Best known for her images of global
health issues, photojournalist Karen Kasmauski often finds herself in the world's
hot zones, but she says the work she does isn't dangerous...until
it is. One moment you're fine; the next, there's trouble, and you
never saw it coming. "It's always unpredictable," Karen says.
"You're safe until you're not."
In Sierra Leone in 1993 for National Geographic, Karen was documenting efforts to combat Lassa Fever, a virulent, highly contagious relative of the Ebola virus. It was her first assignment in Africa, and two Sierra Leonians, technicians for the Centers for Disease Control, were assisting her. One morning one of the men suggested that Karen take a picture of a nearby mountain. She raised her camera, and an army officer nearby raised his AK-47 and pointed it at her head.
"All of a sudden we were under
arrest," Karen says. "There was a civil war going on, and it was
an unstable situation. The officer sees a foreigner, and if there's any
chance of arresting you, he's going to do it. I call it the `small
man with a big gun' syndrome, and you find it anywhere there's instability."
Karen and the technicians were driven to an army barracks. The technicians were taken inside, Karen left in the truck, alone. "There's a lot of screaming and yelling coming from the building. I thought, what if I hear gunfire? What should I do? The keys were still in the ignition--do I start the truck and go? And then I thought, where am I gonna go? I have no idea where I am. Then, to make it all the more dramatic, in comes this dust storm and covers the truck."
Three hours later the technicians emerged from the building. "They were shaken. They were as pale as dark-skinned people can be. I guess they'd told the officers that we had permission to be here, and they'd had to wait for confirmation. We drive away and there's not a word said in the vehicle. Finally I try to make casual conversation, and I say, `I guess we won't be coming back here tomorrow,' and they look at me like I'm the biggest idiot in the world.
"I remember thinking, National Geographic doesn't prepare you for this."
Karen Kasmauski is a NikonNet "Legends Behind the Lens" featured photographer. The current "Legends" story and an archive of profiled photographers, including Karen, can be found at: www.nikonnet.com. Karen's website is at: www.kasmauski.com.