Intriguing Mystery+CrowdSourced Journalism = ?

I ran across a fascinating NYT video I’d like to share with you. The video centers on the mystery of “a life, or a fragment of a life” explored via social media and reported by New York Times journalist Deborah Acosta. What makes it unusual? Aside from the mystery, which was fascinating on its own, it was Deborah’s approach in presenting the story that caught my eye. She’s pushing forward a new form of crowdsourced journalism – first person and highly interactive – that I think we’ll see a lot more of.

It reminds me of video blogging, but more focused on content. But first, let me give you a little background.

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Deborah Acosta, from the NYT video

Deborah’s job title for the Times reads “Staff Editor, Social Video.” She previously worked at the Miami Herald and taught social media at the University of Miami. As she notes on her LinkedIn page: “Crowdsourcing is the name of my game,” and she’s been at the NYT since 2012.

On Sunday, May 15th, Deborah encountered her mystery in a New York neighborhood called Hells Kitchen. Previously, like an old fashioned street photographer, Deborah would stop to capture telling moments on video, using her cellphone and Facebook to share what she encountered. These posts were usually little slices of reality and served as self-contained pieces, perhaps more observations than investigations. This time would be different.

It was a blustery day that Sunday in New York. As Deborah strolled along a busy sidewalk she noticed the wind had scattered Kodachrome slides in her path. She picked up one, then another and another, following them like a bread crumb trail to discover thousands more stuffed into a black garbage bag abandoned on the corner. She opened the bag and took a look. She could see the slides were very high quality, obviously taken by a professional. What were they doing there? Who was the photographer? Who threw them in the garbage? As a journalist, Deborah saw a story in the making.

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from the NYT video

Now here’s where it gets interesting:  she used Facebook Live to record and transmit her activities as she encountered the mysterious slides, examined her discovery and searched for answers – as a way of sharing and telling the story and bringing others into the process, all in the style of crowdsourced journalism.

In this relatively new form of reporting, everything plays out in bits of real time as she responds to viewer comments, researches her story, asks her viewers/readers for leads and suggestions, makes phone calls, tries to identify the mysterious photographer and discover why the work was thrown in the trash. You are not only there aside Deborah as she launches into her quest for answers, you can also add a comment and become part of the story.

I found it at once engaging and off-putting. Engaging because it was such a fresh take on a traditional, well-established process and off-putting because, on Facebook, she left in all the boring parts and not all people make comments that are insightful, useful or even interesting. But she selects the best bits for the video, which works very well, as you’ll see.

You can go to Deborah’s Facebook page and scroll down to May 15th and May 18th to see her posts (the equivalent of raw, unedited footage). I suggest you just watch the video below, which gathers highlights of those moments, to see how she corrals social media to help the story unfold. Take a look and see what you think.

If the video doesn’t display well, you can find it here.

After watching the video I wanted to know a little more about its subject, Mariana Gosnell, and found these few lines from her obit:

Mariana Gosnell

Mariana Gosnell, from her obit


Mariana Gosnell, 79, of New York City and Treaty Island, died suddenly on March 23, 2012. She had been ill the past few months… She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University as a Phi Beta Kappa, worked for the foreign service in Norway, for the Museum of Modern Art, and for over 25 years at Newsweek, primarily as their medicine and science reporter. She then wrote two well-reviewed books, Zero Three Bravo, about traveling cross-country in her small plane and later ICE, which led her north of the Arctic Circle and to the South Pole.

Here are links to her two books, Ice and Zero3Bravo

I applaud Deborah Acosta for how she used crowdsourcing on social media to help report the story – Deborah’s approach and the content complement each other perfectly. She has an appealing, low-key style that works very well on camera, plus she knows how to make you feel welcome as part of the story. It’s easy to see that this style of crowdsourced reporting fits her personality very well. I do have a few comments, though.

I wish Deborah would have plunged more deeply into Mariana’s life, character and accomplishments to give us a greater appreciation of who Mariana was and the life she led. Just from the photo below I see a vibrant, engaged person who wasn’t well captured in Deborah’s video.

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Mariana Gosnell, from the NYT video

We exist in such an of-the-moment and disposable time, it would have been nice for Deborah to offer us a little more perspective. Given the circumstances, I would have appreciated a more meditative piece on impermanence and memory. Perhaps this reflects more on the differences in our ages, as I get older, these things matter more to me.

I think Deborah gave too much screen time to Mariana’s life companion Jamie Fenwick, who, despite their decades together, just tossed her work in the garbage. Many of the comments he made were self-centered, which served to turn the focus more on him and less on Mariana, especially given how the video ends. Jamie appears to be such a lifeless character even as Mariana seemed so spirited, curious and alive.

I don’t know why Deborah decided to go in that direction. Perhaps if the piece ended instead with a focus on Mariana’s imagery, it would have been more satisfying. After all, Mariana captured all these telling moments in her slides, it would be nice to be able to honor that and allow us to reflect on her images and her life’s work, and perhaps on the impermanence of all we behold.

Those are my thoughts. So, what’s your take? Did you like Deborah’s piece? Is this the future path for journalism and storytelling? Leave a comment and let me know.



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Creativity + Innovation = Maya Varma

What drives innovation? Some trailblazers are driven by curiosity, others by the desire to solve an intractable problem. People like Maya Varma are motivated to help others.


Maya Varma, photo from the Presentation High School site

The Desire to Make a Difference

When she was 14, a close friend was taken to the hospital with an asthma attack. Maya became curious about her friend and others with lung ailments. She learned that to measure airflow in the lungs and make a diagnosis, doctors use a spirometer, a device typically costing several thousand dollars. The WHO estimates 64 million people worldwide have some form of lung disease or COPD, which includes asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

In 2014, Maya Varma wrote on her blog:

“…total deaths from COPD are expected to increase by more than 30% within the next decade. Currently, it is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide. Alarmingly, almost 90% of all COPD deaths occur in developing nations, where the patients have no access to expensive spirometry equipment.”

Confidence Borne from Experience

If a low-cost diagnostic tool could be created, there was the potential to intervene early and save thousands of lives. Was that something she could design and build? She was only 15 years old and a high school sophomore. Still, from an early age, Maya had developed a keen interest in designing medical equipment. She’d entered her first science fair when she was just five years old and over the years won many honors.

nbc site

photo from the KPIX TV site

“At that young age, I was introduced to the ideas of experimentation, failure, re-design, and occasionally, the priceless reward of seeing my projects actually work.”

Maya understood that experimentation and failure were part of the creative process, and she was able to marshall the courage to strike out for uncharted territory. With the help of a small grant from Johns Hopkins and a mentor advising her via email, she began to work on her project:

“I am working to design and engineer a portable, functioning low-cost spirometer that can be used to diagnose respiratory illnesses without the assistance of a qualified health care professional.”

Was it the exuberance of youth that kept her moving forward? Was her confidence borne from past experience designing science fair projects and winning so many awards? Or was it the desire to create a device that could help people with limited access to health care. Reading about her progress, you can see she was pragmatic and methodical in her approach, first solving one problem and then moving on to the next.

Form and Function

Maya worked on the project for two years, using a 3D printer, readily available electronic components and an app that she designed. The device she created can be used as a comprehensive diagnostic system, displaying its results when connected to a smart phone or tablet via Bluetooth wireless technology.

l.doane society for science and the public

photo by L. Doane for the Society for Science and the Public

From Smithsonian Magazine:

Varma’s spirometer has three main components. First, there’s the shell, made on a 3D printer. When a person breathes into the shell, the rate of the airflow is measured by a pressure sensor as breath passes through a fine, stainless steel mesh.

The sensor converts the pressure change to digital data, which is monitored by a microcontroller and transmitted through a Bluetooth connection to a mobile app that Varma created.

Maya Varma’s pulmonary function analyzer. (Maya Varma)

The pulmonary function analyzer, photo by Maya Varma

The app computes lung performance and illustrates it on the person’s smartphone, taking into account age, gender, weight and other factors. It’s able to diagnose five different respiratory illnesses—COPD, asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and restrictive lung disease—and also has a disease management tool that allows patients to record their symptoms and test results, and track the severity of their illness.

Maya’s invention can help doctors diagnose and manage potentially fatal lung disease as well as hospital-grade machines that are simply too expensive for developing nations.

The cost of Maya’s device? About $35.

Intel’s “Junior Nobel Prize” for Innovation

Intel Science Talent Search photo

Intel Science Talent Search photo

In March, 2016, Maya’s project won Intel’s Science Talent Search Medal of Distinction for Innovation.

Here’s a fun feature story about Maya from CBS Station KPIX (a commercial is imbedded at the beginning and then the story starts):

Maya’s device is an extraordinary achievement – a creative and innovative response to solving a difficult problem. But more than that, it’s a testament to what you can accomplish when you put your mind to it – and when you have the skill, drive and confidence to overcome doubt and failure.

Always Persevere

What advice does Maya have for the rest of us?

“It can get discouraging, but you can learn a lot from your failures. Always persevere.”

Thomas Edison said genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Yes, hard work and vision are key drivers of change. With all the advances in technology and the power of an unfettered imagination, it’s inspiring to see what one person, determined to make a difference, can accomplish. Kudos to Maya Varma – a highly creative innovator – and she’s only 17.

Intel Science Talent Search

Intel Science Talent Search photo

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Navigating Time, Place & Identity

Portraying Women of a Certain Age

A few days ago I encountered some striking portraits of women of a certain age.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

The portraits seemed to have an almost mythic sensibility – posed, yes, but also very natural.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

The more I looked, the more I could feel the character and life experience of each woman playing across her image.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

Such strong, yet simple pieces – so much vitality, poise and personality in each photograph. We rarely see images of older women at all and if we do, they never look so finely honed, as if caught in the middle of a fashion shoot.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

Yet here was one after the other, modeling not clothes, but their grace, dignity and sense of themselves, as if the photographer had managed to somehow portray the very essence of their identity.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

I wondered, who captured these moments and enabled us see these women in this light? Who created these images and why? I think you’ll find the answer surprising.

Introducing Evelyn Bencicova

These photos are part of RIPE, a recent personal project by Natalia Evelyn Bencicova, age 23. Evelyn grew up in Bratislava, Slovakia, attends university in Vienna and is now based in Berlin. Before she first picked up a camera, in 2012, she worked as a model.

Evelyn, from a Bird in Flight interview:

I can communicate well with people and get close to them. Most of the time I photograph friends or people with whom I intend to be friends with. This way they are giving me something for the photo. I really appreciate it and I also feel that I need to give something back to them.

photo of Evelyn Bencicova by Marek Wurfl

Evelyn, from a Design Ideas interview:

I portray women of great courage and character. Ladies who are not afraid to display their natural beauty and aging… In every silver hair and wrinkle is written an extraordinary life story. They are turning social prejudice into nonsense and exchanging usual phobia for a celebration of life.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

Evelyn continues:

Even though I’m very young, I can feel huge social pressure created around aging. According to commercial fashion and beauty magazines, it seems that women above 40 almost don’t exist. Wrinkles and other natural signs of time on human body are considered unwanted and shameful…


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

I decided to show proud female characters who are not only beautiful but also active. They are artists, businesswoman, professors or workers, mothers, grandmother or even great-grandmothers.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

Their inner strength and beauty even exceeds graceful looks and proves that even time can play in your favor, if it is time and life well spent.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

When Identity and Individuality Vanish

As you can see, Evelyn is an extremely gifted artist. Where RIPE opens up a world of strong individual identities, ASYMPTOTE, a project created with Adam Csoka Keller, explores how identity and individuality vanish when confronted by a vast and unyielding bureaucracy. In ASYMPTOTE Evelyn and Adam use photography and a surrealist aesthetic to recreate the psychic ambiance of life in Czechoslovakia under socialism.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

Evelyn, from a Kaltblut Magazine interview:

For ASYMPTOTE I’m using places from socialistic era with real history. It is truth that a location is somehow representing certain state of mind, mood or atmosphere of the photo… If it is the right place I usually know it immediately.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

Besides few technical parameters the most important is to feel the energy of the space. I mean this feeling, that something happened there but you are never sure what was it. It usually activates my imagination more than anything else.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

From a Train to Create interview:

I’m very passionate, impatient and fast. I always know what kind of feeling and situation I want to get from each shoot but I work with composition and posing usually straight on the set. If everything was prepared and planed it would lose part of its magic.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

Unexpected details and accidents are the things, which make me really excited and often they lead the final results. Our shootings are really strong, physically and also emotionally; I need to feel the real presence and connection between people.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

I want the story to be real, truly happening on the set. Creativity always comes when you go out of your comfort zone and try something what you are not already good at.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

Here’s a short video by Adam Csoka Keller that offers another view of ASYMPTOTE: 

ASYMPTOTE from Adam Csoka Keller on Vimeo.

Passion, Art and Identity

Evelyn is seemingly fearless about her art. If you go to her website, you’ll see other projects equally intense and strange. Powered by her fierce artistic energy and passion, as her imagination soars to new heights, her capacity for creative expression seems to flow beyond boundaries.

Marek Wurfl (1)

photo of Evelyn Bencicova by Marek Wurfl

Youth is a passionate time, with a fervor and sense of engagement that won’t quit. That enormous explosion of energy can produce brilliant work, a burn out or both. Still, it’s good to be reminded of the immense artistic power that all that focus and creativity can unleash. As we grow older, it’s easy to be content with a more comfortable path, or to loose one’s way in a thicket of duty, responsibility and practicality.

As Elle Luna showed us, we are constantly finding ourselves at the crossroads of “should” and “must.” Encountering an artist like Evelyn Bencicova may help us navigate a path back to our own forms of creative expression – if we allow ourselves the opportunity to take it.

From a Bird in Flight interview:

I am absolutely in a trance, like an obsessed person, when I am shooting. I am addicted to it.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

From Chasseur Magazine:

In my pictures you can see a lot of emptiness because that is the thing that scares me the most. I don’t want to spend what life is left in me in a very basic way. I want to fill it with passion and intense moments.


photo by Camilla Stoorgard for the Daily Metal site

I am in my studio from the morning till late in the night. People come, we sit and talk, then we take photos the whole day like this. I need to believe that I have the power to change things, at least for myself. Always learn and never give up – is my basic motto, which I hope to never forget along the way.

So what do you think? Does her work speak to you, too? Leave a comment and let me know.

Posted in creativity, photography, storytelling, Uncategorized, vision | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Home as a Vessel of Memory

What can we learn from the artifacts of a life left behind? If walls could speak – what would they tell us?


from Minka, My Farmhouse in Japan

Perhaps every dwelling has a story to tell – but a memoir about an ancient Japanese farmhouse, and the American journalist and his Japanese friend who transformed it into a living symbol of craftsmanship and culture, captivated the imagination of filmmaker Davina Pardo – just as her short documentary, Minka, captured mine.



Davina Pardo from the Global Oneness Project site


Davina Pardo:

I was intrigued by the idea of telling a person’s story through their home, and of this particular house as a vessel of memory.


Minka was inspired by this book, written by American journalist John Roderick, who had a celebrated career with the Associated Press reporting on evolving political and cultural changes in China and Japan, following WWII. Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan, chronicles Roderick’s later years living in his adopted homeland, Japan, and the simple but elegant home constructed for him by his friend, Yoshihiro Takashita.


from Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan

Roderick reported for the AP over five decades. Tom Curley, AP president and chief executive noted:

John was equal part lion and bon vivant. The result was a courageous reporter, elegant writer and marvelous storyteller.

The AP honored him with the rare title of Special Correspondent. His reporting helped shape American opinion on China. Still, with all his accomplishments as a journalist, he lived a challenging and rootless existence.

John Roderick beside a photo of himself with Mao Zedong, taken in China, in 1946.

John Roderick beside a photo of himself with Mao Zedong, taken in China, in 1946. From the Sydney Morning Herald



In thirty years as an AP reporter and foreign correspondent, I owned nothing of real value and didn’t want to… Mine had been… a carefree, rootless, vagabond life.

After years of that “vagabond life,” he found himself longing for something missing – a sense of belonging and a place he could call home. He would find both in the land he once hated – Japan.

John Roderick’s Early Days

John Roderick was born at the start of WWI in rural Waterville, Maine, and orphaned at 16. He wrote for his high school and college papers and joined the Associated Press in 1937. Four years later, in “a day which will live in infamy,” Japan launched a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. War was declared and Japan became a hated enemy.


A mixture of fact, fiction and propaganda… persuaded me, and millions of other Americans, that Japan was evil and the Japanese were monsters, buck-toothed, near-sighted, slow-witted, and cruel.

John joined the army and was sent to Yale to learn Japanese as an interpreter. The Office of Strategic Services recruited him and sent him to China. At the war’s end, John rejoined the AP and flew to Yan’an, the besieged capital of the Chinese communists, to cover Mao Tse-tung and his revolutionaries in their fight to take over China.

ap file 1946 with Mao Zedong

AP file photo of John Roderick with Mao Zedong

For seven months, Roderick lived in a cave alongside Mao and other Chinese communists leaders as they plotted to wrest power from the authoritarian government of Chiang Kai-shek. Roderick at first admired Mao and chronicled his rise. Later, he reported on the Chinese leader “turning from agrarian idealist to dictatorial tyrant.” For many in the West, it was Roderick’s journalism that helped part the bamboo curtain surrounding Chairman Mao and communist China.


AP photo Roderick in China

Roderick also covered the Partition of Palestine and early days of Israeli independence, and reported on the Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu that seized control of Viet Nam from the  French. Often he found himself witness to a clash of cultures and ideology. Perhaps life in China would someday offer the opportunity for a more peaceful, reflective life.


I loved the Chinese and their culture so much I planned to end my career and retire in Beijing. When I lived there in 1947, it was a sleepy, dusty city of scholars, philosophers, and unfocused dreamers. I felt I had the qualifications—it didn’t take much— to become one of those dreamers.

Roderick and Japan

Then, in 1959, the AP sent him to report on Japan’s re-emergence as one of the world’s superpowers. Arriving in Japan, he began to see a former enemy with new eyes.


Japan Times photo


“I expected to find the city peopled with the cruel and unattractive stereotypes of wartime propaganda… After years of hating the Japanese, I suddenly found them attractive, intelligent and enthusiastic about democracy and its freedoms… I was willing to stop thinking of the Japanese as enemies and tentatively consider recognizing them as friends.”


from Minka, My Farmhouse in Japan

Among his newfound Japanese friends, Roderick became close with a young man, Yoshihiro Takishita (Yochan), who shared a similar rural upbringing and nostalgia for a simpler time.

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Yoshihiro Takashita (Yochan), from Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan


Yochan was not an ordinary young man. For one thing he had an American sense of humor, an ability to laugh at himself, and a disdain for conventions. His relationship to his parents, and to me, could be described as affectionate, leavened with a large dose of bantering.

As their friendship grew, Yoshihiro’s family also befriended John and even found him a home – a 250-year-old hand-built farmhouse, with a thatched roof held together by wooden pegs and joinery.

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from the Minka site

It was located in a distant hamlet, about to be abandoned and washed away by flooding. With Yoshihiro’s encouragement, and not wanting to disappoint the Takashita family, Roderick said “yes” to the farmhouse and the price of 5,000 yen.


5,000 yen in those days was the equivalent of fourteen U.S. dollars. I could hardly believe my ears. Hate it though I did, and though I didn’t want it at any price, I recognized that this drafty but magnificent old house was worth considerably more than that.

Roderick’s Minka Home


Roderick’s minka was built in 1734, photo from the Minka site

From a review of Roderick’s book:

Roderick graciously bought the house, but was privately dismayed at the prospect of living in this enormous old relic lacking heating, bathing, plumbing, and proper kitchen facilities. So the minka was dismantled and stored, where Roderick secretly hoped it would stay, as it did for several years.

But Roderick’s reverence for natural materials and his appreciation of traditional Japanese and Shinto craftsmanship eventually got the better of him.


from Minka, My Farmhouse in Japan

Before long a team of experienced carpenters were hoisting massive beams, laying wide wooden floors, and attaching the split-bamboo ceiling. In just forty days they rebuilt the house on a hill overlooking Kamakura, the ancient capital of Japan.


from Minka, My Farmhouse in Japan

From these humble beginnings, Roderick’s minka has become internationally known and has hosted such luminaries as President George H. W. Bush, and Senator Hillary Clinton.

Yoshihiro Takashita

Craig Mod 2

Yoshihiro Takashita photo by Craig Mod

Yoshihiro took charge of reconstructing the minka.


I was an amateur, but I knew it had been done in Japan before, many times. Those old houses were built by carpenters who were really architects as well as craftsmen.

A few years after the minka was built, Yoshihiro married and, encouraged by John, developed a successful business in Japanese antiques. He became a leading architect in reconstructing Japanese farmhouses and eventually rebuilt over forty minkas, including elaborate projects in Argentina and Hawaii.


My kind of Japanese minka farmhouse is a shrine… All I know is that there is some kind of mystery of the space of these houses that gives a kind of healing power. It’s very comforting.

The Japanese government honored Roderick with its Order of the Sacred Treasure. In his later years, he adopted Yochan to insure their minka would be passed on to him when John died.


from Minka, My Farmhouse in Japan

Roderick, thinking back on his relationship with Yochan and his family, wrote:

It was the beginning of a relationship that has lasted more than forty years. The Takishitas have become my surrogate family, Yochan my adopted son. Because of them, our lives have changed and my long journey to Japan, which began in unreasoning hatred, has turned to love.

Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 4.39.09 PM

from the Minka site


from the Minka site

Davina Pardo’s Film, Minka

As Roderick’s health declined, Davina Pardo flew to Japan, hoping to capture his story, but John passed away a few days before she arrived. It fell to Yochan to tell the story of his friend and adopted father, John Roderick, and his beloved minka home.

minka_davina_pardoGlobalOnenessProject_photoDavina Pardo:

“We had always thought of it as a film about memory, but the tone changed; it became more of an elegy to John and a story about loss. Otherwise, our sense of the house as a metaphor for a relationship stayed consistent.”



Here’s the film. It runs 15 minutes, so find a quiet time to watch.

I love the gentle pace and sensibility of this video, the moments of stillness and the use of natural sound. The imagery too, evokes the simple beauty of the minka as Yochan, with a gentle dignity, tells us John’s story and the story of their home. There’s sadness there, a sense of loss and the memory of joyful times, too. More so, as narrator Yochan brings a sense of distance and respect that gives the piece an elegaic quality.

I think the minka and friendship with Yochan and his family finally gave John a sense of belonging and served as a relief to the hurly burly of life as a foreign correspondent.

When I first saw this film, I felt like I was being welcomed into a space that sheltered an extraordinary friendship. John Roderick came to Japan with a certain trepidation and found instead a sense of place, a home and something deeper… love.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 2.14.53 PM

from the Japan Times


I saw that the backbone and resolve of Japan lay… in the enduring values of the villages: hard work, communal spirit, fatalism, love and respect for nature, superstition, religious fervor, and a refusal to admit defeat no matter what the odds they face.


I hope you enjoyed the video and this post. Please send me your comments and share your thoughts. And thanks for reading.

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a view from their minka, from the Minka site





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