2013-Nobel-Preview

Nobel Peace Prize for 2013

The routine is the same every year. The Norwegian Nobel Committee calls a press conference on the second Friday of October at the Nobel Institute in Oslo. At 11:00 a.m. sharp, the chairman enters the room, greets the international press corps, and announces the committee’s choice for the annual Nobel Peace Prize. The announcement typically consists of a short written statement, read first in English and then in Norwegian. The chairman then takes a few questions from the press, whereupon everyone rushes off to file their news reports.

This year was no different, except that word got out about an hour before the announcement that the winner was the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the U.N. watchdog group. NRK, Norway’s leading news organization, had leaked the information ahead of the announcement and it spread like wildfire, thanks in no small part to the social media rumor mill—Twitter, in particular.

It wasn’t exactly an exciting choice, especially for those of us gathered at the Nobel Institute hoping for a big win for, say, Malala Yusoufzai—the global favorite this year—or Russian human rights activists like Svetlana Gannushkina and Lyudmila Alexeyeva, or the great American peace scholar Gene Sharp, whom I’ve been pulling for in recent years.

The leak meant that by the time Thorbjørn Jagland, the committee chairman, stepped up to the microphone, the announcement seemed like more of a formality than a riveting news event.

It goes without saying that the OPCW is a worthy recipient. Over the last decade and a half, the organization has been working to dismantle and destroy chemical weapons, to prevent the creation of new ones, and to help countries protect themselves against chemical attacks.The organization has been especially busy in recent months working to eliminate Syria’s stocks of chemical arms under a deal brokered by the U.S. and Russia.

This award follows in a long tradition of Nobel Peace Prizes to individuals and groups working for disarmament. This work is as vital as ever and a crucial part of the international peace effort.

But I was disappointed to see the Peace Prize go to an organization for the second year in a row. The best awards are those given to individuals, not organizations. Both the international recognition and the money mean far more to an individual laureate than to an impersonal institution or association.

I have spoken with individuals who were part of organizations that won the Nobel Peace Prize. Some will tell you, without batting an eye, that receiving the award and being under the global media spotlight distracted them from their mission and created organizational challenges that set their work back.

It’s worth noting that Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor who founded the prize, did not intend for it to be given to organizations. He wanted to support men and women who were “champions of peace.” For him, that term implied a passionate activism and idealism. He saw his prize as a kind of development grant, like the “Genius” awards given out by the MacArthur Foundation, that would have no strings attached and could free a laureate to pursue his or her highest calling.

In a curious twist, Nobel’s intentions were ignored after his will was probated. In drafting the statutes of the foundation established to oversee the awards, Nobel’s heirs and their lawyers insisted on a more open-ended interpretation of the founder’s wishes—presumably to avoid any possible corruption of the prizes. That has freed the Nobel committee to give the award to individuals and organizations alike.

This year I reported on the Nobel Peace Prize for the CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). In the reports and interviews following the announcement, the question on everyone’s mind revolved around Malala. Why didn’t she win the prize? Would it have been too heavy a burden to place on a 16-year-old girl? Will she perhaps win next year?

Who knows? She certainly would have been a risky choice for the Norwegian Nobel Committee. She’s still a child, after all, and there is no telling how a prestigious award of this magnitude could change the direction of her life. She has already been targeted and nearly killed by the Taliban for her campaign to promote education for girls in Pakistan.

As I mentioned in an AFP interview the other day, Malala would also have been a controversial choice for the committee in the wake of several unfortunate awards, including those to President Obama and the European Union.

There’s a growing chorus of critics around the world saying that the prize has become overly politicized, that laureates are chosen less on merit and more on their perceived publicity value, and that the committee has, in some profound way, deviated from the original charter of the prize. Those criticisms would almost certainly have grown louder had Malala been chosen this year.

Malala said herself that she hasn’t done enough to deserve a Nobel Peace Prize. I agree. But she’s still young and she will no doubt go on to do even greater things. And she may yet win the prize in coming years.

As I made my way back to the hotel last night, I walked past Oslo’s City Hall. At the top of both towers, a large-scale projection with the words “Because I am a girl” marked the International Day of the Girl. It seemed fitting that for all the talk about advancing peace and doing away with chemical weapons, at the end of the day the conversation came back around to that Pakistani schoolgirl, the one who has captured the world’s imagination and emerged as one of its most compelling symbols of freedom and courage.

Here I am (in the front row with a gray jacket) at the Nobel Institute in Oslo

Old Spanish Days

“Celebrating our heritage” can mean different things. For some, it’s all about confetti and sombreros, fish tacos and flamenco performances. For others, it’s about the pride of being a fourth or fifth-generation Californian. The kids, for their part, mostly love an excuse to dress up and parade down State Street.

For the complete set of images from Fiesta 2013, click here.

I Madonnari

The I Madonnari Festival at Santa Barbara's Old Mission : Photo by Scott London

I Madonnari was the name given to street painters in 16th- and 17th-century Italy, itinerant artists who traveled from town to town and city to city rendering images of the Madonna on sidewalks and in public squares. Like street musicians, the “Madonna painters” supported themselves by small donations—usually coins thrown to them by appreciative passers-by and festival-goers. Using chalks and handmade pastels, the artists sometimes created works of remarkable majesty and scale. But the art was always ephemeral, vanishing with the first rain.

Today, the tradition of street painting lives on in cities across Europe and in a growing number of communities in North America. 2013 marked the 27th anniversary of the I Madonnari Festival in Santa Barbara, California. When it started in 1987, it was the only street painting event of its kind in the United States. Today, the three-day event, held each Memorial Day weekend in the plaza in front of Santa Barbara’s historic mission, draws crowds of 25,000 or more from around the world. The art ranges from small chalk drawings by local artists to large-scale street murals by nationally recognized street painters. There is also a special chalk-drawing area for young artists.

The I Madonnari Festival at Santa Barbara's Old Mission : Photo by Scott London

I Madonnari is a fundraiser for the Children’s Creative Project, an innovative program that provides visual and performing arts education to public schools in and around Santa Barbara. At a time when arts education has been all but eliminated from school budgets, entrepreneurial communities have to take matters into their own hands. The I Madonnari Festival represents one of the more successful such initiatives—a community-building effort aimed at both making art and ensuring its survival in the local school system.

The 2013 festival just wrapped up. Yesterday, as the artists were putting the finishing touches on their work, a wild fire broke out in the mountains behind Santa Barbara. The skies filled with smoke and ash, partially obscuring the sun, as seen in the image above. For more of my photos from the event, you’ll find a collection here.

Vanishing Oasis

I was back at the Salton Sea a few weeks ago and was stunned to see how quickly it’s drying up. Experts say the water level is currently dropping about seven inches per year. It may not seem like much, but it means the shoreline is receding fast, especially along the north and south shores.

The photos above were taken five years apart, almost to the day. As you can see in the bottom image, the water line has moved quite a distance in that short period of time. Elsewhere along the shore, homes that used to be on the lakefront are now hundreds of feet away from the water.

To say that the Salton Sea is an ecological problem would be an understatement. It’s more like a catastrophe. Dwindling inflows and rising salinity represent a very serious public health problem facing southern California. We’re also looking at the loss of one of North America’s most important migratory bird refuges.

The Salton Sea has been neglected for years, but the Obama administration recently earmarked $200,000 to study the situation and come up with a series of restoration proposals. It’s not much, but it’s a start. It means that perhaps there is enough political will to halt, if not exactly reverse, the process of environmental devastation.

I’ve been documenting the decline of the Salton Sea for several years now. I’ve gathered a collection of thirty photographs in a series titled “Vanishing Oasis.” You can view the images here.

On Photography and the Creative Process

ignite.me, a blog devoted to “art and forward-thinking ideas,” has just posted an interview with me in which I talk about photography, Burning Man, and my own creative process. I also share some thoughts on the profession of journalism, the art of dialogue, and the difference between crafting words and making images.

How do you take a wild and outrageously beautiful experience and translate that to a two-dimensional image? Scott London has done just that in his photographs of the incandescent saturnalia known as Burning Man. The Ignite.me team had the opportunity to interview Scott to learn more about his creative process, his vision and the philosophy that drives his innovative spirit.

Read the full interview here: Artist Interview with Scott London.

(Photo by Karen Kuehn)

Snow Over West Virginia

Winter is not over yet, at least not for those in the Midwest and Northeast. I’m in West Virginia wrapping up a ten-day road trip. A winter storm has pummeled the region over the last 24 hours. The locals here are used to snow, but it’s clearly an event all the same, especially this late in the season. Here’s an image of the Oglebay area, high above Wheeling, all covered in white.

On the Oscar Trail

It’s not Cannes or Sundance, but over the last three decades the Santa Barbara International Film Festival has established itself as one of America’s leading movie fests. The event typically draws about 70,000 people and features some 200 screenings, along with an impressive line-up of tributes, award shows, and panels with industry insiders.

But the big story each year revolves around the celebrities—the beautiful people who come to town and, for a few days, transform the place into the epicenter of the entertainment world. Given Santa Barbara’s proximity and deep ties to Hollywood, as well as the festival’s serendipitous timing—right in the middle of awards season—it’s no surprise the event has become a crucial stop on the Oscar trail.

The festival announces its line-up of awards and tributes in early January, before the annual Oscar nominations are revealed. The organizers have proven to be surprisingly prescient in recent years, often booking appearances with actors, directors and others in the industry who go on to be nominated for Academy Awards. In 2009, for example, the festival welcomed more than two dozen Oscar nominees.

But the festival’s knack for predicting winners can be attributed in no small part to the Hollywood publicity machine. Today celebrities and industry insiders routinely go on “Oscar tours” to generate buzz for their latest films, often backed by million-dollar advertising budgets. For Academy Award-contenders, an appearance in Santa Barbara can not only generate valuable publicity but improve the odds of a big win at the Oscars.

But it’s movie aficionados who are the big winners at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. For what could be better in the end than eleven full days of screenings, panels with prominent writers, producers, and directors, and tributes to the best and brightest in the business?

It was my fifth year covering the festival. I’ve posted a photoessay here.

Burning Man 2012

The Man Goes Up in Flames at Burning Man 2012

I’m back from an enchanting week at Burning Man 2012. It was a year of wind and dust and even some rain, which made for some interesting photography but was physically quite challenging. I took almost 3,000 pictures over the course of 8 days.

This year I shot on assignment for Rolling Stone. You can view 25 of my images here: “Burning Man 2012: Magic Mushrooms, Nude Dancers, Wild Infernos and More.” You’ll find two additional sets as well: “More Scenes from Burning Man 2012,” and “Faces of Burning Man 2012.”

I’m now busy putting together my customary set of 100 photos from the event. I hope to have that up very soon. (See below.)

In the meantime, my photography has appeared in a number of recent publications:

  • The October issue of Outside Magazine features a lengthy piece about Burning Man titled, appropriately enough, “Hot Mess.” Written by Brad Wieners, the article includes images from photographers George Post, Steward Harvey, and myself.
  • The current issue of Gateway Magazine, the in-flight magazine of China’s largest airline, includes an 8-page spread featuring my work. A photograph of artist David Boyer’s installation “School of Blue Bottle Noses,” which I took in 2009, appears on the cover. You can view the full issue online here (my photos start on page 218).
  • The Santa Cruz newspaper Good Times ran a terrific cover story by Elizabeth Limbach recently with photos by Kyer Wiltshire and myself. The piece is called “Beyond Black Rock City” and is available here (the online version doesn’t have all of the images from the print edition, I’m sorry to say).
  • The South African magazine One Small Seed has a 7-page spread about Burning Man in its current issue with 10 of my photographs. You can view the story in PDF format here.
  • Popular Mechanics ran a feature back in May called “10 Wild Art Cars from Burning Man” using my images. What’s nice about this piece is that they assigned a writer to it who cobbled together interesting and detailed captions about how each art car was built.
  • I also have a spread in the current issue of Marie Claire Brazil, but I haven’t managed to get copies of it yet and it doesn’t appear to be available online.

UPDATE (September 11, 2012): My 2012 photos are now online — view the set here.