If the point of life is to impact as many people as possible, and to give as much love as we are able, which I believe it is, then Shawn Kuykendall has done far more than his share. I’m heartbroken to learn that cancer has taken his life at such a young age, but I’m relieved to know he is no longer in pain. I met Shawn because of his cancer. I was assigned to follow him as he battled his rare disease and produce a short documentary about his life. And while I wish I had met him under different circumstances, I am a better person having known Shawn. I’m so grateful he let my colleagues and me into his life to share his story. I hope that through this work, and through the stories that his friends and family keep passing on, Shawn will continue to be inspiration to many for years to come.
For over a year, I have been working on a project with writer Ian Shapira and photojournalist Ricky Carioti about a family, the Wises, that lost two sons to the war in Afghanistan. Their surviving son is an active duty Marine. The Wises are only one of six known families to have lost two children in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s a story about sacrifice and healing. It’s about family and love and all the emotions people feel when faced with such great, untimely loss. And it’s a reminder of what our military families risk and endure. The Wises, who are spread out between Washington state, Arkansas and Virginia Beach, graciously shared their story with us during several visits throughout the year. As a result, I produced a four-part mini-documentary that is about 30 minutes long in total. It’s the longest video I’ve ever made, and editing it was a big challenge given the hours of interview footage I had collected in the past year. My editor, Jonathan Forsythe, worked closely with me as it came time to cut down the story to a watchable length. It was a great collaborative editing experience.
Ian wrote a beautiful story and Ricky made stunning photographs of the family. See it all here.
In October I traveled to the Sahrawi refugee camps in western Algeria on a fellowship with the International Women’s Media Foundation. This was a follow-up trip to our visit to Western Sahara in May. The IWMF asked me to produce a photo essay from the trip, which can be seen here. I will produce a video from the trip for The Washington Post sometime soon as well.
The five Sahrawi refugee camps are located in a remote stretch of the Sahara Desert. The land is arid, dusty, dry and seemingly uninhabitable. But many of these refugees have lived there for almost 40 years since some of them fled Western Sahara during the armed conflict there with Morocco. Morocco now occupies and controls Western Sahara. Nearly all the food the Sahrawis consume comes from aid organizations managed by Red Crescent.
While we were there in the most remote camp, Dakhla, the FiSahara Film Festival was taking place. The festival is held by a Spanish group that turns the desolate desert into a space for film screenings. They also hold workshops to teach Sahrawi activists how to use filmmaking to further their cause, among other things.
It was an eye-opening week. I’ve never seen any place like it. And the passion and resolve these people maintain in the fight for an independent Western Sahara is unfettered. I look forward to sharing more when I complete my video story.
For the past several months I have been following Shawn Kuykendall’s battle with thymic cancer. Shawn is only 31, and he found out he has this rare, incurable disease this past spring after he began feeling pain and fatigue. Shawn says he was in the best shape of his life at the time. He used to play soccer professionally for D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls, before coaching at his alma mater American University and then taking a job as director of player development at Montgomery Soccer Inc., (MSI). In spite of the fact that he received this horrible diagnosis seemingly out of nowhere, Shawn has an incredible attitude. He constantly laughs and makes jokes, even while chemo drugs are being pumped into his system. And he he’s full of faith. He holds on tightly to the belief that God is watching after him, and that God’s will will be carried out in his life. No matter one’s own beliefs, it’s impressive to see someone in Shawn’s situation, with the odds stacked against him, maintain that sense of hope and peace. He’s a really inspiring guy.
And so because I’ve gotten to know Shawn so well over a relatively long stretch of time, I’ve come to think of him as a friend. This is only natural, but it’s not something I really think about when I go into reporting a story. I say to myself: “This is obviously a hard, sad topic to cover. But I’m tough. I’ve seen a lot of hard stuff before.” But then when I’ve actually gotten to the know the person and it really does get hard, I’m never fully prepared. I certainly wasn’t this time. So I struggle a bit with how I’m supposed to feel about people when I do this kind of reporting. How close I should get. Whether it’s even OK for me to be really upset if they aren’t doing well. I mean, in the scheme of their lives, who am I? And aren’t I supposed to be objective, neutral, unbiased? But in the end, I just think we can never forget that we’re human beings first, and that we enrich each others’ lives with the friendships and connections we make and hold dear. Pretending we aren’t impacted by people we get to really know is just that: pretending.
On a personal level, this story is a reminder to me that life is not fair. There is very little we are in control of in this world. I spend so much mental space believing that if I work hard and I’m a good person, everything will be OK. And most of the time, that’s true. Or at least it has been so far for me. But horrible things happen to really good people, like Shawn. And so when it comes to that, I hope Shawn is right when he says God is watching after us. If not, it seems the terrible, unfair parts are hopeless. I don’t have all the answers, but Shawn has made me think about this a lot lately.
See our project about Shawn, which includes a video, article and photo gallery, here. I worked with the very talented writer Rick Maese and stellar photojournalist Toni Sandys.
Hidalgo County, Texas is one of the fastest growing areas in the country, and about 40 percent of its residents receive food stamps. But the hungriest part of the country is also the most obese, with high rates of diabetes. I visited one of the county’s many colonias, which are communities along the border that often have little infrastructure and lack of development, and met Maria Guadalupe Aranda Cuella and her family. They struggle to pay for the food they need for all ten family members, but Cuella doesn’t have a work visa so she has little other income. Watch the video here. And read the story by Eli Saslow with photos by Michael S. Williamson here.
This was an especially challenging assignment for a couple reasons. I only had a few days before I needed to make the trip to do pre-reporting and identify potential characters. Luckily I was able to find Joseph Sharkey and Lupita Sanchez, who set me up with people to talk with. Also, I don’t speak Spanish and I didn’t technically have a translator. I really hope to learn Spanish at some point - it would be incredibly helpful for my work. But at this point, I had to improvise. One of the promotores working with Sharkey was able to do some rough translation for me in the field. Then, once I got back to DC, we paid someone to do typed translations with timecodes. This was incredibly helpful. A friend and former intern, Cristina Fletes, happened to be visiting while I was editing, and she was able to help me make sure the translations lined up correctly on the screen. And of course, a super tight deadline on this made it all the more difficult. But I’m glad I was able to tell this family’s story. I think the simultaneous struggles of hunger and obesity in this region and across other parts of the U.S. are serious ones that we need to tackle as a country.
In September I traveled to McDowell County, West Virginia to explore how the political climate in the area is shifting. The state has been a longtime democratic stronghold. President Kennedy started the food stamps program there. Many of the state’s officials are still democrats today. But they all tend to be relatively conservative democrats. McDowell County was one of the few in the state that voted for Obama in 2008, but not so in 2012. Coal mining once made the area boom, but with automation and a shift to other energy sources, the economy has suffered. Some residents hope the abundance of ATV trails in the area can revive economy. See the video here and be sure to read the story by Karen Tumulty, with photos by Katherine Frye, here.
Sam Larry sort of designated himself as my fixer on this project, and I was extremely lucky to have his help. I met Sam because, as I was packing up my car to head there, the mayor, who I had already been in touch with, called to tell him he had arranged for me to stay at Sam’s Guesthouse. Now, subjects don’t ever really arrange for my stay. I had already booked a hotel in the next town over. But Marcus Wilkes insisted that the roads would be too treacherous at night for me to stay anywhere else. So, I canceled the other hotel and stayed at Sam’s. Sam grew up in the area and his family has owned their home there for generations. He took an incredible amount of time to show me around, introduce me to locals and take me riding on his ATV. He was a huge help.
In spite of its problems, McDowell County is a beautiful place, and the people there are really kind. I’m glad I got to spend a little time there.
Earlier this year I visited several gun ranges in Las Vegas to learn about a booming industry that allows tourists to pay money to shoot military-grade machine guns for entertainment. I got a sense of the different types of packages these ranges offer to customers, what sort of safety regulations they require and whether this sort of activity is really luring people to visit. And I explored what all this means in light of the current national debate about America’s gun culture and how it is related to recent mass shootings. See the video here.
This is a standalone piece that I reported independently from any print component, which can be somewhat rare for me. I usually report stories alone, but often in some sort of conjunction with a print reporter. Sometimes the article and video feature the same characters and general storyline, but sometimes the story is completely different within the same topic area. But this time, no print reporter wrote anything to pair with my video. While this made the reporting logistics a bit easier for me in some ways (no need to coordinate travel schedules, no need to shush the writer while I’m recording, etc.,), it became difficult for my editor to decide when to publish the story. Our publication cycle is very connected to what runs in the newspaper any given day, and that applies to what is featured on the homepage of our website. So, this video held for a few months after it was completed. But now, here it is, published just in time for that summer Vegas vacation you were probably planning.
As our social media team wrote when they posted the video on Twitter, “Old Vegas: Pull the lever. New Vegas: Pull the trigger.”
"But we’re war reporters, after all, aren’t we? A band of brothers (and sisters). We risk our lives to give voice to the voiceless. We have seen things most people will never see. We are a wealth of stories at the dinner table, the cool guests who everyone wants to invite. But the dirty secret is that instead of being united, we are our own worst enemies; and the reason for the $70 per piece isn’t that there isn’t any money, because there is always money for a piece on Berlusconi’s girlfriends.”
I just read this account of what it’s like to be a freelance female journalist covering a war zone and felt totally enraged. I find it unbelievable that these people are only paid $70 per story. I find it outrageous that they cannot afford health insurance. I find it ridiculous that editors like the one this woman describes in the first paragraph are only concerned about what content they can get if a journalist is captured, rather than how to get that journalist to safety. I realize our industry is struggling and shrinking. And I know that sadly, most people don’t care to read or see what is happening in distant places when they live so safely, comfortably in the West, or elsewhere. But I also know we are obligated to tell these stories. Warlords and corrupt governments would never be held accountable, and wounded masses would have no voice without journalists on the ground, spreading truth. These people risk their lives so we will know what is happening. They deserve better. They deserve better from our publications who hire them, and they deserve better from readers and viewers who so often ignore their work.
This past May I traveled to Western Sahara on a reporting fellowship with the International Women’s Media Foundation. Western Sahara is a territory in North Africa that has been occupied by Morocco since 1975. An armed conflict erupted when Morocco invaded the territory and lasted until the United Nations negotiated a ceasefire in 1991. Western Sahara was promised it could have a referendum on self-determination to decide whether to become an independent nation. But that referendum never happened, partially because no one can decide who should be allowed to participate. But this lack of resolution has left many Sahrawis quite upset about the whole thing. They protest from time to time and we got to see one of the largest protests in recent years the day we arrived. I produced a video about the ongoing, forgotten conflict, which you can see here. And Loveday Morris, one of the other women with me on the fellowship, wrote this accompanying article, which focused on how women play a big role in activism efforts there.
Reporting in Western Sahara did not come without challenges. The night of that protest, when we were interviewing Aminatou Haidar, the so-called “Sahrawi Ghandi,” people started throwing stones at the house we were in. We had to get officials from the Moroccan federal government to get us out safely. The rest of the time, undercover police followed us and Moroccan officials tailed us most places we went. This was problematic for several reasons: some sources didn’t want to talk with us because of their presence, they tried to stop us from going to some areas, and it all just felt generally very invasive. We also had to deal with so many people wanting to meet with us. Their interest was helpful in some cases, but we didn’t have time to talk with everyone there. So we had to filter which people we met with, and we had to stop meetings much sooner than these people would have liked. And of course, dealing with language barriers is always a challenge. I don’t speak Arabic, so I had to talk to sources through a translator almost all the time. I usually conduct interviews by nodding my head at the right times while people talk, and I know how to gently cut them off when they’re rambling. I couldn’t do that there because I didn’t know what people were saying as they were speaking. That same issue made editing difficult because I had to check with a translator to make any cuts in the interviews and to make sure text translations showed up at the right times on screen. This whole thing really required the help of a lot of people.
But at the end of it all, I think it’s an important, complex story to tell. I am really grateful I had the opportunity to go there. Not a lot of media are let into the territory, and not much of the world really cares what’s going on there anyway. I’m also grateful my editor, Jonathan Forsythe, gave me so much time to work on this, and allowed the piece to be so long. I know it far exceeds the average length our audience is used to watching, but there was so much to tell. And of course there is so much more to tell that I didn’t mention.
In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings, I have been assigned to work on stories about the gun debate. One of these videos is about gun manufacturing in New England, an area that is nicknamed “gun valley” because so many firearms are made there. The irony, of course, is that some of the strictest firearms legislation exists and/or is being proposed in that area. And a lot of the legislation is being demanded by emotional crowds at rallies, like the one pictured below, that happened in Hartford in February.
Another one of these stories is about the ongoing inner city gun violence that is often forgotten about and overshadowed by media coverage of mass shootings. We look at a DC neighborhood called Capitol View, which has nearly as many annual gun-inflicted homicides as there were lives lost at Sandy Hook. The problem is so prevalent that a support group called “Life After Homicide” was started at a church in the neighborhood. I asked one of the women in the group, Saundra Beverly, how many people she has personally known who have been murdered. Her guess: 40 to 50 people. When I told her I have never personally known anyone was murdered, the concept didn’t even seem to register with her. She said something to the effect of, “I’m not saying I actually witnessed all of their murders.” I had to explain that I was saying that I actually cannot name one single friend, family member or acquaintance who has been killed by another human being. In certain areas, we are so insulated from this sort of tragedy. It rarely touches us or our loved ones. But for these people who are stuck in tough neighborhoods, gun violence and homicides are facts of life.
That exchange made me think about how I often cover stories about people who live in much more difficult situations than I do. I’m drawn to stories about struggle, especially among marginalized and poor populations, because I think it’s important that people in power are aware of what so many of these folks go through. Often they don’t have the means or the know-how to tell their stories to the right people on their own. But I’m sure they see me as an outsider, because my own life is nothing like theirs most of the time. The song “A Wake” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis reminds me of this same thing, especially when Macklemore says:
"Neighborhoods where you never see a news crew / Unless they’re gentrifying, white people don’t even cruise through / And my subconscious telling me to stop it / This is an issue that you shouldn’t get involved in / Don’t even tweet, R.I.P. Trayvon Martin / Don’t want to be that white dude million man marchin’ / Fighting for a freedom that my people stole / Don’t wanna make all my white fans uncomfortable / But you don’t even have a *** song for radio / Why you out here talkin race, trying to save the *** globe / Don’t get involved with causes in mind / White privilege, white guilt, at the same damn time / So we just party like it’s nineteen ninety nine / Celebrate the ignorance while these kids keep dying."
I’m obviously not supporting a cause or demanding any sort of change; I’m just sharing truth the best I can, as objectively as possible. But I don’t always know how to approach these kinds of stories, or how to make myself blend in so people are genuine when I’m around. It’s a delicate dance to try to be as honest as possible, showing both plights and flaws. But I will certainly continue to try.