.. “I try to have a conversation with people, try to connection with my own life.”
Karen’s first story was part of a grant for a folklore group doing an oral history project in Appalachia.
"This was a completely different cultural group to my own, but a similar economic group. I had no training as a journalist or interviewer. I had to go up to people's homes, knock on their doors.. I was always amazed when they'd let me into their homes and feed me."
Karen used her background in visual art to instinctively create images. She tries not to pose people, but rather gets them engaged in what they’re doing.
"There’s a whole different facial expression when people are posing from when they are engaged in the activity. This is the difference between a good and an ok photograph. A good photograph shows insight into that person and what they may have been feeling at that time."
Karen describes herself as having an almost insatiable curiosity.
"I can get really excited about a lot of things. I can be obsessed with almost anything. I can talk to anyone about anything. I’m not overtly social, but once I get permission to talk to someone, I can just about have a conversation with anyone about anything – politics, street signs, tools.. I browse the newspapers every day – every section. The world has become a silo; the news is curated for us. We don’t have a chance to explore."
Karen leads photography expeditions for National Geographic, recently returning from places like Iceland and Antarctica. When traveling, Karen suggests creating a story to guide our photography.
"Lot’s of people mindlessly shoot. When I look at old photographs, they seem better composed even from non-trained people like my father. Shooting digital, we’re not always careful, not being mindful of what we shoot. We figure we can always throw it away. I’m just as guilty as the next person I might throw away 1/3 of my images or more because I can. This makes us sloppy observers and sloppy photographers. If we really look at the scene, we might be amazed at what we see. My father had no photography training, but he carefully composed each picture. He couldn’t afford to buy roll after roll of film."
Part of being a mindful photographer is being aware. “Don’t look away!” Karen cautions. “Wait for the unexpected shots. To get the serendipitous shots, you must always be aware. As soon as you look away, something will happen and the moment is gone.”
The end of our conversation turned to the ethics of photography.
Social media means we constantly want to share our images, but do the people in the images want to be shared? The easy ability to share images now doesn’t mean that it’s morally or ethically ok. “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.”
Everyone who publishes on social media is in effect a "photojournalist", but photos posted with misinformation or out of context can be damaging.
We bring our own culture into the photograph and bias – even unintentional bias – can show in the image. “We are the sum of who we are and our vision reflects that. Even in what we choose to photograph and how we photograph.”
A case in point might be a photograph of a person sleeping on the street. The assumption might be that this person is homeless, but without talking to the person, this is only our assumption. Karen’s example involved photographs of Hispanics. In a magazine piece she did years ago, the editors put everyone of Hispanic descent on the same page as if they were from the same cultural and economic group. Paired were people whose families had settled in the U.S. hundreds of years before with recent those who had migrated illegally over the US Mexican border. In today’s political climate, viewers may question their immigration status, but many Hispanic families helped settle America and have been here for centuries.
Once the photographs are online, they are published for the world to see and for others to use out of context. A photograph out of context may create an assumption that isn’t true.
The use of Photoshop to alter images is another issue.
"Photoshop makes it easy to change a photograph - change a face, insert an animal. Now it’s hard to believe a photograph. The tools we have can be dangerous or wonderful. Photographs can be used to change society or as a weapon – they’re not just a pretty picture.
Cameras are so smart now, we need to know what to do with the data. Once we put a photograph online it’s part of the world. Everyone on social media is part of the general media group. We need to ask ourselves the ethical questions."
Karen reminds us to be mindful when we photograph and also mindful when we post the images online – to remember that our images are now a part of the interconnected world.
** This post may contain affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.
Article Written by Jennifer Mishra
Jennifer Mishra is an American travel photographer born in Colorado and based in the St. Louis metro area. She has a background in classical music and academia. She is the founder of PhotoYoga. Her photos are published at Wits End Photography or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.
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