Bag-less Lady

It was the same weather on both ends. When I left Dallas on Mother’s day there were tornados circling us like a pack of wild dogs. At least for the morning hours… which was enough to throw the whole airport into utter chaos. I was lucky enough to get a direct flight from Dallas to Paris instead trying catch a connecting flight through Chicago as originally planned.

“If you don’t find your bag when you get to Paris, file a complaint first thing, okay? I can’t guarantee where this thing will end up.” The stewardess at the counter told me.

True to her word when I got to the baggage claim area I heard my name being called over the loud speaker. A few no-problem-at-all’s and I-thought-this-might-happen’s and some paperwork and I was out of there.

So the first two days in Paris were spent in sweatpants. Not that I care that much but they get old after awhile. And in Paris no less. Not where you want your inner redneck to shine.

“Madame Dowsett, your bag is here, we are delivering it to you in a few hours,” my new friend Lucie from CDG airport told me.

Many more than a few hours later the delivery guy shows up with a huge smile on his face. An internal frown washed over me when I realized that no, sorry, that is not my bag. He tried to convince me that it was my bag, and when that failed he proceeded to hit on me. Great.

Several more days and phone calls later when I was about to leave Angers, France (1.5 hours train ride from Paris) after visiting friends there – I get news that somehow my bag is in the town of Le Mans. A town that our train would be passing through.

And then I found out that our train did not actually stop there.

Glorious theatrical feats ran through my head as I pictured the perfect timing of someone throwing the bag from the platform while the train was moving as the whole station cheered in excitement and awe that my bag was finally back in my loving arms.

The reality was that the train slowed to an overly dramatic crawl as we passed through Le Mans and I was forced to stare longing out the window, knowing that my bag was out there, somewhere, all alone and possibly lost forever.

The next plan of action was to send the bag to Nairobi. I knew this sounded like a horrible idea, but there were no other options now. I wrote down my address and how to get to my address (ie: go to that one bank next to that one market in that one part of town and take your first right). I also resigned myself to never seeing my clothes or cherished items again.

You see the problem is not that my clothes were missing really. Or that my suitcase was gone. The problem is that when you only have one bag of clothes in the world, you realize just how specialized your life has become. I have spent the last three years whittling down my life to fit in one such bag. All the necessities for me to live anywhere in the world well are in that bag. And to recreate what’s inside that bag might also take years.

When I reached Nairobi I soberly walked through customs. No one even batted an eye at me.

“This girl has a backpack and a messenger bag. She has nothing to declare.” They thought.

But for the next two weeks I declared almost daily how much I missed my clothes and my ice pack and my belt and my sandals and my purse. Declarations galore. Much to the patience of my roommates ears.

The saga continued every two days for two weeks when the baggage claim guys in Paris would email or call and say my bag was on the next flight to Nairobi. Out to the airport I would truck, sign all the paperwork, hand search through lost luggage, only to confirm that again, it was not there. Call Paris back. Oops, sorry, your bag got kicked off the flight. At one point the bag was lost completely but found again three days later in Amsterdam.

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I started having dreams of blasting social media with me and my suitcase. “Last seen on mothers day” with this endearing picture of us together. A lost puppy, a lost suitcase.

Now we come to last night. A surprise phone call from the airport at JKIA in Nairobi saying that my bag was found. Three hours of driving to the airport. Ten minutes searching for it. And at last. We were reunited. I will not lie that I almost started crying. Peace.

The final round of comic relief found us outside the terminal when it started raining. I was waiting for my friend to circle around and pick us up when the skies opened up and drenched us.

I stared blankly at the bag, blinked and then chuckled to myself.

After three weeks of separation, it’s so sweet to wear my own jeans again.  I do not take this victory lightly.

The End.

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Bag-less Lady

Mental Health and Mental Illness

I have debated sharing this for a while now. A few people noticed but not enough to make a big deal out of it. I didn’t want to make a big deal of it at least. Everyone has their own problems and their own weight to carry. I told a few people, those that could help, but for the most part I kept silent. And it was okay to do so. I needed the time and the freedom.

But after reading this article talking about mental health and journalists I realize that I maybe I should bring it up now.

Despite our role as transmitters and amplifiers of information, when trauma hits home, journalists are hesitant to be honest if they are suffering, much less ask for help. “Journalism is one of the last careers to acknowledge the world of trauma,” Newman said. “The culture of the profession says, ‘We are observers; we aren’t the ones to be observed.’” A Mental-Health Epidemic In The Newsroom

Many of you know that I have been in and out of Africa for the last three years. It’s been a beautiful journey and a hard one. Many things were mended and many things were broken worse than they were before. Some days it’s the only place on earth I want to be. Other days I’d rather be anywhere but here. But this is normal. Everyone feels that way at one time or another.

The problem started early last year when I stopped leaving my apartment. And then stopped leaving my room. And then stopped leaving my bed. All of this was before a series of significant deaths marched through my door.

It was more than depression. It was rooted in a deep understanding that the world was flawed and I was flawed and a hopelessness that said it cannot change. I cannot change. The world is stuck on this trajectory of self-destruction and I am incapable of adding anything good to it. I have failed.

I started having panic attacks several times a month and then several times a week. Around January 2015 I had nearly, completely, shut down. You can always pull yourself together for an appearance, but the other side of that is wasteland.

It became more and more clear that I needed a break. And a good long one if I were going to survive much longer. No more refugee camps. No more death and dying. No more survivor stories. No more.

But where are you supposed to go? I dreamed of isolation as if this would cure me. If I could just be alone long enough, if I could just really feel these things strong enough, maybe there was hope.

I am blessed to have so many good people supporting me who pointed me in the direction of L’Abri. Some of you will know this name from the theologian Dr. Francis Schaeffer who founded it in the 1950’s.

I was given the opportunity to attend the branch in Canada outside Vancouver and it was here that things started to make sense again. For two months a group of six to 20 of us ate together, read together, worked together, and lived together. We all came with different questions, different life paths, different hopes and dreams. But it was through this process that I learned to slow down. To invest in others and myself. For most of 2014 I hardly spent more than a week in one place at a time. Here I spent two months with the same people, learning to love them and be loved by them. I laughed, fully and often. I played guitar again. Started learning to draw. Made crafts. I felt strongly and wept bitterly. Was held by those who had come to know my story and come to love me all the more for it.

I checked my emails a few times a week and Facebook on Sundays. A few sporadic phone calls to my family. But otherwise I was isolated in this little modern co-ed monastic life. I also didn’t take my camera, which was one of the wisest things I could have done. It was good to see photography as art again, even if it was only through my iphone. It was good to take the power away from photography. To see it as a tool, not a device with salvific strength.

There are many more things to be said of this time in my life. Of the brokenness that was there and still is. Of the letting go and receiving. But what I really want to say is, mental illness, whether one grows into it or one is born with it, is something to be cared for and listened to. Do not think yourself so strong.

When a fire burns our body, we go to the hospital and rest. When fire burns our minds we let it burn until we feel nothing.

“That culture needs to change… But it is up to those of us in the field to change the way we think and talk about mental illness.” – Gabriel Arana

All photos taken on an iphone4s: LAbri001 LAbri002 LAbri003 LAbri004 LAbri005 LAbri007 LAbri009 LAbri010 LAbri011 LAbri012 LAbri013 LAbri014 LAbri015 LAbri017 LAbri018 LAbri019 LAbri020 LAbri021 LAbri022 LAbri023 LAbri025 LAbri027 LAbri028 LAbri029 LAbri031 LAbri032 LAbri033 LAbri035 LAbri036 LAbri037 LAbri038 LAbri040 LAbri041 LAbri043 LAbri045 LAbri047 LAbri048 LAbri049 LAbri050 LAbri051 LAbri052 LAbri053 LAbri054 LAbri055

Mental Health and Mental Illness

Hector Garcia Jr., A life apart

Hector

Hector is a name that has come up a lot in my conversations with Lisa Krantz over the last few years. When we first met in 2012 she was already well underway in documenting his struggle with obesity. Something she did for over four years total.

My own struggles with weight issues started to come to fruition around the same time as I lost over 100 lbs. After losing the weight, something in my mind snapped and I felt that I deserved the life I suddenly had created and began taking advantage of everything I had worked so hard for. I gained much of the weight back over the next year.

I met Hector for the first time hours before he died on December 8th 2014 in San Antonio, Texas. Seated in his chair, talking on the phone with a peaceful look on his face. When he ended the call he was delighted to engage with us. Over the weekend I had been listening and reading hours of interviews to help Lisa compile some of the video for the project on him.

When we met, I felt like I knew him in ways that I’m not even sure I know myself. I saw his pain and his fears. I felt my own weakness bleeding through his words. We talked for hours. About counseling. His childhood. His dreams and fears. I told him that I knew what I went through to lose so much weight the first time and that I didn’t want to have to go through it again. He said he understood and calmed my fears. I felt like a child at his feet. Listening. Absorbing all I could from what he had learned thus far about life. He was kind and genuine.

“Unfortunately, I can’t stop cold turkey,” he said during one of the previous interviews with Lisa. “That’s what makes it so hard, that you can never stop eating.” Something that he reiterated during our time together. He compared his life to a druggie having to take a pinch of coke every day. Or an alcoholic having to only take one shot. Every day. I had never thought of this before.

There was hope in his words that things were about to change for him. That maybe this time he would go through counseling with his new insurance. Maybe this time he would try fighting for himself and not for others.

“My life is a cautionary tale,” he said; a phrase that he repeated often.

I asked him what was the main point he wanted to get across from the project and without hesitation his response was that other’s would learn from his family and his mistakes in dealing with children who are overweight. When I told him that his story had already impacted my life, a big smile washed over his face. I kept thinking how brave he was to open up so much of his life to a journalist, to inspect and analyze, how much trust had been developed between him, his family and Lisa.

This is why I think his story is so powerful. As Lisa said at one point, his story is not just compelling because of what he’s gone through but even more so because of the way he articulates the struggle in all of us. His words are vibrant and breathtaking. He opened his heart to us in a way that we rarely do with those closest to us.

I am also inspired by the dedication and empathy Lisa showed while working with Hector. I believe in the power journalism has to change the world but it’s refreshing to watch it unfold before me on so many different levels. The way she interacted with the family the night he died was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in journalism. She mourned with them, heartbroken, while still fighting to tell his story with the most impact.

May Hector’s story and Lisa’s work be warning sign to those of us who struggle with this and bring compassion to those who don’t.

RIP Hector. I’m blessed to have met you.

Click on this link to view Hector’s story by Lisa Krantz and the San Antonio Express News

Hector Garcia Jr., A life apart

Dallas Protest

If I had more energy I would write a rather lengthy post about the woes of being a freelancer and shooting something that, turns out, not one wants to pay for. Which makes sense because like 200 people were arrested in NYC tonight and like only two here.

I will instead just share some photos I would have sent to an agency. Otherwise these images will forever live on a hard drive comforted by cob webs and dust mites.

Yesterday, December 5th 2014, hundreds of people gathered in downtown Dallas to protest race discriminations by police officers. #DontShoot #Dallas #Ferguson #EricGarner #Protest

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Dallas Protest

A culture of dying and the hope of living

I met Korie James in 2009 when I did my internship with BTL in Kenya during which time I wrote an article on him and his work with Bible translation.

I was young, 20 to be exact. I still understand little of Kenya but my thoughts were far less developed then; though perhaps my heart was more open and willing to see.

2009 was a horrible famine year. Still the worst of the last five. As I interviewed James I heard his passion for his people. A sadness mixed with resiliency coated his words. He had hope but it was a tired hope. One of long-suffering.

A few weeks later, when I was home in the U.S. preparing to celebrate my much awaited 21st birthday, Korie sent me an email. He had made it back to his family with a truckload of food but he was too late. He had a few hours left with his mother before she died of starvation.

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In a song by Bon Iver he says, “At once I knew I was not magnificent.” This phrase has been on repeat for months now as I have fallen apart many times over. Under the grief that death brings. I have lost my mind through many world rotations. I have believed the worst of man. Of myself. I have doubted the power of light. Of truth. If truth even ever existed.

Those who have walked through it with me have been braver than myself to sit in the rippled silence surrounded by daunting unanswered questions. There have been only a few words. And when they do come they are covered in a shroud of unexplainable weightiness.

As the cloak has slowly cascaded around me, and I begin to see the world more clearly again, I recognize a renewed sense that I am not here to save. Which is by far the most relieving thing that has come to mind in ages.

I am here to love and be loved. And it is in loving that we also share in the suffering of others.

“The only life we know now is suffering,” a Daasanach village elder told me in late 2013 while sitting inside his dome-shaped hut near Illeret, Kenya. “Twelve to 15 years ago things started changing, especially the climate. Things are upside down now. Every year is worse than last year and it makes me scared for the future,” he said.

Traditionally the Daasanach are a nomadic community on the border of Kenya and Ethiopia, but in recent years they have put an emphasis on fishing and have adopted a more sedentary lifestyle. They are a tribe of between 60,000 and 80,000 people and are a marginalized people group with little political power, remotely isolated, exploited, and vulnerable to famine and disease. Because of their mobility, they are given little attention by either nation’s government. Their geographical isolation leads to further neglect. By road, it takes three full days of driving from Nairobi to reach a decent-sized town, with scarcely a fellow vehicle to be seen along the way.

Over these last five years I have seen the Daasanach as having a culture of dying. They live on the brink. Death comes often. Indiscriminate of age or gender. It comes with a vengeance.

“Our cows and goats are so skinny they often don’t produce milk,” a tribal elder said. “We work hard to tend to these animals just for them to die? It’s just like we, ourselves, are being slaughtered. Now we are just waiting for people to die. It won’t be a surprise to hear of someone’s passing.”

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Death has never been more real to me than it is now and in this grieving I am also realizing that they have a pretty accurate handle on life, based on this understanding of death.

Because when you live your life knowing that it could all be over soon, you’re willing to do extraordinary things. Fear is something to be tamed and harnessed and driven into the sunset.

We are all fools locked into our own hopes that maybe we will do something that matters. We are all searching for a way to save ourselves. All the ways we plaster over the wounds. Ours and theirs. But it’s becoming the most liberating thing not to save, but to share. To share deeply my wounds and the wounds of others.

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I share their story because they trusted it to me. I share their story because I believe they will find a way to change their lives.

I get it. Because I don’t want to be reminded either. That there are race riots and terrorist attacks. That there are orphaned children in Syria or tsunami victims in the Philippines that still haven’t been able to rebuild their lives. Because the world is just too big and how can any of us really make a difference.

I share this with you because the brokenness in me sees hope in them. And that’s a message I want to share with the world. Take a moment to watch this video and see if the same message comes true for you. If it does, think of doing something about it.

Want to see more images from the community? Check them out on my webiste, here.

A culture of dying and the hope of living

Joan of Arc

It is only my calendar that can remember the exact date. My mind knows it happened, but refuses to accept more than that. Even acceptance is often a struggle.

It’s been two months since I found out and the tears are still as frequent now as they were then. Though now I hide them more. I wipe them away before anyone in the car with me can see. A speck of dust caught my eye.

I realize that this is grief and loss in a way that I have never known before. Anger and sadness well up from nowhere and linger in that soft place inside me. We are all still reeling, I believe, evidenced in our consistent conversations of feeling lost and broken without her. Sometimes we try to spur each other on. Sometimes we just sit in the silence together knowing that there really isn’t much left to say.

I am broken more for humanity, and it’s loss of her. Oh what waves she was going to make. What pots she was going to stir. But every time I take a good picture I still want her to be one of the first ones to see it. And then I weep for her mother who has been so strong.

Now I know some part of me believed that if she was out there fighting, maybe I could take the back seat more. I could rest easy knowing that at least she was out there telling the stories of those who no one wanted to listen to.

Now I know I could never have been more wrong and that we all must fight our own fights as hard as we can.

After her funeral I placed a candle under the feet of Joan of Arc in Notre Dame. I prayed for them both to give the rest of us strength to carry on. I prayed for their souls and for mine. That I would not be scared anymore. That I would be able to let go of myself in order to love others well.

In the book “Get the Picture” by John G. Morris, he refers to the death of famed war photographer, Robert Capa, by saying, “Bob belonged to the world” and this surely is the truth of Camille Lepage as well.

From France to Egypt to the Kenyan border of Ethiopia, I have roamed since. I have lost control of my grief many times over in each of these places.

I push myself forward, now, knowing that she would have been pushing too. I am a far cry from a war photographer, but I know there will always be stories that need to be told. Issues that need the light shed on them.

This is why my bank account is empty and my hard drives are running out of space. Because I refuse to let Camille’s light burn out or her flower fade. Because I must follow my own path as fiercely as she followed hers.

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“We are like slaves…”

This is the Daasanach fight. Coming soon… their story.

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Honoring the life and death of Camille Lepage

Camille Lepage, a 26-year-old French photojournalist died on Monday May 12th, 2014 in Central African Republic.

I stare at these words in internet articles, Facebook posts, in conversations, and all I can think is that poor girl, that poor member of the journalist family that I didn’t know. Because I’ve never known anyone who died in combat photography. It just doesn’t happen outside of the Bang Bang Club.

Camille faced death so many times and always made it out alive. She was always going to make it out alive. And she wasn’t just any combat photographer, she was Camille, my friend and hero.

IMG_2284Over the two years that we have known each other, I suppose I’m lucky that so much of our conversations were over email and Facebook messages. In those words are now a living testament to her life and her soul.

Maybe I’m lucky, too, that I never shot with her in a combat zone. Our conversations were idealist ones, about changing the world… always changing the world. She was my strength on those dark days that pushed me back to the light.

“You, as a photojournalist, are the messenger, you’re not the one who will implement new laws on Human Rights in Russia or Chechen, you’re not the one who will put rapists in jail, you will not cure Aids and won’t give food to all of those who are malnourished, but you’re the one, and that’s essential, who is going to denounce those things. Your job, or at least that’s how I see my role, is to make it as appealing as possible so people can relate to it and ideally put pressure on those in charge and whose role is to make things change!” – Camille Lepage, December 1, 2012

In Jaunary this year we slipped away to Mombasa for a vacation. She said it was the first time she had truly rested in years; she didn’t even take her camera which she noted hadn’t left her side in as long as she could remember.

Our last night together, we closed down the bar by talking with the Maasai guards who were there. It was quite a sight to behold. She and I and six Massai dressed in full traditional clothing. We must have talked for an equal number of hours. I remember how intently she asked them questions, about their culture, their families, if leaving their loved ones behind for work was hard. She asked nothing that would relate back to her. She was intent on knowing them inside their own context.

Meanwhile I was asking questions like, “How do you guys feel about tourists and white people in general?”

She looked outward for her questions. I looked inward.

I sat and listened most of the night. I watched her. And learned from her how to learn from people.

Earlier that day she told me, “You need to not see them as different. See them the way they see themselves. Show them as if they were white. You need to look at them as if they were your brothers. Stop thinking about you, you have to think about them.”

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Photo by Camille Lepage from the series “Vanishing Youth”

Some people are writing her off as a loose canon, which isn’t true. I don’t know that fearless is the best way to put it either. She had fear. She was scared at times. But she never allowed that fear to keep her from pushing towards telling the stories that no one wanted to hear. Maybe that’s the difference between her and so many of us. She wasn’t afraid of her fear. And she knew that her life was no more valuable than those who were dying around her.

She would be so excited about the international attention her life and her photos have now brought to the conflicts in CAR and South Sudan, but so devastated that it took a Westerner dying for people to pay more attention to the 10’s of thousands of Africans that have died the same horrific deaths in the last few years. She would be appalled to know that her death is being given so much attention whilst so little is given to theirs.

In an interview for Petapixel in 2013 she said, “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…. I want the viewers to feel what the people are going through, I’d like them to empathize with them as human beings, rather than seeing them as another bunch of Africans suffering from war somewhere in this dark continent. I wish they think “why on earth are those people in living hell, why don’t we know about it and why is no one doing anything?” I would like the viewers to be ashamed of their government for knowing about it without doing anything to make it end. The killings of civilians in the Nuba, Blue Nile and Darfur have been going on for 30 years, and yet all the governments are still turning a blind eye on them. I don’t understand what makes it okay for Omar Al-Bashir to kill thousands of innocent people with no one saying anything!”

These are statements that she communicated over and over again in our conversations. This is who she was and how she saw the world.

In 2012 I lost another dear friend to which Camille responded, “I’m sorry for the loss of your friend… I hope you’re ok. But it really does prove that you should enjoy every moment in your life, as something might happen at any time and you don’t want to have any regrets”

At 26, she lived a fuller life than most people I know in nursing homes will have seen. She told me, more than once, that she knew she was going to die young and it’s obvious that she lived her life with that in mind.

There are many other things I want to say about her. Many other experiences of hers that I would love to share. How many days we struggled in coming up with the title “Vanishing Youth” for one of her projects. How many times she told me to get off my ass and do something with my life. How many jokes. How much love. But that’s what friendships are about, unique moments shared between two people.

My hope and prayer is that we all honor her life and death with what we have left of ours.

Losing her has shattered my world. Living the way she did is the only way I know to bring the pieces back together. I hope I can bring further insight to the stories she felt called to cover. That I can shed more light on the issues of humanity. It shouldn’t take the death of one Westerner to get us to see that conflict is an ongoing injustice in Africa that must be stopped. That was her battle cry. We should make it ours.

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“What matters the most is that you’re doing something to make the world a better place. And you have to believe in this. It’s important… you think with your eyes, and that’s all the world asks you to do” – Camille Lepage, July 26th, 2013

Honoring the life and death of Camille Lepage