Remembering Camille Lepage

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

Photograph captured by Lepage in 2012 while covering ongoing battles in Sudan. Photo taken from PetaPixel

Photograph captured by Lepage in 2012 while covering ongoing battles in Sudan. Photo taken from PetaPixel

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.

Bioblitzing at Pillar Point

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. 

Photo: A Bergamin.

Photo: A Bergamin.

Photo: A Bergamin.

Photo: A Bergamin.

Can you find the sea star? Photo: A Bergamin.

Can you find the sea star? Photo: A Bergamin.

Photo: A Bergamin.

Photo: A Bergamin.

Photo: A Bergamin.

Photo: A Bergamin.

An epiactis that looks like candy. Photo: A Bergamin.

An epiactis that looks like candy. Photo: A Bergamin.

Photo: A Bergamin

Photo: A Bergamin

Photo: A Bergamin.

Photo: A Bergamin.

 

Smartphones and the Price of Precious

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.

Antarctica Research Stalls After U.S. Government Shutdown

Photo: Colin Mitchell

Photo: Colin Mitchell

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.”

Photojournalists on Mental Health

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that worldwide, one in four people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime.

While countries such as Australia have a comprehensive health care system encompassing mental health issues, vulnerable groups such as those with substance abuse problems, youth, and those living in isolated or rural areas, risk falling through the cracks. The story of Nick Meinhold and his family, struggling to cope with Nick’s psychosis episodes while living in rural Victoria, is one such example.

But many developing countries often suffer a double burden. A legacy of infectious disease, natural disasters and conflict, paired with a healthcare system ill- equipped to cope with mental disorders means eight in every 10 people living with a mental disorder in a developing country will receive no treatment at all (WHO). 

“A greater attention from the development community is needed to reverse this situation”, says Dr Ala Alwan, Assistant Director-General for Non-Communicable Diseases and Mental Health at WHO in a press release. “The lack of visibility, voice and power of people with mental and psychosocial disabilities means that an extra effort needs to be made to reach out to and involve them more directly in development programmes.”

Those living with mental disorders are one of society’s most marginalised groups. Often borne from a lack of understanding and awareness, shame and stigma are attached to those living with mental illness and can often lead to a violation of their human rights.

According to the World Health Organization, some communities banish those with mental disorders, leaving them on the edge of town in rags, tied up, beaten and left to go hungry. At other times and out of shame, they are simply locked in a room. However, this is not an occurrence limited to developing countries. Those in psychiatric hospitals fair little better. Metal shackles and chains are used to confine patients to caged beds or rooms. Due to a range of reasons including a lack of funding and awareness, many facilities are unable to provide clothing, decent bedding or clean water. (As a note, poor treatment of those with mental illness is not isolated to developing countries. Even in the most affluent places, the poor and homeless are generally those simultaneously affected by mental illnesses and it is often these people who receive the least help or treatment.)

Over the past few weeks, I have come across a range of photojournalism projects covering mental illness in the developing world. From Mogadishu to Kentucky, these projects vary in geography and share not only a common theme but also a sense of humanity and respect when portraying a highly vulnerable group of individuals. Click on the images below to view the full projects at their original source.

In any country, culture or language, mental disorders can be a difficult topic to address. And it is for this reason that on World Mental Health day, a discussion needs to begin so that we can foster a greater understanding, awareness and above all, respect, for those living with a mental disorder.  

Nightmare in Mogadishu, Nicole Sobecki

Nightmare in Mogadishu, Nicole Sobecki

 

Disorder: Indonesia's Mental Health Facilities, TIME, Andrea Star Reese.

Disorder: Indonesia’s Mental Health Facilities, TIME, Andrea Star Reese.

 

Frustration and Suffering in Haiti’s Mental Facilities, TIME, Fabio Bucciarelli.

Frustration and Suffering in Haiti’s Mental Facilities, TIME, Fabio Bucciarelli.

 

Condemned: Mental Health in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Robin Hammond.

Condemned: Mental Health in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Robin Hammond.

 

Contained in a Cage, GMB Akash.

Contained in a Cage, GMB Akash.

 

One Photographer's Experience Documenting Mentally Ill Inmates, PBS,  Jenn Ackerman.

One Photographer’s Experience Documenting Mentally Ill Inmates, PBS, Jenn Ackerman.

 

Suffering in Silence, Akhtar Soomro, Reuters  blog.

Suffering in Silence, Akhtar Soomro, Reuters blog.

 

Audio- slideshow: CA rare plant treasure hunt

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.

CNPS Rare Plant Treasure Hunt from Alessandra Bergamin on Vimeo.

2013 International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

“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.

About 200 indigenous people affected by the construction of hydroelectric dams on the Xingu, Tapajós and Teles Pires rivers began an occupation of the largest construction site of the Belo Monte Dam on Thursday, May 2, 2013. They are demanding the withdrawal of troops from their land and the suspension of dam construction until there are regulated free, prior and informed consultations with indigenous peoples. Photo- Ruy Sposati /Agência Raízes

About 200 indigenous people affected by the construction of hydroelectric dams on the Xingu, Tapajós and Teles Pires rivers began an occupation of the largest construction site of the Belo Monte Dam on Thursday, May 2, 2013. They are demanding the withdrawal of troops from their land and the suspension of dam construction until there are regulated free, prior and informed consultations with indigenous peoples.
Photo- Ruy Sposati /Agência Raízes

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 Vanishing Cultures Project

Amy Stretten, nativejournalist.com

Phil Borges- Enduring Spirit

Wade Davis- anthropologist (and photographer)

Jimmy Nelson- Before They

Nett- My New Guinea

June- August Writing Round-Up

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.

Could the ghost of John Muir save Alhambra Hills from development?, 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.

 

 

Notes from a Media Event

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.

The outcome of the morning was a multimedia piece (which needs better audio), a two part article series on oil spill prevention for Bay Nature and an accompanying video clip.

Below are a few images from the day that I thought were particularly strong:

While providing a refuge for wildlife in its many unique habitats, the San Francisco bay is also a major oil refining and shipping hub. Photo: Alessandra Bergamin.

While providing a refuge for wildlife in its many unique habitats, the San Francisco bay is also a major oil refining and shipping hub. Photo: Alessandra Bergamin.

 

Chito Santos (left) and Levone Harris, crew from the National Response Corporation, anchor the boom in place. Photo: Alessandra Bergamin.

Chito Santos (left) and Levone Harris, crew from the National Response Corporation, anchor the boom in place. Photo: Alessandra Bergamin.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife OSPR staff scientist, Dave Price oversees the training from a nearby vessel. Photo: Alessandra Bergamin.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife OSPR staff scientist, Dave Price oversees the training from a nearby vessel.
Photo: Alessandra Bergamin.

 

Crew from the National Response Corporation work on anchoring the boom. Photo: Alessandra Bergamin.

Crew from the National Response Corporation work on anchoring the boom. Photo: Alessandra Bergamin.

 

Firefighters from the Oakland Fire Department watched the training from a nearby vessel. The department received an OSPR grant to purchase boom equipment and undertake spill response training. Photo: Alessandra Bergamin.

Firefighters from the Oakland Fire Department watched the training from a nearby vessel. The department received an OSPR grant to purchase boom equipment and undertake spill response training. Photo: Alessandra Bergamin.

 

The boom is used to construct a pocket to contain the oil and prevent it from reaching shorelines and sensitive habitats. Photo: Alessandra Bergamin.

The boom is used to construct a pocket to contain the oil and prevent it from reaching shorelines and sensitive habitats. Photo: Alessandra Bergamin.

 

On Entitlement.

Last week I attended my first US graduation ceremony.

Although it was quite different to my own in Australia there are certain universalities when it comes to these events- the proud families, the sense of anticipation, the black gowns and of course, the speeches.

What struck me most about the ceremony wasn’t the commencement speech, but a speech given by a student on behalf of her class. I am guessing she was top of her year, excelled in all of her subjects and had participated in a long list of extra curricular activities.

She was enthusiastic, outgoing and had absolutely no idea.

Much of her speech focused on how the graduating class had done the hard yards in life and should now go out into the ‘real world’ to claim the jobs that were ‘rightfully theirs.’

I don’t judge her for encouraging her classmates to seek employment in a fledgling job market, but as I looked around many of the adults in the audience were cringing and the woman beside mouthed ‘oh my god’ to her husband. They were highly aware that very few of these graduates knew the slightest thing about the ‘real world’ or that the hard yards in life had not even begun.

Graduation Day.

Graduation Day.

In 2012 I was one of those graduates and for a long time I believed that I would be given my dream job because I had worked hard at university, graduated and was therefore entitled to it.

After receiving job rejection after job rejection I realized just how wrong this line of thinking is.

As soon as you believe you are entitled to anything more in life than a decent standard of living (which millions of people are denied) you slip into a frame of mind where you stop trying, stop striving for your goal and stop working hard not only to improve your skill set, but to improve yourself.

I don’t believe I am an arrogant person nor do I think that I deserve anything more than any one else. And I doubt the girl giving the graduation speech thought this way either. But often this line of thinking is easier to swallow than the prospect of being unemployed or if you’re lucky, working a job at Starbucks post university.

I am not any wiser than the graduating class of 2013 but through rejection, disappointment and frustration I have learnt that while you are not entitled to a great job simply because you have a degree, you are entitled to a life and the freedom to choose how you are going to live it.

So you could go day in, day out believing that you deserve so much more than life has dealt you or – you could continue working hard knowing that while you have achieved a great mile stone in life there are many more to come; and none of them will be nearly as easy.

Good luck.

 

** Many people would label this a ‘gen y’ phenomenon and perhaps rightly so. But for the purposes of this blog I decided to ignore that debate as I don’t believe it adds any real life value to the discussion.**

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