Sunday, March 23, 2014

Remembering Joel Brinkley

This is a column I wrote for the Nugget, my local weekly newspaper in Sisters, Oregon that published Joel's syndicated commentaries:

Nugget readers will recognize Joel Brinkley’s name as a syndicated columnist on world political affairs whose insightful articles invariably went beyond predictable mainstream thinking. His column ceased when he recently began a new job in Washington, D.C. but there is another reason that is hard to comprehend.

My friend and fellow journalist over 35 years died March 11th of an undiagnosed acute form of leukemia that raged through his body like a wildfire in five days.

He was 61.

My relationship with Joel began in 1979 when we worked at the Courier-Journal newspaper in Louisville, KY. I was a photojournalist and he was a reporter. We were offered the assignment of a lifetime to go to the border region between Thailand and Cambodia to document Cambodian refugees fleeing the wrath of the Khmer Rouge regime. Caring for some of the refugees was a Louisville physician, Dr. Kenneth Rasmussen, who agreed to be a part of our coverage.

We needed to leave within a week and without passports, visas or inoculations there was a lot to do. We went to a health clinic for the shots and were told that there wasn’t enough time to get all the necessary injections. From a list of potential diseases we were asked to choose three that we were most likely to encounter.

The passport office in Los Angeles provided a two-day turnaround for our passports and visas. Our departure to Bangkok from San Francisco was November 4th, the day the American Embassy in Tehran was overtaken.

We drove from Bangkok to the town of Aranyaprathet, Thailand and connected with Dr. Rasmussen. He directed us to several camps where we heard the accounts of the “killing fields” from survivors of the genocide of 1.8 million Cambodians by the Pol Pot led Khmer Rouge.

One indelible memory is Joel and I sitting inside our car with the air conditioner on as we tried to cool off from the sweltering heat and humidity. Children pressed their curious faces against every window. We exited the car and went back to work.

During the 19-hour flight home after three weeks of reporting Joel became ill and upon arrival in Louisville was diagnosed with typhoid. He was very ill for nearly two weeks but still managed to begin writing for the five-day series of stories with my photographs that won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting.

Joel began his 23-year career at the New York Times in 1983 and I relocated to Sacramento, CA in 1986 and Sisters in 2007. Joel left the Times and joined the faculty at Stanford in 2006 and also started researching material for his book, “Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land.” He asked me to accompany him on a three-week tour of the country in 2009, thirty years after our first trip.
A poignant memory occurred when our driver/interpreter helped us locate, Soloth Nhep, Pol Pot’s brother. During Joel’s interview with the old man I saw a side of Joel that was counter to his take-no-prisoners persona he used with other people who were less than forthcoming. For two hours Joel gently probed for answers about the brothers’ relationship. Nhep answered with a serene demeanor saying he was initially shocked about his brother’s role with the Khmer Rouge but more simply bewildered and sad about Pol Pot abandoning his family.

Joel’s career as a foreign correspondent, editor, author, columnist, and professor was his public life.

I’ll also remember Joel as a gentle Renaissance man who enjoyed gourmet cooking and fine woodworking, and his beloved North Carolina Tarheels.

His wife, two daughters, siblings and friends throughout the world know his true north was his unwavering love and respect for all of us.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas In Prison, 1977

I'm reposting this so hopefully it can link to my new website address.

I don't pass though a holiday season without thinking of this improbable story I witnessed in 1977.

Donald Bordenkircher, the Warden of the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville, had a problem. The prison needed some major improvements and the inmates were unwilling to let the projects proceed. He formed a negotiation team to find a compromise. An agreement between the warden and the inmate representatives was eventually reached: the work project could begin and in return the inmates would be allowed to organize and hold the first-ever "open house" on Christmas Eve, 1977. Families and friends would be allowed to come in to any area of the prison, except for the maximum security wing.

The western Kentucky correspondent for the Louisville Courier-Journal got a tip about the event and was invited along with me to come in and do a story. The CJ photo department at that time had its own single engine plane. Billy Davis was the pilot. We flew from Louisville early that morning to Eddyville. I had a couple of Nikons and my Leica. Once inside I was told I could go unescorted anywhere I wanted to go. I was the only photojournalist to cover the event. Security screening for all entering the facility was conducted and it was nothing like modern security measures of today. There were guards around in street clothes. The open house was a party atmosphere in the most unlikely scenario.

For the next four hours I watched many touching moments between wives, children, parents, and the inmates. A motorcycle gang came with several "girlfriends." We flew back to Louisville in the late afternoon to make deadline for the December 25th issue of the paper.

The open house was considered a success and was held for a few more years in a much more contained environment, but never again as free-wheeling as the first one.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Musical Artists at the Sisters Folk Festival

The Sisters Folk Festival is a three-day event held every September in Sisters, Oregon. The musicians fill the venues with the sounds of blues to bluegrass. For me, the challenge of photographing the festival is to make images to show how I see the personality of the musical artist through the renditions of them in a black and white format. I've tried to explain to many of the musicians how I'm working while they are performing and some understand. For most of the artists their music and how they connect with an audience is all that matters. That's how it always will be and I'll still be there working "in concert."

Monday, December 10, 2012

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Gentle Residents of Casey County

Rather than have the readers of this blog trying to access the gallery of images, I've put up this short slide show. Enjoy and Peace.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Gentle Residents of Casey County circa 1980

I'm learning why an archive of one's photographs is important.

Earlier this week I was contacted by a fellow, Elam Oberholtzer, inquiring about the images he saw of the Mennonite community in Casey County, KY. He was thrilled to find the gallery because many of the pictures were of his family. He says the family left the order in 2006 and he is now teaching English in Indonesia.

The photos were made in May and June of 1980 for the Louisville (KY) Courier-Journal's 4th of July edition. Dennis Dimick was the picture editor, Byron Crawford was the writer. Byron and I spent several days there after we were allowed to write and photograph with the only restrictions being no posed photos or photos inside the small house used as a church during a worship service.

A little perspective: 1980 was a rather crazy time. Joel Brinkley and I had won the Pulitzer in April and my youngest son Josh survived a near-fatal bout with bacterial meningitis. So, diving headfirst into the Mennonite project was cathartic.

Back to the story. I replied to Elam who is currently teaching English in Aceh, Indonesia asking him if he could help identify the people in the pictures (I can hear you editor types asking where my notes are). He responded with a two page detailed description of every image. He was born in 1989 and lived along South Fork until his family left the community in 2006. I'm waiting to hear the rest of that story! His grandfather, Jacob Oberholtzer, was the minister, farmer, log mill owner, and leader of the group. The young girls are his aunts.

He asked if he could get the digital files to make prints as his family doesn't have
internet. I told him I'd get prints made

and mailed to his family (still in Casey County) and that I'd try to find a copy of the original CJ article to send him. I called Luster to get Byron Crawford's phone number and rang up Byron. Mind you, we haven't connected in decades.

Byron has caller-id and when he answered he says, "Hey, I know why you're calling."

"You do?" I asked.

""You're calling about the Oberholtzers. I was just there today, been home about
three hours."
He told me he'd been there touring with a friend, stopped to talk with one of the Oberholtzers, bought a jar of sorghum molasses, recounted the story we'd done 32 years ago.

Next day, I get a second inquiry from another fellow, Alvin Shirk, wondering if I have any photos of his grandfather. The list of id's Elam gave me included the possibility that has grandfather was included; Alvin now says the man I photographed is someone else.

Today, another inquiry from a woman, Katrina Martin, saying she's from the community. Yep. Two of Jacob
Oberholtzer's daughters married her father's brothers. She also says the community is breaking apart. Change is inevitable and it's especially hard on communities like the Mennonites. I can't begin to understand the complexities of what the families have endured in the changes that have overcome them. I'm so grateful I had a chance to document the community as it was in 1980. Those photos now stand as a lasting testament of devotion to a lifestyle that few Americans will ever understand.

I've spent most of this week going back through every frame on the film and scanning everything that might be of interest to the extended Mennonite community now spread out over the state Kentucky and halfway around the world.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Camp Menzies Girl Scout Camp, Arnold, CA

The Girl Scouts USA organization, founded by Juliette Gordon Low, celebrates in 100th anniversary March 12, 2012. She imagined the girls could be united by a "magic thread." Pete Seeger wrote about that too.

Oh, had I a golden Thread
And needle so fine
I've weave a magic strand
Of rainbow design
Of rainbow design.

In it I'd weave the bravery
Of women giving birth,
In it I would weave the innocence
Of children over all the earth,
Children of all earth.

A century later 50 million women have been a part of the experience. My daughter went to Camp Menzies when she was ten. I wanted to know what that experience looked like so I arranged to spend several days at the camp. A female observer was with me constantly, totally understandable given the circumstances. Imagine a place where fun reigns, friendships are made, growth occurs. That was, and hopefully still is, Camp Menzies.