Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite celebrations in the Catholic Church. I've always really liked Lent — I think it's a great period of reflection and Ash Wednesday is the start of all that. "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."
I know a lot of us feel documentation-weary sometimes — that people today, with the accessibility of camera phones, document every mundane aspect of their lives. But as someone whose job it is to document everyday, I realized recently that I was doing a pretty poor job of documenting my personal life and the things I love. It’s really easy to take certain things for granted — the beautiful town we live in, the fun moments we have with our friends, even just curling up on the couch with our pets. And I think the wonderful thing about photography is that, even though it’s amazing that we’re able to remember things like that, the camera can — for the most part — capture just how we’re feeling about the things we love, because it can be present in the moments that we’re happy.
On Wednesday night, before the big bulk of the snowstorm blew through — just as the snow was quietly settling on the streets, muffling all the sounds around — I ventured out with my good friend Pat Jarrett to just photograph Staunton. Because even though I work for a paper whose job it is to document Staunton, sometimes it’s hard to get across how absolutely beautiful this place is for people who don’t live here. And guess what — everything looks pretty in the snow at night. And it made me really happy.
Well, while we're on the subject of controversial topics, why don't I jump into Virginia's Lee-Jackson Day. No longer Lee-Jackson-King Day for seemingly obvious reasons, this day celebrates the January birthdays of Confederate heroes Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Here in Virginia, one of the biggest towns to celebrate the day is Lexington, where Stonewall Jackson is buried. People gather to celebrate his life around his grave, and then march in a parade while singing "Dixie," holding their Confederate flags on the way to the Washington and Lee campus for a service at Lee Chapel. The night is culminated in a traditional Civil War-era ball with traditional dress.
Photographs and articles on Facebook have been re-circulating recently about the "inhumane" and "sickening" Faroe Islands whale hunts. After re-posting my original blog post written the day after my own experience in the Faroe Islands, I started thinking about my time in those small islands and realized I hadn't revisited my photos in a long time. I visited the Faroe Islands in May of 2011 for a photo story I planned to do about the whale hunt. Because hunts are not planned, I decided to do a larger focus on the culture of the Faroe Islands. The thesis of my project was centered around a nickname for the Faroes, "The Land of Maybe." The nickname comes from the difficulty of traveling and planning between the islands, as weather conditions are often harsh — the Faroes are located between Ireland and Iceland — and can leave plans a little up in the air, as you'll never get anywhere quite on time.
When I went to the Faroes, I stayed in two places — Torshavn, the largest city in the Faroe Islands, and Klasvik, the second-largest city. "Largest" is a generous term — Torshavn is made up of 13,000 people and Klasvik is home to less than 5,000. This is not surprising, as the entire country, a nation under the kingdom of Denmark, houses around 50,000 people total across its 18 major islands.
And the Faroe Islands are a magical place and perhaps one of the most beautiful places on earth. The islands — massive, lush green mounds — jut out of the North Atlantic Ocean, hidden under constant fog. The houses that dot the seaside are colorful and simple — similar to Cape Cod style houses, in bright reds, yellows and greens. And even though the Faroe Islands are beautiful, its weather is not for the faint of heart. It is cold there almost year-round and sees constant misty rain, leading to a lack of tenable livestock and not much room for agriculture. Sheep are the only livestock that can manage the climate, and rhubarb and potatoes are about the only plants hearty enough for the country. One of the biggest industries in the Faroe Islands is salmon farming.
Which leads us to the whale hunting tradition itself. Whale hunting was borne out of a necessity — the Faroese find their sustenance in the water. Whales are not hunted in season as there is no cap on the amount of pilot whales that can be hunted. It is not a planned event, either — a local townsperson will spot a pod of traveling whales close to shore, and alert the grindaformenn, who assembles the usual trained team of people who go out on the "grindadrap" — the whale hunt.
The men herd the pilot whales into hunting-approved beaches in boats. The beaches must be shallow enough for this step, otherwise it can be difficult to slaughter the whales easily and humanely. If this cannot be done, the hunt is abandoned. Once the whales are herded, the hunters use a tool to slice the spinal cord of the whale through the blow hole, which takes less than 20 seconds. It kills the whale within seconds, and causes little pain.
The actual hunt takes less than 20 minutes, and this is why I did not actually see the hunting process myself. I saw all the aftermath — the sorting of the meat and the clean-up. I thought this was the most interesting part, as it really showcases the large act of the community that comes together for this hunt. Townsfolk are often allowed to leave work early to go help with the hunt, and kids are encouraged to take part to learn the tradition.
However, the hunt is not a "rite of passage" for young boys. This is often said and is untrue. People of all ages and genders take part in the hunt and it is not some tradition of manhood — it's mostly just about food and community and resourcefulness.
Although this hunt was two years ago, it continues to be one of my favorite stories, one of the favorite places I've ever visited, and one of the most amazing things I've ever been a part of. It was beautiful watching a community come together to help feed each other in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
And even though it's been two years, this continues to be a very passionate topic to me — not just whale hunting, but all meat consumption. I feel that much of the outrage over the photographs seen of the whale hunt, with no context, comes from a lack of knowing how meat gets to your table. I've been to large-scale beef factories, watch people kill turkeys and chickens with their bare hands, witnessed the process of dressing a deer. I feel that most people are so removed from their food that when they see bloody, red water, they don't think that that's just a part of death, and don't realize the life of an animal is the byproduct of their dinner.
I continue to support the tradition of the hunt in the Faroe Islands because I believe hunting animals in the wild is the most humane method of meat consumption. These animals are killed quickly and done so without having ever spent any time in captivity, which cannot be said for most American feed lots, where cows are crowded and sinking in the mud. I do so also because, as of right now, pilot whales are not an endangered species, but, according to the Faroese, are plentiful and can be seen often. This is another misconception when it comes to discussing whale hunting.
I think of my time in the Faroe Islands fondly. After everyone finished sorting the whale meat, my friends and I — Frihild Holmsund and Sari Lesch — filled up trash bags of leftover meat before the whale carcasses were put back into the ocean and loaded the bags into our small loaned hatchback. Before we left, we had waffles with a family who lived near the cove overlooking the beach where the whale hunt took place – a hunting tradition, they said. And the next day we ate boiled whale meat and, the next day, a whale stew. And who knows after that — I'm sure Frihild had meat for months. And it was a great feeling, as those meals had a sense of accomplishment — because we knew where the meat had come from, we knew it was fresh and we worked to get it on our table.
It’s usually a tradition for photographers to compile a collection of their best photographs from the past year. You look at your collection of work for an entire year and a lot of thoughts and memories dawn on you. Did you document it well enough? Did you do your job to the best of your abilities? I usually hate looking at my own work. Photographers are inundated with hundreds of photographs every day, from other photojournalists in their newsfeeds doing amazing work, to beautiful photos on their Instagram feeds, to the photos flowing in on the AP wire. It’s hard not to compare yourself to others and often it can be a process of self-loathing.
But looking at my work from 2013 just reminds me of how much I’ve grown this year: how much I’ve grown to love Staunton, how I’ve grown as an adult (hey, I’m 23 now), how I’ve progressed in my career as a photojournalist, and how I’ve learned so much about this area’s culture.
It hasn’t been so much a process of self-loathing, but a flood of memories as each photograph takes me back to the moment in which they were taken, and how I felt documenting that moment. And, hey, I guess that’s what great photos are supposed to do, right? Document moments.
So much has happened in 2013 for me, both professionally and personally. I was only living in Staunton for about two months when the year began, and now I have over a year under my belt. Not only do I now know how to navigate the county (OK, sort of), but I also feel like a part of this community. I’ve made close friends, I have bars I go to regularly (priorities, y'all), I know where the best food is, and, most importantly, I feel at home here.
I’ve done so much work for the News Leader — the career that is my answer to the question, “Why did you move here from Kansas City?” It makes coming here worth it. I’ve done multiple long-form stories, such as one on the culture of foxhunting, a project about the trials and tribulations of the Will family as they opened Mt. Crawford Creamery (now expanding!), a typical night at the classic Hull’s Drive-In in Lexington, and spent a few nights at local dirt tracks to delve into the safety of the sport.
Of course, I also spent half the year documenting the story of Norah Mastrandea, her family and her slow goodbye — a story that taught me more about bravery, strength, grief and the impact of one person’s story than any other story I’ve ever worked on. And I’m so glad that the Mastrandeas and I have kept in touch since, sharing memories of Norah throughout day-to-day conversations in our newly found friendship.
Between all those long-form stories, I’ve worked on daily assignments. I’ve been there during my readers' children’s graduations, their high school soccer matches, or beautiful days spent at the Frontier Culture Museum. I’ve spent countless hours at summer league baseball games, church services, snow days, festivals, farms, and even fires. I’ve watched people celebrate victory over another team, or seen families watch their home engulf in flames. Every day at my job is a look at a slice of someone else’s story — and I do my best to document it respectfully.
2013 was crazy — it was a difficult year. I learned a lot about myself, and a lot about what is most important in life. I learned these lessons from being away from my family and my long-term boyfriend for a year, but also from the stories I told.
Spending time with subjects in a journalism capacity really shows you what’s essential — what sticks out when you sit down to edit down photos later, when you see the expressions and reactions on people’s faces. It teaches you a lot about life, and even more about what to value at the end of a very long day. I love that my job and the people whose stories I tell can teach me about my own life, and help me reflect on it to make me a better person.