During the few months of California summer I enjoyed and the following months of Melbourne winter that I endured (it actually wasn’t too bad), I did a lot of reading. Reading for me always comes with travelling and a journey that went from California to Haiti, back to California, then home to Melbourne via Hawaii certainly involved a lot of moving around. Although winter is nearly over (for the southern hemisphere that is) I figured there was still time to compile a quick list of some of the books, articles and websites that I’ve been enjoying.
Disclaimer: They are all non-fiction, I’m in a non-fiction groove at the moment.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo
About six months ago I read Katherine Boo’s New Yorker article, The Marriage Cure. Needless to say I was blown away. I had read a Guernica interview with Boo some time ago and immediately thought — “this is what I want to do, I want this woman’s job.” Behind the Beautiful Forevers is just a Katherine Boo dream. Set in India, the book follows the lives of people — mainly rubbish pickers and sorters — in a Mumbai slum called Annawadi. As usual, the prose is perfect and Boo’s depiction of characters reflects the true complexity of the human experience. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a perfect example of nuanced and thoughtful poverty reporting so much so, I kind of wish I hadn’t read it so quickly.
Darwin Slept Here, Eric Simons
Eric Simons is my former editor and an all round great journalist and guy so reading Darwin Slept Here was very much like having a chat with him over a coffee on a Monday morning. Probably more eloquent, but just as funny and insightful. If you don’t know the author personally, the book is just as great. A twenty-something Simons backpacks through South America visiting sites and following in the footsteps of Charles Darwin. Simons makes a good point that we always consider Darwin to be this stuffy old man with a beard and an idea that revolutionised science. But before that he was a young adventurer and naturalist who essentially traipsed around South America via boat, foot and maybe mule. If you are a Darwin nut, the novel is an interesting look at Darwin before he was the more famous version of himself. And if you are a travel fan, the book is a funny and very relatable read with some science and natural history thrown in for good measure.
Immediately after reading The Best of Outside, I picked up a copy of current Outside. The former I loved. The latter I thought was okay. Not terrible but certainly no Outside magazine of the 1980s to 1990s. Some of my favourites from the book include Susan Orlean’s La Matadora Revisa Su Maquillaje (The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup) and Bob Shacochis’ There Must Be a God in Haiti. One of the results of reading the Best Of was also a bit of an obsession with Susan Orlean’s work: beware.
Anything and everything from Matthew Power
Power is one of those writers who I wish I could sit down with and ask: what are you thinking when you write something like this, or describe someone like that. Unfortunately, that will never be possible. So it is through his writing, through the reading and the re-reading of some of my favourite articles, that I hope in some small way to get closer to a writer I never even knew. For me, his stories are not only great works of journalism but they are inspiring and they are motivating and although in no way are our talents matched, they sometimes remind me that yes, you can do this.
Say Hello To My Little Friend, Outside Magazine, Susan Roach
Wildcatting: A Stripper’s Guide to the Modern American Boomtown, Buzzfeed, Susan Elizabeth Shepard
The American Male at Age Ten, Susan Orlean, Esquire
On the Market, n+1, Alice Gregory
Netherland, the New Yorker, Rachel Aviv
Sleeping with Cannibals, Smithsonian Magazine, Paul Raffaele
The Wells of Memory, National Geographic, Paul Salopek
The Last American Man, Elizabeth Gilbert, GQ (I am no Eat, Pray, Love fan but I really enjoyed this. The lady can write.)
Journalism and travel, together at last. And they are so right. Roads and Kingdoms is the kind of travel writing that is interesting, challenging and engaging. My biggest gripe about a lot of travel writing is that it is either cliche,’ about getting drunk in [insert country] or there is no narrative, no characters, no real point. Of course I like to read the FAQs sometimes, the go here and the eat this, but I also think a lot of travel writing can be better than it is. Roads and Kingdoms is one very big step closer to that.
Flint magazine is a new Australian venture that already has a solid reputation for great photography and has featured some pretty outstanding stories and photographers. Although it is relatively new I think it’s well on its way to becoming a much needed addition to the Australian media scene. Check out Flint Magazine in the next month or so for a feature from yours truly.
What’s on your winter/spring/summer/any season reading list?
Last year, around October, I received a PetaPixel email newsletter that featured an interview with a young photojournalist named Camille Lepage. At the time Lepage was 25 years old, two years older than myself, and living in South Sudan covering the struggles of a new sovereign state. After reading the interview, I impressed not only by Lepage’s intimate yet telling photographs but also by her courage, determination and ability to act upon her aspirations with such conviction.
The interview was also released at a time when I was doubting my own journalism career. I had received advice from someone I greatly respected that my desire to report on underreported issues was a fool’s dream and I would be better off becoming a paramedic. That advice had pinned itself to the back of my mind like a discouraging voice telling me I had gotten everything wrong. But there was a line in Lepage’s interview that resonated with me on a personal and professional level and was a reminder that among the cynics and pessimists of the media there are others who do pursue the topics they are passionate about and on some level, are driven by a personal sense of responsibility that can be missing from the news cycle.
I can’t accept that people’s tragedies are silenced simply because no one can make money out of them. I decided to do it myself, and bring some light to them no matter what. – Camille Lepage
For days after reading that interview, I waxed poetic about Lepage to my boyfriend until finally I jotted down her name on a to-do list, reminding myself to send her an email letting her know how proud I was of her as a fellow journalist, a fellow female and at the same time, as a complete stranger. But that to-do list was eventually tossed in the recycle or lost at the bottom of a bag. And for a time, I forgot about Camille Lepage.
A few weeks ago I learnt of Lepage’s death in the Central African Republic while reading the news in a hotel in northern Haiti. And like much of the world, I was gutted. There is not much in terms of sentimentalities that I can add at this point — but it certainly is a great loss, in tragic circumstances and one that reminds us of the dangers journalists face all over the world in an effort to shed light on a story. From what I have read about her, Lepage illuminated the best of those journalists.
As a brave and determined journalist who never lost sight of the humanity behind the lens, Lepage set the bar high. And as a fellow journalist, I can only hope to meet that standard.
Until I moved to California, I had never heard of a bioblitz. But recently while on assignment I attended one being held at Pillar Point along the Peninsula. And it was fun. It was cold, drizzling and foggy. But it was fun. It brought back memories of easter egg hunts and scavenger hunts and generally anything to do with finding things that are there, but which are largely hidden.
Despite the weather, I soldiered on with my notebook (which was soaked) and camera, and was able to snap a few, not very well framed or even technically correct, but hopefully interesting photographs that captured if nothing else, the dampness of the day.
I own an $80 Huawei smartphone. It is probably the least smart of smartphones on the market but it allows me to make phone calls, use WhatsApp to chat with friends, take photos and upload them to Facebook and listen to music on Pandora. A decade ago, you would have needed a phone, a camera, a computer and some sort of music player to perform most of these tasks. So technology has made our lives exponentially easier,* but therein lies the problem.
What exactly goes into the manufacture of a smartphone? And at what cost to others have our lives become easier?
Photographer Marcus Bleasdale’s photo essay, The Price of Precious, highlights the major problem of conflict minerals that are used in most of the electronic devices manufactured today. His photographs tell part of the story of how mineral mining in the Congo, largely for use in electronic devices, has contributed to unspeakable violence. An excerpt of his text reads:
[The Democratic Republic of the]Congo is sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country and one of its richest on paper, with an embarrassment of diamonds, gold, cobalt, copper, tin, tantalum, you name it—trillions’ worth of natural resources. But because of never ending war, it is one of the poorest and most traumatized nations in the world. It doesn’t make any sense, until you understand that militia-controlled mines in eastern Congo have been feeding raw materials into the world’s biggest electronics and jewelry companies and at the same time feeding chaos. Turns out your laptop—or camera or gaming system or gold necklace—may have a smidgen of Congo’s pain somewhere in it.
Thinking about my own phone, as an example, and the way it has contributed to the “Congo’s pain” led me to the Huawei website. The company has gone to the effort of writing a statement on conflict minerals. On the surface, acknowledging the problem is a step in the right direction but in reality the vague statement is a trivial attempt to ease the consumer’s mind without actually detailing how accountability or ethics are enforced. Huawei continues this greenwashing with their Sustainability Summary Report. While the report shows the company has contributed to global, non- profit projects and there are measures in place to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it does not mention conflict minerals nor detail specifics about factory workers’ wages and working conditions. Like most electronic companies, Huawei has taken some steps towards corporate social responsibility but it is questionable to what extent these translate into tangible and sustainable results.
So, is it possible to buy an ethical smartphone?
According to a Salon article, the short answer is no. But the paradox is that you can use your smartphone, tablet or laptop to learn more and raise awareness about conflict minerals which in turn may pressure companies and governments to seek ethical alternatives. More so, there is a new breed of smartphone in the mix.
FairPhone is a social enterprise based in Amsterdam that are producing the world’s first ethical phone. According to the company’s website, “the main motivation for founding FairPhone was to develop a mobile device which does not contain conflict minerals and with fair labor conditions for the workforce along the supply chain.” According to an Intercontinental Cry article, the company has joined the conflict-free tin initiative and the Solutions for Hope Project which certify the conflict-free status of the tin and coltan (tantalum) that goes into smartphones. They are also addressing the problem of e-waste by working with Closing The Loop “to buy discarded scrap from affected areas, processing what can be safely recovered locally and shipping the rest to professional recyclers in Europe.” Unfortunately it is currently only available in the UK and Europe but FairPhone does have plans to expand their shipping following the production of the first phone model.
While FairPhone is a step in the right direction, there is not yet a universal, ethical alternative that is for sale on the mainstream market. But as Auret van Heerden, president of the Fair Labor Association has said, “none of us want to be accessories after the fact in a human rights abuse in the global supply chain”—and as companies come to acknowledge this, we will hopefully begin to see an increase in ethical options.
*I would argue that life has also become far more complicated with the advent of smartphones, social media and other technologies that while being used for communication are also largely recreational.
Federally funded researchers and scientists have breathed a sigh of relief as the U.S. government ended its shutdown last week. But after a fifteen day hiatus, not everyone is in the clear, and for scientists working further afield the repercussions may continue to be felt.
For Point Blue Conservation Science, a California based conservation science non-profit, the shutdown has threatened to cancel their annual research trip to Antarctica’s Ross Sea, where they have been studying Adélie Penguins since 1972.
Grant Ballard, the Director of Point Blue’s Climate Change and Informatics group, said he is hopeful the trip will go ahead, but so far there has been little news.
“Basically all they’re saying is they’re hoping to restore as much of the science as possible,” he said. “Because our program wasn’t scheduled to start until November, I’m hoping that we won’t be impacted mostly because we don’t require a lot of logistical support.”
Each year Ballard travels to the Ross Sea with a team of researchers to investigate how Adélie Penguins cope with large changes to their environment, such as those brought about by climate change.
Dubbed by David G. Ainley, the renowned penguin expert, as the “bellwether of climate change,” Adélie penguins serve as a tool for monitoring the varying impacts of global warming on the Antarctic environment. Because of their population size, wide distribution and dependence on sea ice, Ballard said they are arguably one of the the best Antarctic species to study. “They sort of serve as sentinels of the Antarctic ocean environment,” he said.
Due to the availability of long-term data, Ballard and his team have been able to study the causes behind penguin population trends, and in the short-term, Adélies are winning.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Adélie penguin colonies began expanding rapidly across the Ross Sea. It seemed that the smallest colonies were growing quickly, while the largest remained somewhat stable. According to Ballard, this led researchers to believe that the colony had perhaps reached its ecological limit.
“That raised the hypothetical question: what is the maximum population size of any animal, especially one in a pristine ecosystem?,” Ballard said. “And we had years of data, completely intact, so we thought we’d be able to get some insight into how these things work.”
“But recently, the largest colonies started once again growing really fast.”
One of the possible reasons behind this relates to the Antarctic environment, or more specifically: the sea ice. Globally, the amount of sea ice is changing, and in both the Arctic and Antarctic peninsula, it is quickly vanishing. But in the Ross Sea, the winter season—during which time the ice expands in size—has been getting longer, meaning good news for the ice-loving Adélie penguins.
“The season is incredibly dynamic and in the last 30 years has increased by 89 days, so it’s potentially a three month longer ice growing season than it was in the 1980s,” Ballard said. “That’s the exact opposite of what’s happening in the Arctic and the Antarctic peninsula.”
Should Point Blue’s Antarctic research be cancelled this year, it will be the first break in an otherwise perfect dataset—one that is not easy to fill in the gaps.
“It would basically make everything more complicated in terms of analysis and reporting,” said Ballard. “And inevitably something weird will happen that you can’t explain, so you then just have to speculate.”
After 17 years of studying Adélie penguins in the Ross Sea, Ballard has not been disillusioned by the cold, remoteness or difficulty of living—for a few months of the year—on the world’s seventh continent.
“Antarctica is mind-blowingly beautiful,” he said. “Most people would actually love it if they had the chance to be there.”
A recent audio- slideshow I created about a California Native Plant Society (CNPS) rare plant treasure hunt I participated in and reported on for Bay Nature. I don’t really consider myself a plant fanatic unless of course it involves a delicious edible vegetable but it turns out native plants are actually quite interesting — especially if they are also rare. Although I don’t think this marine biology fan is a convert just yet.
While many media professionals consider the audio- slideshow a multimedia relic of the past, it combines two of my favourite things: audio and photography. And for this reason as well as the fact it is really hard to do multiple things while kayaking against the wind, it was my multimedia tool of choice. To some extent, I do agree that audio- slideshows are an outdated and certainly not innovative way of storytelling. But when you’re a DIY- multimedia- learning kind of journalist, you just do what you can with the skills you’ve got and next time, do something better.
“All these peoples’ cultures teach us of other ways of being, other ways of thinking, other ways of orienting yourself in the earth” – said National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis.
Yet while indigenous peoples make up around 5 percent of the world’s population, they account for 15 percent of those living in extreme poverty.
August 9th marked the 2013 International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples- celebrating the 370 million indigenous men, women and children living around the world. From the unique marriage traditions of the Surma people in South Sudan and southwestern Ethiopia to the 841 languages spoken across Papua New Guinea there is much to be celebrated about the diversity of culture, language, life and thought that indigenous peoples bring to the world. But at the same time, many groups live in poverty, face discrimination, are constantly at threat of losing their land to extraction projects or logging, face significant cultural and language loss and struggle to make their voices heard in decision- making on a local, national and international level.
Although a few weeks late, I wanted to share some of my favourite photographers and writers focused on indigenous peoples and issues. This list is by no means comprehensive so please leave any suggestions in the comments!
The past few months have been a bit lazy on the blog front but I’m glad to say, busy on the writing front. With a little holiday back home in Australia and a lot of sunshine over here in the bay, it’s been hard to keep myself indoors, but following the advice of Lorena over at Big State, Big Life, I’ve put on the egg timer for 20 minutes a day and finally begun etching away at my to- do list.
Here’s some of the things I’ve been up to:
Redwoods growing faster in a warmer climate, Bay Nature.
It’s always sunny in California over at The Backpacker Collective is a new series of character and location vignettes aimed at documenting the ‘real’ California in whatever way it presents itself. Part One in the series was Manuela followed by Nathan, part two.
I just started taking a Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas ‘Data Journalism’ MOOC which I hope means you will be seeing far more infographics and data driven journalism on this blog.
A few weeks ago, I attended a media event on oil spill response held by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Being ushered from scientist to scientist, land to boat and shown a myriad of oil spill prevention technology proved to for quite a well orchestrated event and interesting morning. Despite this, there were only a handful of media organizations present at the event and most, as expected, got their quotes and left. Given I was representing a dedicated environmental magazine, Bay Nature, I had the luxury of spending the morning at the event and, getting a free boat ride out on the Bay.
While I was primarily there to write an article, I decided to use the opportunity to focus on visual storytelling as well. Juggling interviewing, photography and trying to take video, is actually very difficult. Since then I’ve been reading a lot more about how to juggle this sort of solo multimedia reporting and the key seems to be practice and planning.
Lam Thuy Vo’s website and blog has some fantastic resources on what medium to use when and why, video and photography ‘cheat sheets’ as well as a break down of some of her recent work. The Online News Association also has great advice from MJ Bear Fellows who are paving the way for innovative digital content.
Below are a few images from the day that I thought were particularly strong: