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Best of 2011: Joni Kabana


After receiving a Best of ASMP 2008 distinction for humanitarian work in India and Nepal, Portland, Oregon-based Joni Kabana is now shedding light on a gripping women’s health concern in Ethiopia. Girls are underfed in some parts of Ethiopia and can become pregnant before the pelvis has sufficiently developed to give birth. The resulting fistulas they suffer cause severe physical pain with long-lasting social and psychological impact. Often working in extremely rural hospitals without running water, Kabana is documenting this situation, to raise awareness about the need for emergency obstetrics.

Joni Kabana, Portland, OR

Web site: www.jonikabana.com

Project: Documentation of women’s fistula and prolapse conditions in Ethiopia.

© Joni Kabana
© Joni Kabana

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

JK: I’ve been taking photos since I was eight years old, and have accepted paid assignments for about 25 years, but I became a full time photographer about seven years ago.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

JK: Since 2006.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

JK: Portraiture, editorial, photojournalism, fine art.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

JK: My intuition! After that: My old Speed Graphic 4X5 camera.

© Joni Kabana
© Joni Kabana

ASMP: What is unique about your approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

JK: I very much seek authentic communication in eye contact, and I work hard to gain an engagement level that is intimate but requires minimal, if any, spoken words. An Ethiopian man once told me, “Everything begins, and ends, with our eyes.” I try to reduce the power a camera in hand establishes for a photographer, and wait for the power to shift equally to the subject.

© Joni Kabana
© Joni Kabana

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.

JK: Gaining trust of the patients, Ethiopian medical staff, other in-country observers of the final work, and Western medical staff are of vital importance to the project. Selecting and gaining access to specific stories can be daunting, while also depicting the situation as accurately as possible. There is an enormous responsibility that comes with editing the material: determining which story line is most beneficial to the project, yet also remains true to some of the issues that surround international aid.

© Joni Kabana
© Joni Kabana

ASMP: Your Mercy Corps Phoenix Fund project (in India and Nepal) was selected for the Best of ASMP in 2008. Was there a direct line of thought (or networking) that propelled you from that project to this project in Ethiopia, or did you start from scratch and assemble a completely new team of alliances?

JK: The work in Ethiopia is completely separate from my work in India, Nepal and Madagascar. Alliances in Ethiopia are mainly within the medical field, but are now expanding into areas such as marketing, public relations, travel/tourism, music and fashion. This team is specific to Ethiopia, but I still work with teams in other countries to further develop those projects.

© Joni Kabana
© Joni Kabana

ASMP: In ‘08 we asked about cultural barriers faced when working in the Indian and Nepalese villages. We’d like to ask the same question, but this subject matter is much more sensitive. What kind of reception did you get? How did you convince the subjects’ husbands and families of your good will in documenting this issue?

JK: Maternal health in rural settings is indeed a highly sensitive subject, from the patient’s perspective as well as from the Ethiopian government’s perspective, and all of the professionals and family members that exist in-between. I have found that trust can be built with not only words, but also by establishing it via actions and other means of communication. I also work very deliberately, and will return several times before I ask to document situations. I always respect the word “no.” I prefer not to ask a patient directly if I can document their situation. Instead, I ask an Ethiopian to speak with the patient without my presence, so the patient and her family can feel comfortable saying they don’t want to be involved. Once I receive acceptance, I then tell them, via more than one interpreter, why I am photographing this subject and what I will do with the images. I then spend time with them, without camera equipment, with sincere interest in their stories and welfare.

© Joni Kabana
© Joni Kabana

ASMP: When did you begin this work in Ethiopia? How many trips have you made to photograph there and for how long? Did you travel with an assistant or crew?

JK: My first trip to Ethiopia was in February 2010 and I returned in January 2011. I will return again in October 2011 and a few times in 2012. I travel with few, if any, support staff, preferring to enlist help from local people so they feel more a part of the project and the hired work benefits their economy. This past year, I did take one U.S.-based assistant. In 2012, I plan to teach a workshop and take a small group of photographers to document various NGO projects. I have found that it is best to travel in pairs of two instead of being alone (for safety reasons) and also not appear as a “crew;” therefore my quest is to keep the team very small. We will dispatch two people at a time in each location during the workshop, and they will be photographing different subject matter.

© Joni Kabana
© Joni Kabana

ASMP: Did you have U.S. sponsorships, assignments, indirect support or work directly with the Hamlin Fistula Hospital to help create this work?

JK: I did not have formal sponsorship for the fistula prevention work, but I worked with a doctor who worked at the Hamlin Fistula Hospitals who is coordinating the effort from within Ethiopia and also with doctors stateside and in Holland. I also met with various organizations that do similar work so that they could provide input regarding what angle I focused on, and so they could also use some of the imagery for their own efforts. I also work closely with Everywoman's Health and Oregon Health & Science University with their rotation of services. There has been additional support, such as Pro Photo Supply lending me equipment when I need it, and KEEN Shoes donating 900 pairs of shoes for the women so they can walk home more comfortably after surgery. This October, I will be returning on assignment directly with the Hamlin Fistula Hospital to photograph the graduation of midwives and to follow some of them back into their rural villages to document their reception and as they set up their services.

© Joni Kabana
© Joni Kabana

ASMP: Please talk about the book and video you produced for this project. Were these vehicles predetermined at the outset or did they arise out of the work process? How were these productions funded and what kind of time frame was required?

JK: I like to create a “rally” around the subject matter I chose, and creating books, videos, presentations, and marketing materials is always a part of the project. I like to enlist the help of people who have never done this type of work before, because teaching is another aspect of my work that I love to do. I may have an idea for a product before taking off, but once I have the material and content in front of me, sometimes that initial idea is altered. Working with little to no funding, I try to piece together volunteer work. I have worked with a wonderful design department at Mt. Hood Community College where books have been created by the students under the guidance of Chris and David Maier, two very talented design instructors.

I have started looking into grants, and hope one day to secure funding or sponsorship. In the meantime, my commercial work, and on occasion a small amount of private fundraising, finances these projects.

© Joni Kabana
© Joni Kabana

ASMP: Is your content from this project being published or disseminated beyond the book and video? Are your images being used locally in Ethiopia? Is there any concern there about revealing the identity of local subjects?

JK: A few articles have been published in local magazines, and I am seeking other avenues of publication to help bring awareness to larger audiences. The images are being used locally in Ethiopia as well as in Australia, Holland and the U.S. My video content will be sent to ABC News in Australia for a related story. There has been no concern about revealing the identity, as the images I give to them are positively reflected and consent was obtained. I have not yet published the story about Dege, but will do so in the appropriate publication. Dege’s family is highly appreciative that her life was saved and they want to be a part of developing awareness of this medical effort.

© Joni Kabana
© Joni Kabana

ASMP: Have your images been successful in raising awareness about this issue in Ethiopia? Are there other places where this women’s health issue is a major concern? If so, do you think that presenting the Ethiopian work would be helpful to raise awareness in a different place?

JK: Yes, the images have been used by the Hamlin Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia and also in the United States. The Hamlin Fistula Hospital called and asked for more images a month ago so they could prepare a special brochure for Hilary Clinton’s recent visit. We also use the images at Oregon Health & Sciences University for their global collaboration effort. I believe that these stories would help other African nations to foster help where fistula instances are high. The Ethiopian government is actively involved in developing plans to address this issue and they are outlawing child marriage and building hospitals in rural areas where access is difficult. The area we work in is so remote that there is no running water in the hospital; it has to be fetched by the medical staff and surgeons. But these are the areas that most need the medical help.

© Joni Kabana
© Joni Kabana

ASMP: Have you been surprised by anything while photographing maternal health in Ethiopia?

JK: I set out to document the plight of Ethiopian women and the health concerns they face. A surprising aspect that drew my attention was how the men respond to their loved ones’ circumstances. Men will sell their stock of cattle to pay for health care and they will walk for days, carrying their wife, sister, mother to the nearest health post. My heart was continuously moved by the tender care of the men.

© Joni Kabana
© Joni Kabana

ASMP: The music used in the “Footsteps to Healing” video, by Ayub Ogada, is very powerful. How was the music sourced and what kind of licensing was arranged? What is the title and can you share the English translation of the words?

JK: The song is called Kothbiro, and the translation is along the lines of “Can you hear me?” Approval for widespread use is pending. I also just received approval from Dave Schommer (a CD, Bole 2 Harlem, and a movie score, “A Walk To Beautiful”) to use his music in current and future collaborations.

© Joni Kabana
© Joni Kabana

ASMP: The credits on the video include a mention of Jay Wright. What part did he play in producing this piece? Did you have other collaborators in the video?

JK: This photo montage was a first attempt at creating a multimedia piece surrounding this subject and, at that time, I did not know how to use video editing software. Jay had produced video vignettes while he was in Africa and we collaborated on this sample. Since then, I hired a tutor and learned how to edit my content in Final Cut Pro. I am in the process of editing three new videos.

© Joni Kabana
© Joni Kabana

ASMP: How long have you been producing multimedia work and how did you first learn these skills?

JK: I have long been collecting video clips, but did not work on multimedia production and editing until last year. Now I can’t imagine working with just still images. Video has broadened my work, and I believe has made me a better still photographer as well.

© Joni Kabana
© Joni Kabana

ASMP: Your bio mentions that you have postgraduate certification in computer programming and a past career working on technical interactive projects. Please elaborate about your past work and skills in these areas. How beneficial are these skills to your current photographic business? How much time do you devote to keeping up to date with this aspect of your knowledge base?

JK: I graduated from a certificate program after getting my BA in Psychology so I could work on programming computers in assembly (machine code) language. I then went on to enjoy a 22-year career in high tech. I think these skills have been useful when I launched my commercial photography business and also when I create and manage projects. It also helps to have worked “on the other side” to know how difficult a corporation’s work can be and how much they count on getting things correct the first time around, with a swift response.

© Joni Kabana
© Joni Kabana

ASMP: Beyond the technical, what past work or career experiences have you tapped to develop the kind of collaboration skills needed to conceive, organize and execute such ambitious and worthwhile projects? Please describe how you’ve been able to put these skills into practice.

JK: Relationship building has been the essence of any work that I do, and I have a low tolerance for insincerity and expanded ego. Jock Sturges once told me, “There is no better posture for a photographer than humility, because we don’t really know how a picture is made.” I think people are drawn to still photography for many reasons, but I see so much intense competition and inflated egos in our field. I think my past work managing large staffs has helped me to navigate various personality types and to remain steadfast with my values regarding relationship development. This usually results in establishing a basis of trust, and also of fearlessness in confronting those things that are not working. All of these words are meaningless when I am face to face with someone from a culture who relies mostly on intuition and can detect insincerity within seconds of initiating rapport. I learn so much from these cultures, and realize there are deeper ways of developing support and collaboration than how we most often do this in Western culture. I have learned to trust my instincts regarding who is involved in projects, and when something is not working out, I clearly communicate my thoughts and take action.

© Joni Kabana
© Joni Kabana

ASMP: Your Web site incorporates a newsletter with interesting functionality, such as recent posts that include an automatic translator to translate messages into 35 languages. Is this a software program that others can license or purchase for integration into a primary Web site and, if so, can you provide a link? Do you have any stats or insightful responses logged from your international readership?

JK: My newsletters are all handled via Mailchimp, and they have all kinds of services that are very useful. The translation service is exceptionally beneficial since I work with so many cultures. The only issue with working around the globe is that there is never a “down” time. E-mail and requests come in 24 hours a day. But I love to have this connection and I rely on in-country collaboration to view my work and communicate if I have misrepresented something.

© Joni Kabana
© Joni Kabana

ASMP: Your site includes an extensive list of testimonials from people you’ve worked with in the past. Do you have a specific strategy or methodology for requesting these? Is there a particular means of inquiry or timing that you find to be most effective in soliciting a prompt response?

JK: I request testimonials after many projects and assignments, utilizing the content to either improve my performance or to be used as promotional information (with consent). I ask for feedback immediately after a class, project or assignment is complete, or after working for a period of time with someone.

© Joni Kabana
© Joni Kabana

ASMP: While you’re away on a project such as your current endeavor in Ethiopia, do you have any dedicated staff or assistance in getting future jobs, and someone dealing with ongoing print sales, client relations, opening the mail or whatever?

JK: How I wish! I continue communications, assignment search, client relations, class curriculum development and so on while I am on the road. On occasion, I will hire someone to do specific tasks such as enhancing images, delivering prints or being on standby to access my data or negatives in case I need to work on another image or something like that. On rare occasions, I will hire someone to take over a component of my assignment such as working with editors or even shooting, but only when the client feels completely comfortable with this. I have usually been able to schedule assignments around my international work (clients love that I do this work) or work on them while abroad via CMDA Internet connection.

© Joni Kabana
© Joni Kabana

ASMP: You taught a workshop in British Columbia during July 2011. Who was the organizer and what subject matter did the workshop cover? How much time do you spend teaching and what percentage of your income is generated by this type of activity?

JK: The organization is Metchosin International Summer School of the Arts (MISSA) and it is a two-week “school” set in an incredibly lovely alcove that invites artists from all over the world to teach workshops. I taught an Environmental Portrait workshop this year. I am increasingly adding classes and workshops because people I have had in other classes request them. The workshop in Ethiopia was filled before we needed to publicize it, so I will be adding another workshop. I really love to introduce concepts and techniques to others, and I also learn from the participants while I am teaching. I will be teaching a street workshop this October in Portland and next year in Amsterdam with someone who I very much admire and respect, Jan Sonnenmair, as I believe that collaboration in teaching produces exciting results for all of us. I am also planning to teach a few workshops via the Julia Dean Workshops in 2012. I hope to grow this aspect of my career, both here in the states and in more difficult locations. One of my favorite teaching assignments this year was to work on a photo voice project with Mercy Corps NW, where we gave cameras to women the day they were released from prison so they could document their frightening transition.

© Joni Kabana
© Joni Kabana

ASMP: One of the projects featured on your Web site is called In Search of Walter Chappell. Please tell us what motivated you to seek out this subject and describe your quest to find and photograph him. What was your most important take away from this experience?

JK: I select projects and subjects from intuition. In this case, I was reading an out-of-print copy of a book, A Living Remembrance, which was a compilation of essays written about Minor White after his death. I read Walter’s essay and saw a thumbnail photo of him, taken when he was probably in his late 20s or early 30s. For some reason, I felt compelled to find him. I rarely analyze these thoughts; I just move on them. I did this with my work in Madagascar and also with extreme athlete Kristen Ulmer, among other projects. This usually results in learning something that I would never have sought out via my own logical mindset. After many months of searching (this was before the Web was well established) I finally found out that he was represented by Photo Eye Gallery in Santa Fe. I sent him a letter, and he called me and invited me to his house. When I showed up alone, his door was ajar. I went in, and there he was, in his 80s, sitting buck-naked in a yoga pose on his couch. This first visit was incredible, after which I invited him up to Portland where he presented to a sold out crowd. I later coordinated a workshop in Santa Fe and the students were able to meet him and see his darkroom. Walter’s son Aryan contacted me after Walter’s death, and some of my photos were included in Aryan’s story published in Black & White magazine. I learned that not only do I benefit from acting upon intuition, but ultimately others can too. I am very happy I was able to provide images of him to his family.

© Joni Kabana
© Joni Kabana

ASMP: Has anyone been an influence for your work?

JK: There are many photographers I have long admired and who have encouraged me. Sally Mann wrote a tender letter to me when my three children were tiny, telling me to keep going and photograph something every day. Mary Ellen Mark has spiritedly moved me to edit my images and select subjects in a way that would not have occurred to me in the past. Jock Sturges, with his deliberate and poetic way of communicating, has inspired a change in how I photograph and what tools I use. Shelby Lee Adams has had a profound effect on me photographically and personally with his exceptional way of engaging with people; Gerry Ellis has taught me when to say “enough” in the face of extreme danger; Phil Borges has given me insights regarding how I can best shift power from myself to the subject in international cultures. Jim Friedman has moved me to be more assertive in approach and to use the whole frame. I have learned a lot from co-teaching workshops with Quinton Gordon of Luz Gallery. And Joe Cantrell and Lloyd Lemmermann are instilling within me a love for film again, mainly my “new” Speed Graphic. I also love to look at other photographers’ work in a darkened room with a flashlight shining on their images. And as mentioned above, Jan Sonnenmair is a spirited motivator for the craft.

© Joni Kabana
© Joni Kabana

ASMP: Is there a philosophy you follow, that enables you to allocate working time to the projects that fuel your spirit without neglecting the ones that pay the bills?

JK: This is a constant balancing act. Some people think that because I live with someone, I don’t need to have a steady income from photography. The truth is that I have three children in college now, I fund most of my projects myself, and I must earn an income to pay for these things, plus keep my equipment/software up to date. I have been lucky in that I have made my living the past seven years solely from photography shooting and teaching, and I have learned to reduce expenses to a point that it is working well. However, I do admit that it can be exhausting trying to keep everything moving. I keep hoping that some corporation or grant will sponsor my international work so I know that segment is taken care of. I am working on that. However, when I left my corporate cushy job, I bought a VW pop-up van and promised myself that if things got rough, I would live in the van before I gave up “spirit-fueling” work, which often includes even the more mundane shoots, as I truly love photography in many forms. So far, the van is not yet my address.

© Joni Kabana
© Joni Kabana