National Geographic Assignment Blog The blog about National Geographic Assignment photographers. 2011-11-24T00:44:25Z WordPress Lou Lesko <![CDATA[Steve Winter in the Field With Tigers]]> 2011-11-07T22:04:26Z 2011-11-07T18:40:11Z Steve Winter and his video team have just wrapped a shoot in western Thailand. Steve was the DP on the project which you can see below. Also have a gander at the behind the scenes video about the project in video at the bottom of the post.

Lou Lesko <![CDATA[A World Without Malaria]]> 2011-11-03T16:33:50Z 2011-11-03T16:20:49Z
This girl has had malaria many times since moving to Rondonia.
William Albert Allard

Close-up of Anopheles mosquito larvae and pupae in several stages of development.
Ira Block

It has plagued humankind for tens of thousands of years. It killed people in Plato’s Greece, in the Pharaohs’ Egypt, and throughout all the ancient Chinese dynasties. Delivered by a prehistoric insect, it is responsible for 800,000 deaths each year; a number roughly equal to the population of San Francisco. Today half of the world’s population is at risk of contracting malaria. The disease has a had such a significant impact on the human population as well as the economies of developing countries, the effect of the abolition of the disease is much more far reaching than simply saving lives.

Pharmaceutical company GalaxoSmithClyne, in partnership with PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative (MVI), has developed a promising vaccine candidate. The data from Phase III of their trials were revealed at the Malaria Forum hosted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington. The results are unprecedented. “People have said that you will never be able to make vaccines against organisms this complicated. This shows that it is possible,” says Dr. Peter Hotez, President of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

Phase III of the trials for the vaccine candidate, called RTS,S, were conducted at 11 trial sites in seven countries across sub-Saharan Africa. The drug was shown to reduce the risk of children experiencing clinical malaria and severe malaria by 56% and 47%, respectively. These groundbreaking numbers have electrified the discussion about malaria research. However, they are still far from indicating a complete solution.

‘Vaccine’ sounds a lot like ‘panacea’ which is a typical misinterpretation. For diseases like Polio, once widespread, effective polio vaccines have rendered the practically non-existent. Malaria, because of its complex nature and because it’s a parasite and not a single celled organism, is infinitely more difficult to combat with a silver bullet. It will be years before RTS,S will even be reviewed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and potentially recommended for distribution. And it will not present a singular solution if and when it does achieve widespread use. It will continue to take a variety of devices, used simultaneously, to combat the disease.

For the foreseeable future, new drugs will be used in tandem with more traditional treatments. People have relied on some of the same preventative methods for hundreds of years. Quinine, a prophylaxis against malaria, has been used since the 17th century. The British East India Company pioneered the gin and tonic cocktail while searching for a palatable way to administer quinine-infused tonic water to troops. Bed nets – a simple barrier between humans and infected mosquitos – are some of the oldest defenses, and still among the most effective. But they’re not effective enough. Malaria is tenacious. The parasite has developed resistance to some drugs and a cure remains elusive.

Speaking about RTS,S, Dr. Hotez cautions, “It’s a big quantum leap, but this doesn’t mean that now the control, eradication or elimination of malaria is a given.” For now, the aim is to begin to control the disease. Eradication is so far off as to not be in the sites of many experts. It’s what the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has referred to as “the audacious goal”.

Malaria’s impact on the world’s population is more profound than a simple death toll. Achieving the big goal would result in much more than saved lives. Most compelling are the implications for children. Not only for the 800,000 that die each year, but also for those who survive their infections. Studies have shown that malaria can degrade cognitive function. Although children have a reduced risk of dying from malaria once they reach school age, the chronic condition can compromise their ability to learn and perform in school. Thousands experience these long-term debilitating effects that may be difficult to identify. Eliminating malaria could elevate educational prospects for thousands of children and raise literacy rates in some of the least literate countries in the world.

Chronic malaria stymies adults in many ways as well. Adults can suffer from multiple episodes each year, typically missing 3-5 days of work during each attack. “This is not just in Africa, but in Asia and the Americas,” says Dr. Hotez. “There is a consequence to private sector cotton growers, mining companies… in terms of their work force.” Unburdening employees and employers from the 247 million cases of malaria that occur every year could stimulate productivity in developing nations. A huge percentage of the workforce in some countries would no longer contend with lingering anemia, malaria attacks and chronically ill children.

20%-50% of inpatient admissions in some countries are malaria patients. This increases the stress on already over-burdened public and private health systems. Reduce infections, and the effects on the availability of health services are immediately apparent. “I was recently in Western Kenya in the height of transmission season,” recalls Dr. Carlos C. Campbell, Director of Policy & Advocacy for PATH’s Malaria Control Program, who has been working in the region for twenty years. “Fifteen years ago during that time there would be lines going outside of the facilities. It would be two children to a bed, children sleeping on the floor in various stages of stress. Now clinics are almost empty because the expansion of bed net programs have reduced the amount of malaria infection that is occurring.”

For all of these reasons, Dr. Hotez refers to medicines like RTS,S as “Antipoverty Vaccines”, stating that diseases like malaria are “not just occurring in a setting of poverty: They are the cause of poverty.”

An overwhelming percentage of malaria cases occur in Africa – over 85%. Of course, the causes of poverty in Africa are profuse and elaborate. As with malaria itself, there is no one solution. But the elimination of such a powerful and pervasive disease could create change in many facets of life and community. Treating and studying malaria places heavy demand on too-scarce resources – time, money, facilities, manpower. According to the WHO, the direct loss to the economy in Nigeria alone is estimated at $830 million, money that could be redirected to alleviate other sufferings and solve other persistent problems. If there were clear definitions for developed nations vs. developing nations, those definitions would almost certainly include benchmarks for education, prosperity, and productivity. All of these would be improved through malaria’s defeat.

The future of RTS,S is exciting as well as uncertain. Right now teams are gathering to generate solutions to countless challenges and roadblocks that lie in wait within distribution channels, cold-chain systems, governmental approvals, limited funding sources and remote testing sites. Their efforts move us toward relief from the malaria problem. Perhaps ultimately they will also pave the way to the more “audacious goal.” If they succeed, thousands of children will live, and millions more will live better.

Lou Lesko <![CDATA[Voices of the Invisible People]]> 2011-10-13T21:32:30Z 2011-10-13T21:32:29Z 1401567
Ben Horton

There are millions of invisible people in the world. These are people who have no country, no legal status, and no nationality. They are stateless, not recognized as citizens anywhere in the world. It’s hard to imagine the precariousness of not having a citizenship because it is given to us at birth and rarely questioned or changed, especially if one is born in a first world nation.

“Some 12 million people do not have the right to be recognized as citizens of a country which can have a traumatic result… not having any papers, not having a legal identity, not having the right to have your children in school, or to go to the public health services, not being allowed to own property or to work legally, being jailed and not having anybody to protect you. These situations can indeed cause enormous suffering.” Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), explained to me the ramifications of being a stateless individual.

Because stateless people are marginalized they can be easily exploited. Lacking legal rights and a voice, they are much more susceptible to arbitrary or prolonged detention. They are also prime candidates to become victims of human trafficking.

In Thailand, young stateless girls from minority ethnic groups not recognized by the Thai government are targeted by traffickers for prostitution. According to the Development and Education Program for Daughters and Communities website (DEPDC), a non-profit center working in Thailand, “Girls as young as 10 years old have been sold into the brothels of Bangkok and other cities in the region and even overseas. In some areas as many as 90% of girls have left their village to work.” Stateless parents, lacking education and job opportunities, are often forced into borrowing money. To pay back the debt parents are asked to exchange their children to work in beauty shops and restaurants. Unfortunately, rather than being placed in a legitimate business as promised, the children end up imprisoned in brothels working as sex slaves, enduring horrific physical and mental abuse.

“One of the most painful things to witness in the case of statelessness is the way it denies a person the chance to develop,” said Maureen Lynch, consultant for International Observatory on Statelessness and former Senior Advocate for Statelessness Initiatives at Refugees International. “Being denied the ability to contribute, and seeing their life going to waste is one of the most disturbing things. It’s heart-wrenching, actually, because they could do so much for the global good,” Lynch told AlertNet, a humanitarian news service run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

There are numerous reasons why millions are stateless. Often it is due to ethnic or racial discrimination that is entrenched in politics. “We have in Myanmar an ethnic group of Muslim Bengalis that the Myanmarese political establishment does not consider to be citizens of Myanmar, but they have been there for centuries. They are part of the social and economic structure of the country. They have nowhere else to go and to be recognized as citizens in any other country. And so they became stateless…,” said Guterres.

In addition, many countries have citizenship laws that discriminate against women. According to the UNHCR, there are more than 30 countries, mostly in the Middle East, where only the fathers can pass on their nationality to their children. “In the last 10 years, 10 countries have changed their laws allowing for this equality to be established, namely in Northern Africa — Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt,” said Guterres. “But we hope other countries will follow the same path. A meaningful number of people find themselves in a situation in which they have no nationality just because their father is unknown or disappeared or there is not the capacity to prove his identity.”

Yet statelessness is not limited to the developing nations. Between 1967 and 1981, a quarter-million persecuted Jews were permitted to leave USSR by way of Vienna and Rome. Their Soviet citizenship was stripped as they left the only country they have ever known. Thousands of these families lived for months in Italy stateless, hoping for permission to enter countries like Canada, Israel, and the US. Since USSR didn’t allow the Jews to return, many of the elderly took the risk of traveling across the world in order to be with their families. Those too ill or too old died making the trip.

In the 1990s, when the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia separated into different states, ethnic groups such as the Roma were defined as “non-citizens”. Even today, each new successor State claims the “non-citizens” belong somewhere else. Moreover, there are thousands of stateless people in the most advanced countries in the world such as Japan, Germany and Sweden. Many are stuck in legal limbo, desperate for help.

Most recently, UNHCR is working with government of Sudan and South Sudan (formed on July 9, 2011) to ensure that the nationality legislation of the two states will not leave anyone out.

Global climate change may end up being a contributor to statelessness. The UNHCR is looking into the future for the citizens of States such as the Maldives, Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands who may have to abandon their own country one day. “One of the impacts of climate change is that some island states might disappear. We need to look into the right to preserve the right of a national identity, the right to a cultural identity”, Guterres said.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of the Stateless. Out of the 193 UN member States, only 38 States are parties to it. Not surprisingly, many of the countries with the largest stateless problem are absent from the list. “We are making a huge effort at the present moment to convince countries to ratify the 1961 Convention, adopt legislation, to respect dignity of these people and to find a solution,” said Guterres. “There have been a lot important successes in the recent past. Nepal has granted nationality to 2.6 million people. Bangladesh with a landmark decision of the Supreme Court granted nationality to the Biharis. Other important moves have taken place in Brazil. Lots of positive steps are also happening….”

In early December, UNHCR will host a ministerial-level conference to review the Convention and urge more States to make the commitment to protect those without a voice. “Countries should ratify the conventions and adopt national legislation to grant people the possibility of having a nationality. At the least, we want countries to provide stateless people access to the services, even if they do not have citizenship”, said Guterres. “Stateless people are hidden….It’s the most forgotten human-rights problem in today’s world.“

Editor’s note: in 2004 Steven Spielberg directed a clever, funny movie entitled The Terminal that featured Tom Hanks as Viktor Navorski. While Navorski is in the air on his plane ride to New York there is a military coup in his home country of Krakozhia. Since after the coup the United States no longer recognizes Krakozhia as a sovereign nation, Hanks is not allowed into the US, but he can’t go back to his own country either so he is forced to live in the terminal at JFK airport. The Terminal may have been based on the travails of Mehran Karimi Nasseri who lived in the airport terminal at Charles de Gaulle Airport in France for eighteen years.

Lou Lesko <![CDATA[Steve Jobs]]> 2011-10-13T21:34:15Z 2011-10-07T18:02:22Z
Jim Richardson

When I travel I am often told that one of the perceptions of America is that this is a land of bold, slightly brash mavericks with the audacity to point to the bleachers when stepping up to the plate.

They are obviously talking about Steve Jobs.

Lou Lesko <![CDATA[Bourbon]]> 2011-09-22T19:58:34Z 2011-09-20T21:11:37Z Bourbon02
photo by Jim Richardson

Whiskey historian Oscar Getz spent a lifetime assembling an impressive collection of whiskey memorabilia covering American whiskey from it’s beginnings in the 1600′s all the way up to the decade post Prohibition. Situated in an old brick building near distiller’s row in Bardstown the museum is home to pieces of George Washington’s original rye whiskey still, has a tribute to Abraham Lincoln’s days as a tavern keeper and features every sort of American whiskey memorabilia you can think off. Located in Kentucky it naturally leans pretty heavily towards bourbon whiskey, ninety seven percent of which is produced nearby.

Many people make two mistakes when they think of bourbon whiskey. One: that all bourbon comes from Kentucky. And two: that bourbon comes from specifically Bourbon County Kentucky. Bourbon by United States law is: “Whisky produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers.” Which simply means that bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States. Ironically, today’s Bourbon County produces no bourbon whiskey at all.

As I looked through the exhibits following the history of whiskey from the migration of the Scots-Irish to the Americas following the potato famines of the early 1700s. Their settlement in Pennsylvania, the founders of which were Quakers (who had also sought religious freedom in the New World) and as such were much more tolerant of their Presbyterian and Catholic beliefs. The United Kingdom of Britain then was a new invention, created in 1707, and the Irish and Scots were still getting used to the whole idea of having an English King, much less an English church. Once in the New World, these settlers set to work, farming the land and making their drink of choice “uisgebeatha” or “water of life” often shortened to “uisce” or “whiskey”.

As I followed the story told in exhibit and diorama the journalist in me thought, wouldn’t it be great to meet the descendants of these people? With that thought in mind I headed off to the historic Makers Mark distillery situated a few miles away in Happy Hollow, near Loretto, Kentucky. My trip to Bardstown was really a preamble to a whiskey tasting that had been arranged for me at Makers Mark with Chief Operating Officer Rob Samuels. This liquor journalism thing was starting to work in my favor.

Rob Samuels looks even younger than his 36 years and is not what people might envision as the face of a bourbon company. Bourbon is an industry often defined by names like Booker Noe (grandson of Jim Beam) and Pappy Van Winkle. Names which conjure up a completely different image than the clean cut college educated Samuels (graduate work at the University of Chicago and one year at Harvard business school).

After a tour of the distillery we sat down in a little room overlooking the visitor’s center on the sprawling 650 acre site which is now a historic landmark. Formerly the Burks Mill and distillery the site has been making whiskey (except during Prohibition) since 1801. Makers Mark has operated there since 1953.

In front of us were three glasses of Makers Mark whiskey. One unaged, another the fully matured version, and the new Makers 46 (additionally aged with French oak staves).

We talked a little bit about production, how Makers is also made with wheat and without rye (unusual for bourbon whiskey) and how it is aged for 6 to 7 years (bourbon only needs to be aged for two years to qualify legally) and various other aspects specific to Makers Marks. Business talk.

As Samuels raised the glass of clear unaged whiskey to his lips, he signaled me to do the same. The burn of the whiskey resonated on the back and sides of my tongue, which Samuels explained, was one of the drawbacks of unaged whiskey.

“My grandparents settled here on this site in late 1952 and were guided by a vision to do something different than most any distiller in the world had ever attempted, much less distillers here in Kentucky,” said Samuels his boyish face shining. “Makers Mark history and the Samuels family history at this site began in 1952, but my ancestors have produced whisky for almost five hundred years.”

The corny sweet taste of the unaged whiskey lingered in my mouth.

“We’ve traced our lineage all the way back to Samuelstown Scotland near St Andrews, my ancestors were farmers and with some of their grain produced and distilled whisky in Scotland, Scotch whisky.”

The Samuels family left Scotland, migrated and settled in America in the early 1700s settling first in Pennsylvania. There they again farmed the land reserving some of their surplus grain to produce and distill rye whiskey until about 1784.

Samuels again lifts the small tasting glass, shaped rather like a voluptuous woman, he pauses to take a drink, and then sets it back down. “It was my namesake, Robert Samuels, who lived in Cumberland County,” he says. “He had fought in the Revolutionary War as a captain in the Pennsylvania Militia, and just as things were heating up with the taxation on whisky in that part of the country, he decided to move south.”

“Now taste fully matured Makers Mark,” he said pointing at my glass. “You’ll notice you taste it more on the tip of your tongue,” he said. As I sipped I remembered the Whiskey museum and felt the sensations nearer the tip of my tongue.

Those Pennsylvania settlers had grown their grain and made their whiskey, until a British tax on molasses set a series of events into motion. Rum was then the most popular and profitable spirit in these “British” colonies. Molasses was used to make rum and by taxing it heavily the costs skyrocketed. Other more punishing taxes on sugar and tea would eventually lead these “Americans” to rebel against the British King (one George William Frederick better known as George III- who, oddly, was of German descent), and set up a whole new nation called the United States of America. According to Oscar Getz himself, “No individuals, no group endured more hardships, and fought more bravely nor with greater distinction in the Revolutionary War than did the Scotch-Irish.”

Their reward? A tax levied on their whiskey by the English descendants of the new fledgling United States government and enforced by a former British army officer named George Washington. They again rose in revolt, refusing to pay the tax while tar and feathering federal officials. Washington assembled a militia and marched into western Pennsylvania. Most of the rebels in this “Whiskey Rebellion” (1791-1794) simply disappeared, with many heading for the wilds of Kentucky.

The shining amber of the fully aged Makers Mark shone in Samuels’s glass bringing me back to the present.

“At that time Kentucky didn’t exist,” said Samuels. “Modern day Kentucky began as Bourbon County Virginia, and the governor of Virginia had named it Bourbon County in honor of the Bourbons, the French royal family who had supported America as we separated from Mother England.”

A lifting of the third glass and another pause.

“The governor decided to give away for free land grants to families who would agree to move south, mostly Scots Irish from Pennsylvania, and those families only had to agree to grow the native grain, which was corn, and build a house. Most of those families were given up to 1000 acres of land.”

That governor assumed that if families moved there and built a life, they would defend it against attacks by the Native Americans. A successful process which later would virtually define the United States’ entire westward expansion

“So Robert Samuels moved south and in the first year of his settlement paid tax on a little bit of whisky,” said the more modern version.

The newer Rob Samuels took a long sip closing his eyes. “You see this flavor is even more present on the tip of your tongue.”

I noticed the pleasantly tingling sensation and the much richer flavor.

“There were horrific battles between the early settlers of this region and the Native Americans,” says Samuels “The name Kentucky actually means bloody battleground in Cherokee.”

It was actually T.W. Samuels, who built the Samuels family’s first “legal” distillery in 1840, on the original 1000 acre land grant. He was not alone and by 1844 there were more than a 100 commercial distilleries throughout Kentucky.

“But really all of those distilleries produced equally horrible whiskey,” says Samuels setting down his whiskey glass again. A glass containing a pleasantly sweet and smooth whiskey.

“The early American whiskies really did reflect the harsh realities of life at that time in America,” said Samuels. “The cowboy, the frontiersman, who would push westward from the trail, return home and drink their sorrows away.”

“In fact,” he said. “The most successful whiskey distiller at the time promoted the fact that his whiskey would blow your ears off,” said Samuels gesturing emphatically.

“Our family’s whiskey was as bad if not worse than all the others,” he said looking at the glass on the table. “But still it was a successful business that was passed down for generations.”

Rob Samuel pauses again, “It was my grandfather [Bill Samuels Sr.] who sold the family distillery. He simply didn’t…” Samuels pauses again. “He simply didn’t have the passion for it.”

At least not initially, after his grandfather sold the Samuels distillery, he opened a bank (the only bank-according to Samuels-in the history of America, that opened and closed in less than 60 days), later he failed as an automotive dealer, and it was Rob Samuels grandmother who suggested (we’re guessing kindly) that perhaps he should think about getting back into the whiskey business.

Jim Beam once allegedly told Rob Samuels’ father, Bill Samuels Jr. “Stick to making whiskey, son. Your family is distinguished by its incompetence at doing anything else.”

When Bill Samuels Sr. agreed to get back into the whisky business it was on his terms. Which to him meant it was going to be more about quality than quantity. Within the laws of making bourbon he broke down each and every step of the process, sparing no expense, not as a business man but as more of a craftsman. He handmade the bourbon with a fine but full flavored balanced taste profile. His vision for success was no more complicated than to produce a handmade bourbon that he could be proud off.

For 35 years Makers Mark in its trademark bottle with the red wax top was the most expensive bourbon whiskey on the market. Their marketing slogan was “It tastes more expensive…and is.” Makers Mark however was not an immediate success. But over half a century later it is, selling a million cases annually and paving the way for dozens of premium bourbon brands. The distillery in Happy Hollow sometimes sees upwards of 1500 visitors a day and is a registered National Historic landmark. But all that is business.

The last time Rob Samuels saw his grandfather, they had lunch at the Pendennis Club in Louisville before he headed off to college (the Pendennis Club is famous as the birthplace of the old fashioned cocktail). “He just started talking and sharing stories, you know, he wasn’t feeling well, he was dizzy all the time,” says Samuels, pausing as emotion enters his voice. “He shared with me how proud he was that he never wavered from his vision.” Another pause. “He died two months later” says Samuels quietly, his eyes focusing on nothing for a moment. “I’m just glad that he got to see his brand having success in New York, San Francisco…some of the nicer cities,” Samuels said.

Samuels calls his grandfather the Robert Mondavi of bourbon, making an apt comparison (Mondavi didn’t invent California wine but he definitely improved its quality and its image). And as I drove back through the winding roads of Kentucky, towards my six hour flight home, a thought occurred to me. You can go to the Oscar Getz Museum in Bardstown and read about the history of American whiskey, or you can take a short drive to the Makers Mark distillery, where the Samuels family has, and still, lives it.

Editor’s note: in a bizarre twist to the story the writer, Jeff Burkhart, discovered that his father in law went to boarding school in the same building that now house the Oscar Getz Whiskey Museum.