Speaker 0 00:00:00 Hi, I'm Adam Williams, creator and host of humanity, a podcast that empowers connection through conversations of humanist and creativity. Today, I'm talking with humanitarian photographer and filmmaker, Laura Elizabeth pole. Laura is an American who currently lives in Cape town, South Africa, Laura and I first met in 2003. When we were photo journalism, graduate students at the university of Missouri. I have followed her amazing work from afar, which has taken place largely in Africa, in Asia during the many years since we met. And I'm absolutely grateful to reconnect with her for this episode of the humanity podcast. And to share it with you. As you'll hear, Laura has traveled the world extensively advocating for the dignity and humanity of the people she features in her visual storytelling. She has documented stories of HIV, Ebola, migration, malnutrition, and other deeply human subjects. In this conversation, I learned quite a bit that I did not know about her, like how her journalism career started with interviewing celebrities.
Speaker 0 00:00:59 I'll a Brittany Spears and Wynton Marsalis and that she and I lived only an hour away from each other in Korea for a whole year before we ever met. And that we both went through our generation's biggest. Where were you when moment, while there I learned how Laura became a self-taught documentary filmmaker over the course of one weekend and under deadline, I learned why she left behind a relatively stable job as a Dow Jones business reporter in Asia to start over as a photo journalist and how she cobbled together paychecks to make the dream work along the way, including why she got fired from her waitressing job after only two weeks. And there's a lot more that we talk about, like some of the many powerful things that Laura has learned in her work around the world, universally applicable things. There are a few tears there's laughter and there's a secret divulged. This is an amazing 80 minute conversation packed full. So let's start it up. Here's my conversation with Laura Elizabeth pole, Laura Elizabeth pole. Welcome to humanity. Thank you. Hi Adam. How are you doing
Speaker 1 00:02:11 Good. Good. As can be during this very strange COVID-19 time.
Speaker 0 00:02:17 It is strange. And that's actually where I want to start the conversation because you are in Cape town, South Africa, you're living there. And I know though that you're paying attention to what's going on in the U S you are American, you have family and friends here, and I also know that you have a different experience of it there. So I am curious for us to learn what is going on in South Africa in terms of, I know that recently it was a lockdown and I I'd like to know your experience with all of this. So, so what's going on with COVID-19 where you are.
Speaker 1 00:02:47 Yeah. So here in South Africa, as you just mentioned, we did have a pretty strong lockdown for five weeks where we could only leave the house to get medicine, to get food or to go to the doctor. And I left the house, I think maybe three times in five weeks, you couldn't even go outside to exercise or to walk your dog. So I left the house about three times in five weeks and I actually felt okay, I guess, because when you're forced to adapt, you either adapt or you rail against it. And I just, you know, told myself it's better to adapt. Um, but then at the end of five weeks, the lockdown was loosened a bit so that people were allowed to exercise outside. And that was just about a week ago. And Oh my goodness, it felt so amazing to be able to go outside and exercise, to run, to walk, even to see other people from a safe social distance, of course, and to just appreciate things and views that maybe I had taken for granted before.
Speaker 0 00:03:51 Do you have a particular perspective as an American who is far, far away knowing that friends, family, and other people, uh, over here in the U S are having such a different experience? Do you have, is it it all kind of strange or I don't know. I can't even imagine. What, what is it like to watch from afar what's happening in the country where you're from and so many, you know, are,
Speaker 1 00:04:17 Yeah, it's been really interesting to see the contrast between what's happening here in South Africa and some of the neighboring countries, and then what's happening in the United States, which is where the whole rest of my family lives, which is where the whole rest of my husband's family lives. And, you know, here in South Africa, it feels like the, the president and all of the politicians have really taken a strong leadership role and really taken everyone's public health seriously. So one thing I try to explain to people who aren't from South Africa who asked, like, how's it going with the Corona virus there is that here, there are so many people who are immunocompromised they're HIV positive, or they have AIDS or tuberculosis, and then maybe they suffer from malnutrition. So there are a lot of people who could potentially be in a lot of trouble if they get sick from COVID-19.
Speaker 1 00:05:10 And I know the government is thinking about that when they make certain policies about telling us to stay home or, um, wear masks or whatever. And, you know, it seems like most people here are taking it seriously. I definitely see people not wearing masks. And I think like, ah, how could you not wear a mask? But I also know that's outside of my control. And then I see what's happening in the United States. And it really feels like this pandemic has become so politicized that people see any director from the government through the lens of their own political beliefs. And that's, um, that's been a little bit hard to see sometimes. And honestly, because of that difference between how the government in South Africa and the government in the United States is approaching the, I actually feel quite a bit safer here in South Africa.
Speaker 0 00:06:01 Yeah. It, it feels pretty politicized, which I'm guessing you've heard that maybe from family or friends you've been in touch with, uh, it, it's tough to know what we should do when we should do it, how we should do it and what the correct information is. And it kind of feels like in our household that we're just hung out here to figure it out ourselves.
Speaker 1 00:06:18 Yeah. And that is exactly what I'm hearing from my family in the U S is that they feel like they have to kind of fend for themselves even though, um, you know, they all live in different States that are doing different things to try to control the pandemic. Yeah. I'm definitely hearing that. They feel like, okay, I have to figure out if I should wear a mask or not. I have to figure out if I should go to this place or not. And, you know, just to be clear, I don't feel like that's happening here in South Africa. It doesn't feel politicized the way it does in the United States. And of course I can't stop gobbling up the news in the United States. Plus it's covered here in South Africa too. You know, maybe you don't know, well, you probably do know because you've lived in another country, but the United States has an outsized influence on the rest of the world.
Speaker 1 00:07:01 I feel like many Americans who haven't traveled or lived abroad, they might not fully understand this, but when the U S does something, the whole rest of the world is watching and the whole rest of the world in many cases even responds. I found this out, you know, when I used to be a business reporter in South Korea, I covered all of the stock and financial markets in South Korea. And every day's market moves, we're pretty much predicated on what happened in the United States the day before, or what people thought would happen in the United States later that day. And it shocked me. It shocked me to the extent, um, you know, it just shocked me how much the South Korean stock market was really tethered to the us stock market and not what was happening in South Korea. And, you know, I see the same thing with this pandemic, like here in South Africa, I listened to the news every morning, sometimes in the evening, too. And very often there are three or four news stories about what's happening in the United States with a pandemic. And so when I have American friends who said like, Oh, did you hear about this or that? It's like, yes, I heard about this or that because it's on the news here too. And I think that Americans just don't realize that.
Speaker 0 00:08:13 Yeah, I agree. And it's a great point. In fact, I was reading an article in the new Yorker last night that was speaking to, uh, that perspective, the shift in the perspective in recent years. And especially now, because of the way, uh, the leadership or lack of it is, uh, handling this pandemic here in the U S and the way the world historically has looked to us for guidance. And now they're turning away from that and going on their own ways. So it's, it's interesting, whatever happens is we come out of this, there's going to be even more global shift in terms of that strength and leadership in the world, I think,
Speaker 1 00:08:47 Oh, for sure. That's exactly what's happening. I was talking to my mom yesterday, she's originally from South Korea and she was watching South Korea news. And there was some announcer who said, you know, look at this in the United States, there are all these people who aren't wearing masks, like the president isn't wearing the mask, the vice president, isn't wearing a mask. The United States is supposed to be a global leader, but they're not really leading now. And I actually think they're falling. And so we should not be paying attention to them.
Speaker 0 00:09:17 Wow. Yeah. Yeah. It's, it's amazing. And Korea has been a true leader, I think, in how they handled it. Oh, for sure. It's been interesting to watch this shift. I want to ask you about a project that you have been working on as a photographer under these constraints of lockdown. You're part of a global project called women photographs. Tell me about that. The, the who, what, where and what you're doing with it personally.
Speaker 1 00:09:45 Sure. So women photograph is a group of women photographers from all over the world. And ever since this epidemic started maybe about four or five weeks ago, there are hundreds of us who have been documenting what we're going through and we've been posting, or someone has been curating posts for us on an Instagram channel called WP the journal. So I'm in a group with seven other women. We're spread across a few countries. I'm in South Africa, there's someone in Turkey, Ukraine, Italy, Norway, and then a few people in the United States. And every week we've been photographing different parts of our lives. Sometimes there are themes like, um, this week's theme is dreams. There was windows before there was connection. And, you know, when I went into this lockdown, I really didn't think that much about taking pictures. Cause I couldn't imagine what I was going to photograph.
Speaker 1 00:10:39 Honestly, you know, I'm a documentary photographer. I'm usually out and about traveling to different countries and photographing people and the things that they're doing. And now here I was going to be just in my little house. What could I possibly photograph? But it's really interesting when you're forced to be in a small space, how that like limited parameter can actually expand your creativity. So I know I can't go outside. I know I can't go walk through the woods. I know I can't be in the right position for sunrise or sunset to get those amazing pictures and the golden light. And so I have to make, do with what I have and figure out how to make that work. And I've made some pictures that I really like. I did not expect that at all. Like when I started this lockdown actually started doing like audio diaries, thinking I'd make some kind of, you know, this American life type story of being in lockdown in South Africa. But instead I have some images that I don't think I otherwise would have made unless I'd been forced to work in these very constrained circumstances.
Speaker 0 00:11:44 I think it's possible that all of us, if we're really willing to take some time for self reflection here can come out of this whole experience personally, not just as we talked about politically and, and as a society, but personally can come out of this with a different perspective than how we came into this situation with Oh yeah, for sure. I want to ask about how you have put in a lot of work, including some struggle to come to the place you are as a humanitarian photographer. And you've been very open and willing to share that with others who have been curious about that type of work, or maybe even are considering or wanting to find a path to do that themselves. And you once wrote a blog post that laid out this struggle to make ends meet you listed a number of the jobs that you've had, the odds and ends just to kind of prove to people. Uh, I think it's okay to take this humble approach and grab what you can to make ends meet while you continue to work on this, this dream. And well, just for some examples, you handed out granola bars at trade shows, you were part time receptionist at a dental school. You set up obstacle courses for kids and some others, but one especially stood out. You noted that you worked as a waitress until you were fired after just two weeks on the job. And I feel like there's gotta be a story there. What happened
Speaker 1 00:13:05 Philly? Yeah. So, um, I I'd never been a waitress, but there was this neighborhood restaurant just around the block where I lived in Washington D C and they needed, they needed waitstaff. So I applied and I was put on a two week. Uh what's that period called when they're just testing you out like a probation kind of period. Yeah. They put me on like a two week probation and I'm vegetarian and I don't drink beer. I don't like beer. I don't like the way it tastes. And it, it felt like every person I served wanted a recommendation for a meat dish and also wanted a recommendation on beer. And then I had to pour this draft beer, which I'd never done before. I was just totally fumbling. I mean, I would have to say like, well, I don't eat meat, but I heard that this dish is great.
Speaker 1 00:13:54 And then they'd ask about the beer. I'd be like, well, I don't drink beer, but I've heard that this is great. You know, so I'm sure that's not like the main reason that I was fired, but I'm sure that was a big part of it. And just, I didn't know what I was doing. I'd never been a, I'd never been a waitress before, but I'll never forget one night when I, um, served these two guys and they gave me like a $30 tip and I, I just knew it was because they felt sorry for me because I didn't know how to be a good waitress.
Speaker 0 00:14:25 It's still a great experience though. I'm guessing. I mean, do you, when you go into a restaurant now or have since, do you have a different perspective on what it's like to be in that role?
Speaker 1 00:14:36 I feel like, um, I always treated wait staff. Well, like my sister was a waitress for a long time and made good money doing it. She's way better at that kind of thing than I am. Um, and I've always tipped weight stuff. Well, my, um, my husband jokes that I'm, you know, best friend to the wait staff of America. Well, when we lived in the U S you'd say that, but it definitely gave me a much better understanding for all the different little pieces of knowledge you have to have in your head to be able to serve someone well, and I hadn't really thought about that before. I thought it was just like, well, you take someone's order. You bring it to the back. When the food's ready, you bring it out. But it's more than that, you know, it's, it's putting people at ease. It's sort of reading their body language from afar when they need more water or when they want the bill. Like you have to understand that. And I just, I couldn't get it. I just couldn't.
Speaker 0 00:15:31 Well, now you've been working as a humanitarian photographer and filmmaker for a good number of years. Uh, I'm sure it's still tough. You know, as far as that struggled to make ends meet, especially during this time, when I know that in lockdown and things, you've not been able to do the work you otherwise might be able to do, but to me, you're doing this meaningful work. As far as I know, you're sustaining a life with it. I consider this and what you are doing to be a wonderful success. And I'm curious, are you feeling good about where you are at this point, the road you've hauled to get here, all those jobs you put in and, and some would say earned your dues or whatever, but, uh, that you transitioned from being that business reporter to humanitarian photographer. How do you feel about the way this is and where you are?
Speaker 1 00:16:19 Yeah. I feel very fortunate to be where I am not just in my career, but just in the position I am right now while we go through COVID-19. Um, because all my work did dry up. I had two assignments, um, in March that got canceled and then nothing, I have nothing lined up for the future as far as a photo or a video shoot goes, but I do have some remote editing work right now. So I'm so grateful to have that it's not a ton of money compared to what I was making before, but at something. And a lot of people have absolutely nothing. So I'm fortunate to have that as far as where my career is. Yeah. It's like sometimes people email me for advice and I can tell by the way they're writing to me that they see me as someone who has made it.
Speaker 1 00:17:10 And I guess in some ways I have, but in other ways I feel like I'm still just learning and growing and, and figuring things out. But, you know, it's true. I've come a long way. You know, you mentioned all those jobs I had before that was in 2006. So that was like 14 years ago. And it just seemed like my career was going nowhere. I was totally willing to take whatever job was out there to just like pay all my bills. But those were just jobs. They weren't a career path, you know? Um, and it took me a time. Well, it felt like it took me a long time to really get going on this career track. But, um, yeah, I'm really happy. I did it I'm really happy. I decided to switch from business reporting to photography. There was a point several years ago where I wasn't getting work.
Speaker 1 00:18:10 I think it was, it must've been around 2006, 2007 also. And where my dad was like, do you, do you regret leaving your business reporting job and going to graduate school for photography? And now like you can't get a job and it made me pause. Like, do I regret it? It wasn't that I regretted it. I definitely thought sometimes about going back and being a business reporter, because back then it seemed clear. I could still probably be a better business reporter than a photographer, but I didn't regret it. And I think just constantly slogging away and trying to improve my craft. It paid off, it paid off. There were a lot of people who helped me along the way though. So when people email me and ask for advice, I try to remember what it was like for me back then when I was also just like reaching out to people and hoping people could help me learn this or learn that. And I want to do the same for other people.
Speaker 0 00:19:09 Do you face bouts of imposter syndrome?
Speaker 1 00:19:12 Hmm, not really.
Speaker 0 00:19:16 That's awesome.
Speaker 1 00:19:18 I don't know if that's the answer you want, but I want the answer that it is.
Speaker 0 00:19:23 That's awesome because I feel like that's such a common thing. And I talk with so many creative people, artists and professionals in all kinds of very heart centered and professional, um, creative endeavors. And I certainly struggle with it myself. So this idea of, you know, one moment I can feel really confident in what I'm doing. And then there might be another moment where I'm like, well, this thing isn't going to grow, it's not going to go somewhere or what, uh, what have you. And so what you're talking about is that you, you stuck with that. You did everything that was needed and yeah, I would say you have made it. However, I am aware too, that what you've made it to, uh, still probably feels a bit like a struggle at times for you.
Speaker 1 00:20:06 Yeah. And, you know, back when I was taking all those random jobs, just to make money, I doubted myself quite a bit. I mean, as I said before, I didn't regret leaving my business reporting career to become a photographer, but I had a lot of doubt about whether this was actually going to, you know, be a financially viable career. And I had had a few years of that. I think one of the hardest things was just comparing myself to other people, you know, because I would see other photographers like on, on flicker that back in the day, everyone was on flicker, not Facebook. Right. And I see these pictures of people, um, like photographing amazing assignments and, you know, going to cool places. And I just thought, wow, like something wrong with me. Like why, why can't I get an assignment? But there was a point during those two years when I was taking a lot of random jobs that I just realized, you know, my job is not me.
Speaker 1 00:21:11 And that was a very, very hard lesson to learn. I remember I had applied for a job at a very large newspaper where I was, I sort of felt like I was guaranteed the position, like I had interviewed for it. And, um, the recruiter really liked me. And, you know, he sort of intimated that the job was all, but mine and I was really excited and I was already looking at apartments on Craigslist. And then the director of photography called me and said, do you have any videos that we can look at in your portfolio? And I said, no, but I can have one for you next week. And this was like, I don't know, a Tuesday, or maybe it was a Wednesday. And he said, great, because now the managing editor wants a photographer who also has some video skills. And I said, okay, no problem.
Speaker 1 00:22:09 And I hung up the phone. I just cried because I knew I wasn't going to get that job. And it was like, it was like 10 o'clock at night. And I went for a three mile run, just crying the whole time. It was so disappointing, but you know what, the next day I just kicked into gear and I was like, okay, I've never shot a video. I don't have video equipment. This was in 2006. And I just like started calling around to friends and friends of friends to see if anyone had a video camera. I could borrow someone, had one with a tape, like an actual tape. Can you imagine Adam and actual tape? This was a long time ago. And then I emailed someone at the local newspaper who I saw, had done some videos for the newspaper. And I just said, Hey, I'm trying to learn video.
Speaker 1 00:22:50 Um, do you have time like today or early tomorrow to teach me some basics? And then there was a story I'd always wanted to do about this female shoe repair shop owner. And I called her and asked if I could come in the next day or the day after that to film a story on her. And it all just came together. This guy for the newspaper was like, sure, why don't you come, you know, this afternoon and I'll teach you some basics. And then the shoe repair shop owner, she said, sure, why don't you come tomorrow between this time and this time? And you can fill me. And so I did all that for the next couple of days. I spent the weekend editing this video together. I didn't even know what I was doing. I, I used I movie and I just kind of used my instincts from editing picture stories. And then on that Monday or Tuesday, I FedEx to this CD of the story to the newspaper. They got it. I didn't get the job, but that's actually how I started shooting video. I loved it. I loved the process of putting that story together.
Speaker 0 00:23:47 Did you see in the moment, the value of what you had just gone through and learned, or did that take a little time to look back and say, you know what, I didn't get that job. I'd had my heart set on it, but wow. That was a point that catalyzed what comes next.
Speaker 1 00:24:04 It definitely took some time for me to realize that that was a turning point in my career. As much as I had enjoyed the process of making that video. I didn't make one again for like a pretty long while actually. Yeah. It probably took me another maybe year or maybe even two to realize how important that experience had been. That I had picked up this new skill pretty quickly, because I was kind of in a rush to get something to this editor. I'm glad it happened. I'm really glad it happened. I don't know what else could have sort of forced me to do it. Honestly.
Speaker 0 00:24:42 Let's step back a minute to why the transition from let's say a relatively stable career as a business reporter, and then you transitioned to photo journalism. So how and why.
Speaker 1 00:24:58 So actually I'll go back even a little bit before that I started my career as an editorial assistant working at kind of this general interest magazine called USA weekend. And I covered a lot of like celebrities basically. So I interviewed people on the phone. Like I interviewed Brittany Spears. I interviewed Mary J Blige, um, went in Marcellus and it was cool. Yeah. I know. That's usually the response from people that like, wow,
Speaker 0 00:25:23 He was the first, uh, concert I ever went to
Speaker 1 00:25:26 Really he's amazing. So when I interviewed him, one of the questions I asked him was how do you feel when you see people falling asleep at your concerts? And he said, you know what? I think that's amazing because it means they feel so relaxed by my music that they could just let go and go to sleep.
Speaker 0 00:25:45 I love that question because I actually fell asleep. I was 14 and I actually fell asleep. Yeah.
Speaker 1 00:25:52 So yeah, it was, it was like kind of cool interviewing celebrities. But once you've talked to a couple of dozen, you realize that most of them actually don't have much to say, and it was kind of driving me nuts after a while. Like, okay, they're just, you know, they're famous because they have this one talent, but it doesn't mean that they are doing something like amazing for the world, you know, or like making a difference. And I wasn't even writing that much. I was like interviewing and writing up these little blurbs basically, which are hard to do. It's hard to write short, but I wanted to write a little bit deeper. So I applied for all these jobs at newspapers and then also at Dow Jones newswires, which was a business Newswire, uh, based in New York. And that was the only place that gave me an interview.
Speaker 1 00:26:40 So I ended up having that, um, interview, getting job. And I worked in the New York city area office. And then I also worked in the Seoul office. And I, at first I loved being a business reporter because I got to write so much and I was learning so many new things. I moved to the Seoul Bureau and then it was more new things. But after a while, you know, I really felt like I was writing stories that made rich people richer. So the main target audience for my stories were like traders. So like bond traders, stock traders, Forex traders, derivatives traders, economists analysts. And it wasn't what I had set out to do when I first wanted to become a journalist. So when I was in undergrad, I actually made up my own major and I called it communication and social change. And it was one third journalism classes, one third sociology, and one third criminal justice.
Speaker 1 00:27:33 And my whole idea was that my writing and reporting was going to help bring about social change in communities. And I wasn't doing that. I was writing business stories that didn't do that. So even though I still really enjoyed my job and I loved living in South Korea, which is where my mom is from, I felt like I wanted to do something to help the world a little bit more like the world in general, and to connect with people, connect with regular people, you know, and tell their stories. So, yeah, so I applied to grad school and got into a couple and decided to go to Mizzou and I left my job and I went,
Speaker 0 00:28:16 I love that. That's the start because I had no idea that you had done this thing was celebrities and all that. Um, and this isn't something that we figured out. We, first of all, I guess I should say that we met at graduate school at the university of Missouri Mizzou. So we met there, but our paths were not entirely sinked up. So it's one of those things where we might see each other in passing. Maybe occasionally have some reason to be in the same room, but didn't really get to know each other. So all these years later we're talking, what is this? I mean, it's more than 15 years later and we're catching up and I'm learning more things about you. And, and, and I love that. So I want to learn more about that part with Dow Jones. But before we get there, you have now this experience, uh, with the writing side of journalism, with the photography side of journalism, and I've been out of it for a while, I've not been in a newspaper even been freelancing for magazines really for some years.
Speaker 0 00:29:15 But as I recall, the longstanding stereotypes were there. They still held 15 years ago where it seemed like writers were considered the real journalists. Whereas the photo journalist somehow often, you know, the writer might call them, well, this is my photographer. You know, they took ownership of this. They established this weird false hierarchy, and it's almost like the photographer was a failed journalist who could only push the button on the camera. They couldn't do more, uh, or tell any piece of the story. I'm curious about your experience with that. Uh, if, if you encountered those things, what that was like,
Speaker 1 00:29:54 I definitely had that experience. So I was a business reporter for four years. And what I didn't realize until later was that when you tell people you're a business reporter, they really respond to you in a respectful way, like 99.9% of the time, people will say things like, Oh wow, you must be really good with numbers or, Oh, you understand what CPI is? And you understand like what GDP is and you understand how to calculate all the foreign exchange rates. It's really a feeling of kind of all, I think when people are talking to you, if they're not a business reporter themselves, or somehow in the, you know, business reporting world, like an economist, something like that. And so there was always this kind of reverence when I would tell people what I did for my job, that I quit my job. So that was July of 2003.
Speaker 1 00:30:50 And I started graduate school in August of 2003. And now I'm going out as a photo journalism student to photograph different things and sort of the response from people when I would tell them I was a photojournalism student, or sometimes I just say, I'm a photo journalist was so different where it's sorta like, Oh, do you know how to spell? I mean, really it was, it was just a totally different way of relating to me. I felt like a lot of people thought I was this very like artsy free spirited person who didn't adhere to schedules and didn't understand spelling or numbers or anything like really concrete in life. And it was so strange for me to be treated that way, because just a couple months earlier, I'd been a business reporter and people thought I was like, kind of untouchable with numbers and data and things like that.
Speaker 1 00:31:47 I even had an experience. My, um, the first summer after grad school, I interned at a newspaper and I went out with a reporter who did call me my photographer. That's how he introduced me to someone. And we both had written down the name of the person that he had interviewed. And I had photographed, and we came back to the newsroom. He filed his story and I filed my pictures with captions. And the woman's name was Elizabeth spelled with an S I know this for sure. My middle name is Elizabeth. I spell it with a Z. She spelled it with an S so the copy desk called both the reporter and I over and asked us, okay, one of you is wrong. You know, you report her, you spelled this woman's name with a Z and Laura, the photographer has spelled this woman's name with an S so who's right. And I said, I'm right. I know I'm right. And, and the reporter was like, no, I'm right. I'm the reporter like me. And they, they believe the reporter and I was right. So they had to run a correction, but I felt like that was because yeah, there was definitely this more, they were more trusting of the reporters on, you know, spelling.
Speaker 0 00:32:52 Yeah. I actually had a similar incident, um, while in grad school shooting for the newspaper, with another student who is writing for the newspaper and the exact same thing happened. And we were both even students working for this community newspaper. Yeah. Um, and, and actually I would end up being both I would study and then go on to a career that was largely writing oriented photography was always something they asked me to do as sort of, Hey, this is the bonus. It's why we hired this guy, but yeah. It's okay. So it wasn't just me and that my, that my photographer thing would always get under my skin, but I'm just that way in general, with the idea of one of us owning another and somehow having that hierarchy.
Speaker 1 00:33:31 I know I often wondered what would happen if I showed up. And I was like, here's my reporter. He's, he's going to ask you some dinky questions while I take some amazing.
Speaker 0 00:33:42 Yes. Um, yeah. Yeah. I love that. I never did that. You know, I'm pretty sure I had similar thoughts and I don't know that I ever did either. I think it sounds like we both maintained our professionalism in the midst of that. I want to ask you another question about photography, because I feel like have felt like for a long time, even before smartphones with cameras came into all our lives. And, and that is that I feel like photography is possibly the most democratized of creative forms. It's something that as a photographer, trying to get work, especially as a self employed person, I think it's easy for us to be discounted people sometimes think the only difference between us and them is that we invested thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars into the camera gear when they can just use their phone. Good enough.
Speaker 0 00:34:34 And so I'm curious for your take on, on that. I feel like photographers in general kind of get devalued, but also as someone who is working, who has lived for several years or more of her life around the world, doing this work and these photographs and these stories and these videos and short films that you create. I wonder if you, what your response is that you get from people on that work, if they take it for granted, and don't really understand not only what separates you as a creative and visual storyteller, but also as someone who is going to those places and able to come back with those stories, you know, when they can't even imagine what it's like to be in a third world country at all, let alone working under those conditions.
Speaker 1 00:35:23 Let me take the first part of your question first. So this was about, um, how photography is sometimes devalued and yeah, I absolutely think that's true. You know, I've shot, I've shot for newspapers. I've shot weddings. I've shopped for nonprofits. I've, I've shot for international NGOs. And, and there are sometimes people who want to do you want to pay you a lot less or who want to pay you nothing because they just think, well, the only difference between you and me is that you just have this more expensive camera and I'm like, no, the difference between you and me is I do this as a profession. And I have a lot of skills and education behind me that you don't have. That's actually what the difference is. And I'll never forget. There was even one time when this organization, they were questioning my rates and, and they said, um, well, you know, so, and so he shoots free for us once a year and he's famous and you're not.
Speaker 1 00:36:27 And I was like, well, maybe because he's famous, he feels like he's able to do one job for free a year. And that's what he gives to you, but you're right. I'm not famous. So I'm going to charge you like, wow, okay. But yeah, photography, it's not just photography. It's a lot of creative arts that are devalued. You know, I have writer, friends that have a difficult time getting people to pay them what they really feel they're worth. And it's because they think, well, I can write too. Like the client will think, well, I can write too, but you're just like a little bit better than me. It's like, no, I'm like way better than you are. And I do this for my job. That's why you're even contacting me hoping that I'm going to work for you. Um, and then the, the middle part of your question, which was about the democratization that photography brings about that actually is one of my favorite things.
Speaker 1 00:37:21 I mean, I know that devaluing photography also kind of goes hand in hand with democratization because it's like anyone can do it. So some people think if anyone can do it, why should you pay for it? But I think the other side of that argument is that now so many people that never had a way before to take their own pictures and have pictures of themselves in their family and their friends and their communities can now do that. And then they're even free, well, free ish platforms where they can share those pictures, not just with their immediate community, but maybe even with the whole world. And I'll never forget the first time this happened to me as a professional. So I've been a humanitarian photographer working all over the world since about 2009, 2008, 2009. And I remember in 2012, I was in Nepal filming a story in this one community.
Speaker 1 00:38:16 And, um, I had just wrapped up like filming and photographing everything. It was just kind of sitting in a circle, talking to everyone in the community and sort of saying a very long farewell. And there was this guy in the crowd who took out his phone and started photographing me. And this, the first time that I'd been on assignment outside the United States where someone else just started taking pictures of me, just pulled out their phone and started documenting what was happening. And I was actually so excited because I felt like, look, once these phones are out everywhere, once, like the price comes down and more people can afford these kinds of phones that take cameras, everyone's going to be taking pictures of everyone. It won't just be me going in with my fancy camera and photographing. There will be cameras that are so affordable that anyone can do it. And it made me really, really happy because in a, in a very small way, I felt like, Oh, this is going to level the playing field. A bit, of course, these people, a lot of these people, they don't have the platforms that I have, but there's the possibility of, of getting there. You know? And I was, I was excited about that.
Speaker 0 00:39:24 So now let's go back to Korea. And when you were a business reporter that are for Dow Jones and you and I recently, uh, only a week or so ago on a pre call for this conversation realized that we both were living in Korea. About 20 years ago, our timelines passed each other and we didn't realize it. And I was there when I was with the U S army. You were there, as we've said in Seoul, as a reporter, I was about an hour away from soul. And what I really specifically want to point out from that is that you're the first person outside of anybody I was stationed with in the army. And first American who had this experience of what I consider to be our generation's biggest. Where were you win moment? And that was nine 11. What was your experience with that? On the other side of the world? When one of the first things I remember is it was nighttime to us. We weren't just showing up at work. Like a lot of Americans were, what, what was your experience?
Speaker 1 00:40:24 Yeah, it was nighttime and well, I had a cell phone at the time, so I think most people in the U S didn't have a cell phone, but I had a cell phone and that was my only phone. And I had been turning it off every night actually, because I didn't want to be woken up by anyone. And so when I woke up in the morning, I woke up early for some reason, really early, maybe like from 5:00 AM, which was weird. So I woke up early and turned on my phone and there were like all these messages. And I thought that was so weird. And as always like looking at my phone, someone called me and it was, it was one of my parents saying like, you see what happened? And I was like, no. And they were like, turn on the news, turn on the news. So I turned on my TV. I only had three channels. I didn't have cable. Actually. One of the channels I had was, um, AFK. And is that what it's called? Armed forces. Korea network.
Speaker 0 00:41:16 That sounds right. It's been many years.
Speaker 1 00:41:19 Yeah, it was AFK. And normally they just had sort of like, look, it seemed like locally produced content, but they had CNN on for some reason. So they were channeling in CNN and I was watching what had, and I just couldn't, I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe it. I had just moved to soul from the New York city area, you know, six months before. And my boyfriend at the time worked at the New York times. Um, so I knew he was probably doing something, doing something to cover this. So, um, hung up with, you know, my parents. And then I immediately started trying to call this, well, he's now my ex boyfriend, but he was my boyfriend at the time. I was trying to call him and call him in calm. And it just said there was this like, voice that would come on and say like all circuits busy, all circuits busy.
Speaker 1 00:42:08 I was just like, Oh my God. Oh my God. So I was like calling other friends in other cities to see if they could call him and no one could get through to him. Um, I emailed and then I didn't know what else to do. So I just decided to go into work. So I went into work early, which is good because I had messages from editors saying like, we need to jump on this. And I put in a full day, like an extra long day of covering the financial markets in Asia, which seemed so surreal because the last thing I cared about was anything related to a stock market, you know, but I had to do this job. So that's what I did that whole day. And just one thing that was really strange to me at the time was that we were watching, you know, the news on the TV and the newsroom, and they just kept playing this loop over and over of the two airplanes hitting the two towers, just over and over and over.
Speaker 1 00:43:04 And I found out later from some of my friends in the U S that the new stations in the U S stop doing that pretty quickly. Cause it was just like traumatizing people to watch that phone over and over. But in Korea, in our newsroom and soul, which was Dow Jones and AP, we shared a newsroom, they were just playing that over and over and over. And it really was traumatizing me to just have to keep watching this while trying to report on like the stock markets around Asia. So it was really hard for me that day, because I couldn't get in touch with that, that boyfriend, I didn't work with other Americans. And so I didn't feel like there was anyone I could really talk to about this. Well, that's not true. The Bureau chief was American, but I don't really remember him being in the newsroom for this for some reason, but everyone else was Korean.
Speaker 1 00:43:52 And I really wanted to talk to someone who can understand this from an American perspective. And I just felt that none of them would really be able to understand what I was feeling. And I remember leaving the newsroom that day with one of my colleagues. We were walking in the sunset. I remember exactly where we were walking. And I was just telling her how upset I was and like how awful I was feeling about this. And she said, well, you know, Laura, you should think about why these people did this. Maybe the United States deserved. And I was just like, Oh, you know, I mean, of course later I would be thinking more about why this happened. What's the United States his role in the world and how did this all come about? But at the time, all I needed was comfort. You know, I needed someone who could kind of commiserate with me and comfort me and understand what I was feeling. And instead this person said something that I just wasn't ready to confront at all. It's not what I needed at the time. And I don't blame her. Like she really had no idea what I was feeling, but it was so hard. It was so hard.
Speaker 0 00:45:07 I think it's such a unique experience of this thing. That again, to our generation, I would say, this is a, where were you when moment like for the, the generation before us, when Kennedy was assassinated, uh, this is something that sticks with us, these memories, these stories. And I know for me, you know, when the 10 year anniversary of the event came around and I'm back living in the United States, and I'm seeing things on TV that really showed me, I had no idea what the experience was here. So thanks for sharing what yours was. We were in close proximity to each other in Korea. However, I was surrounded by soldiers and we locked down and it was only Americans that I was around. And so, uh, even yours, your experience and mine are different, even though we were halfway around the world, sort of together.
Speaker 1 00:45:57 Do you kind of remember what the Korean news was saying at the time
Speaker 0 00:46:01 I don't, we shut down our post, no one could come or go and it took at least a month. And the only reason they opened up when they did was because the local people who lived around the post and were used to us being part of their economy, they were used to us being able to go out and spend in their shops and at their restaurants. And some of them worked on our posts. They would come clean the barracks, they would run our shops, be part of the chow hall. They were part of the system and they were losing their livelihood. So they protested so that we would be able to reopen and give them back their livelihood. And in the meantime, we were pretty much closed off to our own information.
Speaker 1 00:46:36 Hm that's interesting.
Speaker 0 00:46:39 So I want to stay with Korea for a minute because you do have this personal connection to the place. As you said earlier, your mother is Korean and you have obviously lived there and have some years of experience there. And then you also have in more recent years, an amazing project called a long separation, which shines light on stories of Korean families that were separated across the border between North and South several decades ago. And I suspect an awful lot of Americans are not familiar with what that story is just in general. So would you mind sharing, what is the overall story of separations across that border and then why and how did you come to this project? I mean, I think years of yourself in this work.
Speaker 1 00:47:32 Yeah, that's right. Lots of years, first, lots of years of thinking about it. So I first came to know about this topic when I was a business reporter and soul, and I would go to my great uncles house for Korean holidays. So like the Korean Thanksgiving and then the lunar new year. And he would always talk about what a bad son he was because he left behind his parents and his sisters in North Korea and fled to the South with my mom's family as the Korean war was sort of ramping up just before the Korean war ramped up. And I had never really heard of this before. I mean, I had, no, my mom was originally from the North and then came South, but I didn't realize that there were all these families that were separated and it's while I was living in South Korea, working as a reporter that the South Korean government and the North Korean government started organizing family reunions for separated family members, they're called Eastern Kojak and Korean.
Speaker 1 00:48:31 And so I would, you know, every once in a while on the news, there would be, you know, something about these reunions. And I told you before, um, I worked for Dow Jones and we shared an office with the AP and AP. There was always like an AP photographer who would go cover these reunions. And so I got to like understand a little bit about this issue of separated families. And it always interested me. I always felt like, Oh, maybe, maybe there's something I would do with this one day. I mean, I can't do that as a business reporter. It's not really a business story, but maybe there's something one day. I don't know what so fast forward to gosh, fast forward, probably about 10 years later. And I'm still thinking about this and still thinking about this issue. And every once in a while, I'm looking online to see if anyone is doing some comprehensive story about these separated family members and no one's doing it.
Speaker 1 00:49:22 And I keep thinking there's some Korean photographer, who's going to do this story. And there isn't, and there isn't, and there isn't, and you know, for awhile I felt like I shouldn't be the one to do this because I'm not 100% Korean and this is a Korean story. So a Korean person should do it. But after a couple of years of not seeing anyone do anything and all these people are getting older and older and older and dying, I thought, you know what, it's me, I I'm supposed to do this story. So I had an assignment in the Philippines and I decided to add on a trip to Korea for a week to like start the story. I started with my great uncle. He was the first person I interviewed and photographed. And then I did a bunch of other people. I went back two more times and interviewed lots and lots of people.
Speaker 1 00:50:09 Um, and then when I moved back to the United States, a few years later, I interviewed someone else. And then I, yeah, put it on a traveling exhibition. I printed the photographs and the captions on the sides of a big truck. Um, I had phone numbers that you could call and hear audio edits from the interviews I did in both English and Korean. And I drove up the East coast, visiting public libraries and exhibiting my whole project. I wanted the exhibition to be as accessible as possible, which is why I went to public libraries. I didn't want anyone to feel like, Oh, I have to go to a museum or a gallery like that's. So not me. That's intimidating. So I made it accessible. And you know, I I'm really glad I did decide to do this project the way I did. I ended up, self-funding almost the whole thing applied for so many grants, tried to get things published in newspapers and magazines and websites and no one bit.
Speaker 1 00:51:08 And that was pretty difficult to take like just rejection after rejection after rejection. But I'm really glad I did things the way I did because this project and the exhibition just got, it, got so much more publicity than I ever could have imagined. It helps that the exhibition happened at a time when there were, there was like crazy stuff going on in the news with North Korea. So I did my traveling exhibition in for two weeks in may, 2018. And I had chosen those dates way back in October of 2017. Cause you know, there's a lot, you have to plan. There's a lot of logistics involved. I did all of that. And it just so happened that the week before my exhibition launched is when Donald Trump said something like he was going to blow up North Korea. And so some of these publications that had been like sending press releases to about my exhibition and not hearing anything they suddenly got in touch, yes, we want to do a story about your exhibition. You know, it was just so insane that my project and exhibitions suddenly fit into the new cycle. So yeah, that stuff happened right before my exhibition started, I did my exhibition for two weeks and then like the day after my exhibition ended, Donald Trump was like, Oh, you know, Kim Jong is my best friend now. And we're going to go and meet in Singapore or wherever it was. They met that year. So it was pretty insane.
Speaker 0 00:52:32 I think that I'm hearing a pattern maybe of a couple of things, one synchronicity of the things working out, like when you were applying for that job and you needed that, uh, that one journalist who help you learn some video skills and then needed that woman who owns the shoe shop, everything came together in that schedule. Then what you're talking about here, just fitting perfectly into this news cycle of the news related to North Korea and how that helped. But the second thing and super important here is your spirit and attitude that even when these things are difficult, you do what's needed for it and you keep going. And I think that that is amazing and absolutely something to be applauded. I think it's difficult for me, difficult for a lot of people. And sometimes it seems like by you continuing to go, maybe that's part of what brings you the synchronicity as well.
Speaker 1 00:53:26 I mean maybe, and thanks for saying that that's such a nice compliment. I have to tell you, it didn't feel like synchronicity at the time for either thing. Um, especially for the job, it just felt like, okay, I just got to do this. Um, for Kim Jong UHIN, it felt like incredible luck. Like just incredible luck.
Speaker 2 00:53:44 Like what are the odds that these dates that I have
Speaker 1 00:53:46 You picked, you know, months ago would have lined up with the new cycle at all. But I think you're very right about just pushing through and making things happen. So I feel like when I've had the most success in my career is when I've decided to just go ahead with something I was thinking of doing for a long time and just kind of like making it happen. So with the along separation project, you know, I'd been thinking about it for a long time, talked about it with various friends and didn't do anything about it for a long time. And then I just decided I gotta start. Like you just start by starting. So I did it, I didn't know where it was going to go. It Korea, it's a little more formal, I think when you're trying to find people to follow for a project. And I remember had to write this introduction letter about like what I'm doing and why I'm doing it and where it's going to get published. And these, these like early letters I wrote, it's all like, I don't know what I'm doing
Speaker 2 00:54:44 Do with this. I have no idea.
Speaker 1 00:54:48 Maybe it will be in a magazine, but maybe not. Maybe it'll be in a website, but maybe not, maybe no one will ever see this, but I just think it's important. And it's true. I really didn't know what's going to happen with, with everything in the project. I really didn't. And like I said before, I self-funded almost the whole thing. I spent like $13,000 to do it all. I know that included like the travel. I had a fixer who helped me, um, when I did the exhibition, you know, I had to pay for the truck. I hired a, I hired a professional art curator to help me sequence all the images and lay everything out properly. Like, I didn't know how high pictures have to be for your exhibition. You know? So she like helped me figure all that out on the truck. Yeah. And crazy thing is I didn't expect this at all after the exhibition, but people heard about it and then they wanted the exhibition at their place and they wanted to pay me or they were willing to pay me because I decided once the traveling truck exhibition was over and I started getting inquiries about bringing maybe just the hanging print exhibition to other places, I decided I'm going to charge people because I've been paying for this whole thing by myself and I can't do that anymore.
Speaker 1 00:56:02 And so there were quite a few places that were willing to pay, to show my exhibition. And I was so surprised because I didn't expect that kind of request to come at all. When I finished my traveling truck exhibition. In fact, the very last library I went to, they asked me to come back and bring the print exhibition, hang it for a couple months and they would pay me. So I made back like a few thousand dollars that way. But yeah, I just did almost everything myself. I know I'm really glad I did. I think if I had gotten funding or a sponsor, because some people were telling me to find a sponsor, but if I'd done that, that I probably would have had to give up some creative control and this way I got to do everything exactly the way I wanted to. And I loved that freedom.
Speaker 0 00:56:53 Absolutely. There's something to be said for any of these creative works, that when money does come into play, now people have some say they get to have some sort of demand on what happens, how it happens when, where all these things. So it is a catch 22, a little bit that we need funding sometimes for these projects that are so meaningful to us. And we hope and feel might be meaningful to others, but to retain total control means to not get it paid for either. So it's a juggling act, I think.
Speaker 1 00:57:20 Yeah, it's hard. And when people ask me about, you know, Oh, how do you go about funding for your personal projects? Like, well, I tried and I didn't get anything. So I don't know. Maybe you just have to save a lot of money and decide that the weddings you shoot or the assignments you have, that you're not crazy about. You just bank that money and use it to fund your personal project.
Speaker 0 00:57:44 What else have you learned or did you learn during the process of that work? Are there things that stand out about the stories you learn in talking with people about maybe yourself? Is there something that jumps out as this was my big takeaway?
Speaker 1 00:58:00 Yeah. The big, one of the big things I learned from the along separation project was how much people want to tell their stories. It's such a cliche in our business that people want to talk, you know, but it was so true. You know, most of the people that I interviewed, they were in their mid to late seventies or older, like even in their nineties. And some of them had told their stories before. There was one guy who I interviewed, who was also in the exhibition, who was like a media darling. Everyone loved his story because he, um, had unknowingly left behind. Well, he had left behind his wife in the North, not knowing she was pregnant. He had come South thinking he was going to be in the South for a little bit. And then the Korean war broke out and he never made it North again.
Speaker 1 00:58:48 And when he went to a reunion, he saw his son for the first time. So of course, you know, people love the story. And he told a story like a million times to the media. So there were people like that, but then there were other people who'd never been interviewed by a reporter or journalist. And you know, some of these conversations could go on for like two and a half or three hours. And invariably at the end I was crying. My translator was crying. You know, they're very, very touching stories. And what I realized from this project is that there's, there's not always anything you can do to help people, but listen to them. You know, this project is kind of an extreme example because there literally is nothing you can do to help separated family members. I mean, there's no amount of lobbying government.
Speaker 1 00:59:38 You can't like really give money for the cause of forcing reunions to happen. Like you can't do any of that, but you can listen. And I remember there was one guy that I was interviewing and his wife was in the room and at the end she said, he told you things, he hasn't even told me. I thought I knew all the stories from his separation. And to me that was like a little bit sad, but also kind of a compliment that he had. Yeah. Trusted. Yeah. But he had trusted me enough that he was willing to talk about things that he hadn't talked about with his wife. I'm glad she was there to hear the stories too, though. I think that was important.
Speaker 0 01:00:23 You have traveled the world extensively, you know, you've mentioned a number of countries already, but really a small amount of them you've lived and worked for several years or more in total in these other countries, especially in Asia, in Africa, I think. And I'm curious what draws you to that life, to the travel, to the ex-pat life and to even work there like you do.
Speaker 1 01:00:48 So my dad was a career military guy and the U S army. And I grew up moving around. It's just what I was used to. My family lived in the United States where I was born in Kansas. We lived in Germany, we lived in Saudi Arabia. Um, you know, and we lived in various States. And so it always felt natural to me to just move around. And I was always interested in learning about new cultures. Like I remember before we moved to Saudi Arabia, I was like, Oh my gosh, am I going to learn the language? They're like, what kind of people am I going to meet? Um, I was very excited about it and I know being a military brat, which is what we military children like to call ourselves. It's a term of endearment. It's not, it's not a derogatory statement, but I know that we, military brats, you know, we do have some difficulties with maybe forming long friendships sometimes, or, you know, having a hard time when your active duty parent is leaving for like a business trip, like a military business trip, those kinds of things.
Speaker 1 01:01:51 But I feel like growing up, moving around the world and moving in different cultures really gave me an appreciation for the differences that actually make us all alike. So for example, we might have different ways of celebrating a wedding or a birthday, but we still celebrate a wedding or a birthday. You know, it's just a little bit of a different way of doing it. And the interesting thing in my family is that my siblings have pretty much stayed in one place since becoming adults, but I've kept moving around and I didn't really intend for it to be that way, but it's just kind of how it happened. You know, like job opportunities came open to me or later when I got married to my husband and we just decided to go for it. I do realize though that this is a pretty rare kind of lifestyle for most people.
Speaker 1 01:02:48 It's not everyone that has the chance to move to different countries and experience different cultures on a regular basis. So I feel very fortunate that I'm able to do that. And I haven't always necessarily had that expat lifestyle either. I mean, when I worked for Dow Jones in Seoul, I did get a housing allowance, but otherwise I just had like a totally normal salary. And then when my husband and I lived in Rwanda where he had a couple of jobs, um, we also had a housing allowance, but we didn't have like all these special things that like diplomats gets, you know, all these like trips home. And I don't know what else they get, but they seem to have a lot more advantages than we ever had. And now, you know, living in South Africa, my husband is a PhD student and I'm just a freelancer and yeah, we're just like normal people who just moved to another country. We don't have anyone special supporting us, but ourselves,
Speaker 0 01:03:43 I want to add some context to some of this in that you have done a couple of stints now in Cape town, in South Africa, you mentioned your Wanda, but there's also time that you have spent, uh, at least working for whatever periods of time, if not living in Nigeria, Uganda, please correct me for any that I'm wrong or miss Malawi, Zambia, Burkina Faso, uh, all in Africa, in Asia, besides Korea, there's been the Philippines, Bangladesh, Nepal, Laos. And then of course you also have done some work in the U S and in Mexico. Are there any other amazing places that I have missed?
Speaker 1 01:04:21 Uh, so those are all places that I've worked on assignment anywhere from maybe a few days to like three or four weeks. And they've all been completely amazing experiences. I've traveled a lot just on my own. So one of the more amazing trips I took was when I left my business reporting job in Seoul, I decided to go Overland, as far as I could to get back to the U S so I flew to Mongolia and I spent some time there. And then I took the trans Siberian railway all the way to, um, we're I get off first, I guess, Moscow. And then I took a train slash bus to st. Petersburg to Vilnius Lithuania. I went to Paris, France to Leone. Um, then I flew to London and then from there I flew to New York and then I saw my family and I went to grad school.
Speaker 1 01:05:09 That was such a cool trip. So amazing. I wish I could do something like that again. But the funny thing is, since this lockdown has happened, like all over the world, the only place I want to go now is to see my family in the U S like I had all these other dreams of trips I wanted to take, like I want to visit this amazing, um, ruin in Zimbabwe called the great Zimbabwe. I was imagining this like bicycle tour through Southeast Asia. And it's like, none of that matters to me now. I just want to be able to see my family in person again.
Speaker 0 01:05:42 Yeah. This pandemic I think, has been, or can be a tool for us to really reflect, clarify, prioritize. It's been amazing in that sense, the time that we have had to step back, take a breath and think through some of those things.
Speaker 1 01:05:59 Yeah, for sure. Definitely. For sure.
Speaker 0 01:06:02 Here's a, I suppose a little more context that in these stories that you have done, which I really hope that people will go to your website. I will include that in the show notes on the humanity website, but they can, they can check out some of the work, a good amount of the work that you have done in these places, with stories that have related to HIV, Ebola migration, immigration, poverty, malnutrition, healthcare farmers, uh, elsewhere in the world. And what are these stories that you're telling if there is, let's say an essence or common thread that might run through all of them, what is really at the heart of these stories, wherever you are.
Speaker 1 01:06:43 So as a humanitarian photographer for all of those stories, which are, it's all client work, usually for international NGOs that the main thread I'd say is people helping themselves. Honestly, there's, you know, funding that comes from these various organizations for different programs, where people are taught skills they might not have had before and they're empowering themselves. So a lot of the work I do is in different countries around Africa. And I'm so bothered. I'm so bothered by all these stereotypes about poor African people and, you know, dirty African countries, because that is not the case. That's what makes it into the Western media. That's what is kind of sexy to sell, but that is not the reality for everyone. And even in difficult situations, you know, people still have their dignity, they still have their humanity. And that's something that I want to come through in all of my stories.
Speaker 1 01:07:45 You know, I want people to be able to see their pictures or watch their short films about their lives and feel proud of how they look and feel proud of how they're presented. And when I see like news organizations or other NGOs presenting stories in a way that I really don't think is dignified at all, it bothers me. It really bothers me, especially because I know those images are ones that will be seared into the minds of the American people. And this is so many Americans still have these outdated stereotypes about what life is like in Africa.
Speaker 0 01:08:21 For sure. There's not only all the stories, but what just came to mind for me. And I imagine it does for a lot of Americans of a certain age. Maybe that's our age and older are those commercials with say Sally Struthers and children who look, uh, pretty sad and down and flies around in those things that try to pull at our heart strings and make people feel bad and sad and guilty so that they'll donate to whatever that cause was. Those things have stuck for decades. I think in our psyche, let alone all of the journalism that has happened in the decades since. So it's a completely can feel and understand your story. Uh, I have much smaller amount of experience in Africa. Uh, I also could say that, you know, my wife Baca, the three of us actually all met at the same time at grad school for journalism. She has spent time in Africa. So this is part of our conversations has been for many years in our own household because of our own experiences as well with this. So, you know, thank you for the work that you do because this positive perspective, you started this off by saying how people help themselves. And that, that is so meaningful, right? Because those first words probably counter what a lot of Americans think of when they think of Africans getting help from an NGO, any humanitarian photography.
Speaker 1 01:09:42 I mean, so many people are, they're very industrious and they're very smart. It's just the circumstances they're in. Don't allow them to have the opportunities and the growth that we might have in the U S you know, even think this about my own mother. So she was born just a few years before the Korean war started. She lived through the whole Korean war. Then, you know, South Korea was a huge, huge recipient of foreign aid from the United States for decades. I mean, peace Corps volunteers used to go there because it was so poor and they would, whatever, whatever do various programs in the country. And my mom was, she grew up in that, you know, and her family was one of those very, very poor families. And she did not have many opportunities at all. I mean, she graduated from high school, but then she became a nun.
Speaker 1 01:10:27 Um, she was a nun for several years, and then she got out and a little bit while after that, she met my dad and they got married. But when she talks to me about what, about what it was like to grow up in Korea after the war, it's just like so many of these countries that I visit for work, you know, and my mom, she is incredibly smart. She's such a good musician. She's a really good artist. If only she'd had the opportunity to go to college. I think she could have been like an amazing performer or maybe a professor, but she didn't have that opportunity. Gosh, I'm going to cry at him. We have to stop talking about my mom anyways. There was something else I wanted to say. Oh, so yeah. When I think about people in, you know, people I'm photographing and the people I'm filming, if they just have the opportunities that a lot of Americans had, Oh my gosh, I think their lives would just be so amazing, just so, so amazing.
Speaker 1 01:11:25 So I hope that, you know, these programs are helping them to be able to help themselves to get where they actually want to be. And in that same vein, like, you know, when I started working on my own in 2013, I guess it was, I started to realize how often foreign photographers like me are flown to countries to do assignments. And, you know, I think it's really important for NGOs and news organizations to look for local photographers that might seem like it goes against me because then I'm like competing with these people, but I don't feel that's competing at all. I think it's really, really important for Western organizations with a lot of money to really look for local talent. Even if that means you have to teach them a bit about like how to write a proper caption or how to rename your photos in a way that's useful for the organization.
Speaker 1 01:12:20 So when I get requests from organizations saying like, Hey, do you know photographer in this place or that place? Like I have no problem recommending lots of people and just putting names out there and trying to connect people. Because I think there needs to be more representation of local photographers in these NGOs and in news organizations. And if that means, sometimes I lose assignments that I lose assignments, but I know I'm already in a privileged position just by being from America and having connections to so many American organizations. And I really, really hope if anyone's listening, who works at one of these organizations, please try harder to find local people. And if you need someone in some African country even feel free to email me, because maybe I know someone to help you,
Speaker 0 01:13:04 How do you go about establishing the trust and the rapport with these people that you're photographing over the period of time? You mentioned that might only be days, it might be weeks. And ultimately then how do you become welcomed into their spaces and lives for this work?
Speaker 1 01:13:22 Well, you can't just go in and be all American. Like let's get down to business because I think that's a very American attitude to have, like, I'm here to get a job done. Let's get the job done. Yeah. So like in almost every African culture that I've been in, it's really important to have a proper introduction to sit and maybe even share some tea or some coffee and get to know each other a little bit. So that's what I do. And I think when you're in any assignment, actually not even just when I go out on a humanitarian assignment, but even as a documentary photographer or maybe even a newspaper photographer, you have to take the time to actually talk to the person as another person and not just some kind of subject to be conquered. So you get the beautiful picture and the amazing light, you know, there are people you're also a person treat each other like people.
Speaker 1 01:14:15 So that's how I approach all of my assignments. You know, if you're genuinely interested in someone it's going to show and that will make people feel more comfortable. Now I have to say when I did the along separation project. And before that, um, a few years before that I did another project, which was my master's project about North Korean defectors adjusting to life in South Korea. That's actually the hardest group of people I've ever had to crack because they were originally from the North. They came to South Korea as defectors, you know, leaving behind their country. And, you know, they grew up with all this propaganda North Korea that the United States is the enemy that the CAA does. This, the FBI does that the state department does this, the president of the United States does that. And so when I would introduce myself to people automatically, there were people who would say like, are you part of the CIA?
Speaker 1 01:15:05 And I'd say, no. They're like, who do you get your funding from? And, you know, because it's very strange for just like a single American woman to be roaming around photographing North Korean defectors. So I understood that question, where do you get your funding from? And at the time I had funding from a Fulbright, which is funding from the U S government basically. So I didn't want to say exactly that, but I didn't want to lie. So I'd say, well, I have a fellowship, you know, because I knew if I brought in the U S government anywhere, it'd be like out, out, out, like we're not talking to you. Right. So for that project, I actually spent four months just getting to know a group of women who were taking a karaoke class. Yes. They were learning how to sing and act in a karaoke bar. Cause they didn't know how to, before I shot one picture. And then I began photographing only because one of the women came to me and said, Hey, you seem to be a photographer. And you're here every week. Can you photograph our karaoke performance next week? And that's how it started.
Speaker 0 01:16:03 I want to broaden that question out now a little bit to say, what have you learned about landing in a new place in the world? And being able to set up a new home in life, assimilating into the flow where you are. And, and that might pertain more, I suppose, to Rwanda and South Africa, where you have lived for longer periods of time than just on assignment for a matter of days. But what is it that you've learned about how to find an apartment? Just where's the market? How does it work here? There's so many social and cultural and even political and legal differences in these places.
Speaker 1 01:16:38 So I've moved around a lot in my life to foreign countries. As you said, South Korea or Wanda, South Africa, twice. I lived in Nepal for three months and I've, I've moved around the United States a lot. And to me, the most important thing is finding your community in whatever way that is possible. Some of the hardest times for me, when I I've moved is when I haven't been able to find a friend right away. Like I just need one. I'm an introvert. I don't need to be around a lot of people just finding one. And I remember when my husband and I lived in Cape town the first time when he was doing his master's degree a few years ago, it took me a long time to find a friend. And that was so difficult. Yes, of course. There's my husband. I can talk to him, but you need more than your partner in life.
Speaker 1 01:17:29 And at the time I was still Catholic. I remember I was finally going to be in town for when the Catholic church I went to had their newcomers coffee. Like I'd been traveling so much for work, you know? So finally after maybe three months, I was in town when the church had their newcomers coffee. And I was so excited, my husband went to a coffee shop while I went to church. And then I went to the coffee afterwards and no one talked to me, no one talked to me. I had to go to different groups of people to introduce myself. And it should have been so clear to everyone that I was new. Like no one knew me. I'm just wandering around trying to talk to people, but no one talked to me. And even when the priest showed up for this newcomer's coffee, even he didn't talk to me.
Speaker 1 01:18:17 I know I was so disappointed. And so after another, you know, I don't know, five minutes after the priest came in, I just left and I was walking to the coffee shop to me, my husband, I just burst into tears. And I just thought, God, I'm never going to make a friend here. All the other stuff I can deal with the weird ways and finding apartments in different countries. Like in Korea, you have to put down this enormous deposit. Like when I was finding my apartment and S and soul, I think the deposit was like 8,000 or $9,000. You know, every country has a different system for, for doing different life admin tasks. But the hardest thing for me always is finding, yeah, finding that community. That's the hardest thing. And the most important thing is finding that community.
Speaker 0 01:19:03 I'm going to ask you our last question here is the one that I ask everyone at the end, which pertains to what humanity is all about. Humanist and creativity. This whole conversation of course has been about that. But this is I think an opportunity for us to tie this up in a bow, as much as possible with what is say an essential thread of humanist and creativity in you, maybe on your perspective, on work on life, what what's in your heart that resonates as humanist and creativity
Speaker 1 01:19:31 For me, for the humanist side of things. It's just to remember that everyone is going through something, it's one of those sort of cliche memes you see out there sometimes, you know, you don't know what that person's going through. Try to be kind. So I try to remember that and just be kind, or even be overly kind, even if it means that maybe someone is seeing me as like bending over backwards, which honestly, I don't think most people see me that way. I've heard a lot of people telling me they're kind of scared of me at first when they meet me. But you know, I try to be kind, even if I come off as scary, I'm just trying to be kind of
Speaker 0 01:20:09 That's the introvertedness in us, I think. Yeah.
Speaker 1 01:20:12 Yeah. Maybe we come off as like standoffish and, and maybe a little scary, honestly, I'll give it something to you, Adam. I was like a little scared of you in grad school. I was like, Oh, he doesn't really talk, but Hey, that's how I
Speaker 0 01:20:25 It's the introvertedness I'm saying, right? Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Speaker 1 01:20:30 Um, so I think just remembering that, and like I said, I don't always succeed. I'm not an angel. I'm not always kind. And I definitely have mean thoughts. It's just remembering that. Um, and then for the creativity, see, I knew this was going to be the harder part of the question. Cause I don't feel like I'm all that creative all the time. I was just telling you that during this like this lockdown period, I've definitely had like an immense amount of creativity because I was forced, forced to just deal with what I have and make something of it. But I feel like it's important whether you make a living in a creative art or not to always just have some kind of little creative project on the side, something that makes you think in a different way from everything else you're doing. So right now I'd say my big creative project is actually a writing project. I'm writing a memoir and it's not what I really thought I'd be doing during this lockdown. I told you, I've been taking all these pictures and it's been like, it's been way more inspiring on the visual side of things than I ever imagined it would be, but I've been spending a lot more time writing. And I've decided now that that's actually my personal project for many years, it was the along separation portrait and audio project for what like five years it was. But now I've decided this is the project. This is the big one.
Speaker 0 01:22:00 That sounds fantastic. And I will look forward to reading it. And maybe we even talk again on the podcast about it. If you'd like, when that time comes, when you feel like you've reached a completion point or whatever the, the right time is.
Speaker 1 01:22:11 Sure. And the more people I tell about it, the more it means I actually have to do it and make it happen. So thanks for giving me the opportunity to say something about it.
Speaker 0 01:22:20 I understand that too. Sometimes I fling myself out there that way and then say, Oh no, what have I done? Yeah. So Laura Elizabeth poll, thank you very much for this wonderful conversation. It's great to catch up with you to learn so much more about you and your work, uh, over the years. So thank you very much for being here. Thanks Adam. That's humanitarian storyteller, Laura Elizabeth pole in today's Humana, two conversation of humanists and creativity. You can learn more about Laura in the show notes, published on our [email protected]
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Speaker 3 01:23:38 <inaudible>.