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Within Karen Kasmauski’s home in Falls Church, Virginia, is a museum in miniature. There are handwoven baskets from Senegal and Burma, milk bowls from Uganda, a cowbell from Kenya. There is Inuit whalebone art and geodes from Zambia. Propped up on shelves and tucked inside glass cabinets, these treasures aren’t simply souvenirs—they’re homages to the countless people the photographer has encountered around the world.

Kasmauski has spent decades pursuing in-depth and complex stories about human health and environments, previously as a photojournalist for National Geographic, and, more recently, as an editorial shooter for humanitarian organizations. Along the way, Kasmauski has also published award-winning books of her photography, including the Pulitzer-nominated Nurse: A World of Care; led international photo expeditions for National Geographic; codirected a documentary short film on Japanese war brides, called Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight; and taken up teaching at George Washington and George Mason universities. She’s lost track of the number of countries she’s shot in, but guesses it’s in the range of 60 or 70. “I’m probably the only photographer who’s been to Africa 40 times and has never been on a safari,” she jokes.

Kasmauski is a chronicler of the human experience, capturing it in all its messy, gritty, gorgeous nuance, from the searing pain of a dying AIDS patient clutching a photograph of his estranged daughter to the measured focus and grit of a midwife in Nairobi. Hers are the kind of images you can’t look away from. “Everything that I do is about people: how they live and why they live and what motivates them,” says Kasmauski. “It’s all about trying to understand people’s lives.”

That curiosity has glimmered for Kasmauski for as long as she can remember. “I can’t ever remember a time in my life when I wasn’t always wondering what was going on over the next hill,” she says. As a student at the University of Michigan, Kasmauski took “just about every course I could get my hands on” and ultimately majored in religion and anthropology. She also joined the student paper armed with a rangefinder camera, which, she points out, was “not a photojournalism camera.” When the paper’s director of photography threatened to fire her if she didn’t upgrade her equipment, Kasmauski wrote a doleful letter to her father, who at the time was stationed in Vietnam with the Navy. Two weeks later, a Nikon arrived via air mail—her father had bought it at the base station in Saigon. “So suddenly,” she remembers, “I’m now a photographer.”

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After graduation, Kasmauski took a volunteer gig with an organization doing outreach work in the Appalachian mountains, which unexpectedly evolved into her first real storytelling project. Kasmauski spent the following two years collecting the oral histories and photographs of long-time residents who were being displaced in the Big South Fork area. She spent her days trekking up twisting mountain roads and knocking on strangers’ doors, and her weekends developing film in a borrowed darkroom in Knoxville. She ended up shooting 40 rolls of film, all with that Nikon.

When Kasmauski returned to her hometown of Norfolk, she applied to a lab tech position at the Virginian-Pilot, the largest daily in the state. She spent the following nine months “sloshing film and taking all kinds of jobs that the other photographers didn’t want,” until earning a position as a staff photographer.

At the Pilot, Kasmauski says she learned “how to make a good situation out of nothing,” coaxing emotional images from the likes of ribbon cuttings and meetings, and, along the way, began to sharpen her aesthetic eye. “Finding the drama in the mundane life is sort of my style,” she says. “I don’t do wars, I don’t do big news events, I don’t do splashy things. I do the aftermath: people trying to recover, trying to get on with their lives.”

She also began honing her skills as a story developer. Bob Lynn, who oversaw the Pilot’s photo department for nearly two decades and fielded Kasmauski’s pitches for the years she worked at the paper, describes Kasmauski’s story development skills as remarkable and rare. “She saw stories that were under the radar, stories that people in most media didn’t see or didn’t pay attention to,” says Lynn. “She’s the best I’ve ever known, in that regard.”

While on assignment for the Pilot at Virginia’s annual Chincoteague pony swim, Kasmauski met Bill Douthitt, the man who would become her husband. Inconveniently, Douthitt lived and worked in Washington, DC, and Kasmauski dreaded the idea of relocating and leaving the Pilot behind. At the time, the paper was transitioning from black-and-white to color, so Kasmauski decided to stick around long enough to learn how to shoot on color slides, an opportunity she describes as a gift. “It’s a very different way of shooting than color negatives. You cannot compensate in a darkroom with it,” says Kasmauski. “Everything has to be technically perfect before you click that shutter.”

Finding the drama in the mundane life is sort of my style. I don’t do wars, I don’t do big news events, I don’t do splashy things. I do the aftermath: people trying to recover, trying to get on with their lives.”

For plenty of photographers, working at National Geographic is the dream. For Kasmauski, it wasn’t even really on her radar. “Growing up, my family was poor, and you had to be a member to get the magazines,” she says. That didn’t stop her from walking into photo chief Bob Gilka’s office with two story ideas. “He had this reputation of being someone who could intimidate you like crazy,” says Kasmauski, “but I didn’t know to be afraid.” Impressed with her portfolio and her somewhat unconventional major, Gilka called her a month later and asked if she wanted the job. She still remembers her immediate response to his offer, which would ultimately launch a 20-year career with the magazine: “Is this a trick question?”

In her time as a Geographic photographer, Kasmauski shot 25 stories for the magazine, 18 of which were ideas she developed and pitched herself. A typical story, back then, might take anywhere from four to six months to shoot, not to mention the travel. Kasmauski’s first international story, “Living with Radiation,” took her to nine countries. That project illuminated another of Kasmauski’s strengths: turning inherently nonvisual subject matter into a visually compelling story.

Kasmauski’s observations are not only of people, but also the ways their environments shape their health—an interest that was first forged during those days traipsing through the Appalachians. At Geographic, that interest grew as Kasmauski explored topics like viruses, obesity and the ecology of disease. She shot a story about the AIDS virus while she was six months pregnant. She wept after photographing a toddler dying of dengue fever. She learned how to establish genuine trust and rapport with subjects, even when she only had hours—or sometimes minutes—to do so.

Ann LoLordo, director of communications at global health nonprofit Jhpiego, has hired Kasmauski to visually document the work the organization does in the field. For one project, she sent Kasmauski to Nigeria to photograph Jhpiego’s efforts to reduce maternal mortality by training and educating nurses and midwives. The resulting photos told a story of dignity, determination and heroism. “Karen’s photographs captured the day-to-day reality, grit and challenge of working in a developing country’s hospital,” says LoLordo, “and she was able to show the skill, dedication and tenacity of midwives and nurses on the front lines in a live-or-die circumstance.”

Though these shoots are typically planned down to the minute by the organization, Kasmauski isn’t afraid to cajole her program liaisons—or, in her words, “cause a little bit of a ruckus”—for access to people and spaces that will enable her to capture images that actually move people. That level of determination is the difference between a static photo of a classroom full of nursing students, and a dynamic, stirring photo of those students gathering around a teenage girl preparing for an emergency delivery.

I have to catch what I feel is that human emotion or interaction that will tell a lot about that person... a facial expression, a turn of a head."

Philip Laubner, photo editor of Catholic Relief Services, who has one of Kasmauski’s photos framed on his desk, once spent three weeks in the field with Kasmauski in Sierra Leone and was struck by her ceaseless effort in getting the most compelling shots possible. “Karen’s able to pull complex and interesting angles into a composition, while at the same time capturing emotion,” says Laubner. He adds that her images are consistently used by Catholic Relief Services more than any other photographer’s, and that they raise the most donations for the organization.

Finding that decisive moment, and capturing it on the fly—that’s where Kasmauski’s newspaper reporting chops come in handy. “You have to recognize the situation quickly, you have to work the scene quickly and you have to know almost instinctively where the storytelling moment is,” she says. “I have to catch what I feel is that human emotion or interaction that will tell a lot about that person... a facial expression, a turn of a head.”

But even the sharpest reader of body language can’t accommodate for an unwilling or uncomfortable subject, especially when there are mere minutes to capture an image. “You can’t just sit there and say, ‘I need to take pictures,’” says Kasmauski. “There has to be an interaction with people.” (She suspects women photographers in particular are well equipped for this—for establishing trust and mutual respect, and organically gaining access to a subject’s most personal self and space. “Women are used to feeling things out,” she says.)

When it comes to gear, Kasmauski travels light—two mirrorless camera bodies, a couple of lenses, a hand strobe. But more than any one piece of equipment, it’s humility, care and empathy that enable Kasmauski to do the work that she does, in the way she does it. She makes her art by opening up, and then stepping back, ready and waiting. ca

Gray Chapman (graywrites.com) is an Atlanta-based freelance journalist. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Atlas Obscura, Vice and Atlanta magazine.

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