Rick Wilking http://blogs.reuters.com/rick-wilking Rick Wilking's Profile Thu, 17 Sep 2015 10:30:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.5 Lake Powell’s receding waters show risk of U.S. “megadrought” http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/09/17/climatechange-summit-earthprints-usa-idUSL1N11L10P20150917?feedType=RSS&feedName=everything&virtualBrandChannel=11563 http://blogs.reuters.com/rick-wilking/2015/09/17/lake-powells-receding-waters-show-risk-of-u-s-megadrought/#comments Thu, 17 Sep 2015 10:00:00 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/rick-wilking/?p=23 In December this year the UN Climate Conference takes place in
Paris. Ahead of the summit, we will release a series of stories,
titled “Earthprints,” that show the ability of humans to impact
change on the landscape of the planet. From sprawling urban
growth to the construction of new islands, each site has
profoundly changed in the last 30 years. Each story has
accompanying NASA satellite images that show the scale of the
change. (here)

By Rick Wilking

ON THE SHORES OF LAKE POWELL, Utah/Arizona border, Sept 17
(Reuters) – Where the Colorado River falls from the snow-capped
Rocky Mountains into the arid U.S. Southwest, lies Lake Powell.

More than 500 feet (150 meters) deep in places and with
narrow side canyons, the shoreline of the lake is longer than
the entire West Coast of the United States. It extends upstream
into Utah from Arizona’s Glen Canyon Dam and provides water for
Nevada, Arizona and California.

But a severe drought in recent years, combined with the
tapping of the lake’s water at what many consider to be an
unsustainable level, has reduced its levels to only about 42
percent of its capacity, according to the U.S. space agency

The peak inflow to Lake Powell occurs in mid to late spring,
as winter snow melts in the Rockies. But since 2012, snow and
rainfall totals have been abnormally low as the region suffered
persistent drought.

For Reuters, I traveled to the area to document with my
cameras the lake as it looks today. I flew over the water, hiked
around its shores and shot photos from a boat.

Navigation on the water was difficult, with lake maps
showing water where in many places now there is just dry
land. All around the lake, strikingly pale bands of rock have
been exposed by the receding waters.

Scientists from NASA and Cornell and Columbia universities
warned earlier this year that the U.S. Southwest and Central
Plains regions are likely to be scorched by a decades-long
“megadrought” during the second half of this century if climate
change continues unabated. (reut.rs/1EnbzDL)

Forecasting that there is an 80 percent chance of an
extended drought in the area between 2050 and 2099 unless
aggressive steps are taken to mitigate the impacts of climate
change, the researchers said their results point to a
challenging – and remarkably drier – future.

The number of people living in the U.S. Southwest and
Central Plains, and the volume of water they need, has increased
rapidly over recent decades, the scientists said, and these
trends are expected to continue for years to come.

Satellite images released by NASA in June showed dramatic
changes in the northeastern reaches of the lake between 1999 and
2015. Reuters’ photos brought viewers up close.

(Editing by Daniel Wallis and Frances Kerry)

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Living through a disaster http://blogs.reuters.com/photographers-blog/2013/09/30/living-through-a-disaster/ http://blogs.reuters.com/rick-wilking/2013/09/30/living-through-a-disaster/#comments Mon, 30 Sep 2013 22:07:35 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/rick-wilking/?p=21 Golden, Colorado

By Rick Wilking

In a career as long as mine, spread across several continents, I have covered many, many natural disasters. If you have read my blog posts lately that seems to be all I write about. But this time is different. This time, I am a victim of a disaster.

The first week of September was unusually wet for the Front Range of Colorado, but not shockingly so. In fact, we were enjoying how green it was with wildflowers still in bloom instead of fretting about wildfires as we normally would be this time of year. But on the fateful day of 9/11 the rains picked up. I was away from my mountain property most of the day and when I came home noticed new waterfalls on the rocks I had never seen before. Still, I didn’t think much of it and just listened to the rain pound the house all night long.

Early on the 12th, while still dark, my wife got a call from her hospital asking if she would be able to make it in as they were hearing some roads were closed due to flooding. I turned on the TV and it looked like the highway to our driveway might be closed. I decided to wait until first light to take a look. I drove down our mile long driveway a short distance and soon realized it was heavily damaged and impassable by vehicle with a major washout where the road used to be.

So, I made the 30 minute hike through the forest down and was shocked to see the little creek at the bottom was now a 50’ wide river cutting us off from the highway. My shed containing my snowmobile, mountain bike, motorcycle were all gone, swept away.

I managed to find a shallower spot to wade through the water and get up on the road and began to take some pictures for the wire. I also shot some short video clips.

The first picture I shot was of my neighbors car perched on what was left of his driveway with a waterfall flowing under it. The picture received wide usage around the world and the video was picked up by the Weather Channel and used globally as well.

That car later fell into the river the next day and was found perched on rocks almost a mile away.

I called the desk editors and said you’ll soon be hearing about major flood damage in Colorado but unfortunately other than the few pictures I sent in I wouldn’t be able to do anything more in the near term as I was cut off from the road. My colleague Mark Leffingwell was out in his normal stomping grounds of Boulder and came up with many fine story telling images that first day.

On the next day, Friday the 13th, I again ventured out to see what had taken place overnight and was shocked that things were worse, much worse. Overnight, water had gotten trapped behind debris pile dams that eventually broke lose creating the “walls of water” you hear about tearing things up. Another look at our road showed complete destruction – it was a raging river now, water tumbling over three-foot boulders. The main highway had been undermined and ripped out in several places and buckled in others.

I was still cut off and couldn’t get out to cover the story. My rain gauge said we had gotten about 20” of rain in the two days. The average precipitation (rain and melted snow) for Boulder is 20 inches in a full year. The next day I had the idea to travel cross country over a little-used dirt road out the back way of my place. I had heard so much about the little town of Jamestown that had been wiped out in the mountains not too far from where I live and I managed to get in there and document that (see separate blog entry).

Once I saw Jamestown I knew that I had fared much, much better than most. Whole houses were swept away there and I had lost so little in comparison.

On the 16th the local fire department showed up at my place, using my back road on ATV’s trying to rescue some trapped people next to my property. I guided them in but we couldn’t get there across the creek. To make matters worse one of the workers flipped his ATV over onto himself on my trail to the highway. Several of us managed to pull him out quickly but he suffered a badly injured arm and wrist for his trouble.

In the following days I flew over the flooded areas to the east which covered hundreds of square miles of crop land and oil and gas fields. I saw a city neighborhood in Longmont a long way from a river that had been inundated with walls of mud destroying the contents of houses. I saw a trailer park that floated the homes into giant heaps of wreckage.

I counted my blessings as I have so many times covering disasters. A Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) inspector who looked at my damage said “You can always find someone who is worse off than you are.” FEMA was right of course and when shooting the wreckage of the next disaster I will have a very different feeling about the people that lived there. I am now one of them, and I will understand much better what they are going through than I ever have before. When they say “It’s just stuff, at least my family is okay,” I will have lived the same feeling myself. It won’t make it any easier to document the tragedy but it will make it easier to cope and carry on, as they say.

I have a long way to go to recover – as I write this our highway is still closed and will be for months. My road and bridge may also take months or even years to rebuild I am told.

I found my snowmobile but it’s trashed, likewise the mountain bike and the motorcycle is still missing. Still, its all “just stuff” and we’ll be okay. At least there hasn’t been a hurricane to cover this year… yet. Wilma (2005), Opal (1995) and Floyd (1987) were all in October. And of course Sandy, just last year, was in late October too.

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Hiking in to a stranded town http://blogs.reuters.com/photographers-blog/2013/09/18/hiking-in-to-a-stranded-town/ http://blogs.reuters.com/rick-wilking/2013/09/18/hiking-in-to-a-stranded-town/#comments Wed, 18 Sep 2013 20:46:47 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/rick-wilking/?p=19 Jamestown, Colorado

By Rick Wilking

My rule in covering natural disasters has always been: Find the worst damage first. That’s what the reporters will be writing about and it’s what people want to see. It also may be the hardest to get to.

Such was the case in the Colorado floods of 2013 that started on September 11.

Word came in early that the Boulder County town of Jamestown was devastated and cut off from all road traffic. Three creeks converged right in the middle of downtown, sweeping away whole houses. A man killed in a house collapsed by the flood waters was the first reported death in the tragedy. But there was also (supposedly) no way to get to the town short of going in on a helicopter. National Guard CH-47 Chinooks were ferrying people out so the logical thing was to try and get on one of those. That ride was denied immediately so I decided I would take another route, coming in the “backdoor” as it were.

Jamestown isn’t that far from where I live, normally taking about an hour. But with road closures it took almost two and a half hours just to hit another road block six miles from the town. I was fully prepared for this, having planned on hiking in all along.

Before I left I put the topographic map for the area in my hiking GPS so I knew I wouldn’t get lost. I am used to hiking vertical terrain for miles this time of year, bow hunting elk in the high country, so I was hopeful I could physically handle it. But Jamestown is in the bottom of a valley (hence the converging creeks) so while the hike in would be a traverse downhill, the hike out would be over 1,500 vertical feet.

Despite that, my biggest fears were keeping my gear dry in the still-pouring rain and the very real possibility that even by hiking I wouldn’t get in – police have a way of stopping us right at the last minute.

So, off I went downhill all the way. The terrain was slick, steep and muddy. I ran into new creeks coming down hills that normally wouldn’t be there at all and my heart sank when I came to a mudslide with flood waters still cutting a 100 foot deep and wide trench in the mountain, far too hard (and dangerous) to climb down into and back out again. But, then I saw where it stopped and hiked down. I soon realized I was standing on 20 feet of mud crossing the access road to the town. Hiking over that wasn’t hard and then I was there. A road crew worker on the other side spotted me and said I wouldn’t believe what I was about to see.

Then I met several Rocky Mountain Rescue Group (RMRG) workers who were really curious: “how did you get HERE?” The town was as described with the most striking thing a house with one outside wall torn off. Looking from the outside in it appeared like a doll house, with bar stools still sitting at the bar, a sofa and a piano all intact somehow suspended above a floor that had fallen away.
There were a few holdouts hanging around with the rescue team so I had some people to get in the images.

There was no sign of law enforcement anywhere to “bust me” and throw me out as is usually the case in an evacuated area. So, I had the place to myself competition wise, but had to work fast because I sure didn’t want to be making that hike out in the dark. I got what I needed, said goodbye to the town dog and started hiking. By the time I got to the giant mudslide, road crews were trying to chew it open with heavy equipment. Just as I had resigned myself to an agonizing climb out, a RMRG Jeep came wheeling in trying to get to their workers in the town. When they realized that wasn’t happening, and after another question of “how did YOU get here?” they agreed to give me a ride back up through their own authorized access.

I got to the town of Nederland nearby that still had cellphone coverage and started sending out my exclusive pictures. Soon after the local press started calling and texting me – “how did you get in there, you blank blank blank!”

It was the next day before the Denver Post arrived down there (after a friendly briefing from me on how to do it) and no television got in for another two days after that. So, it was worth it on many levels. Showing the world the place they had heard so much about for the first time was most important, telling the story of the flood through this one little place. But I can’t lie, getting an exclusive, at least for a day was pretty sweet too!

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Revisiting the Waldo Canyon fire http://blogs.reuters.com/photographers-blog/2013/08/21/revisiting-the-waldo-canyon-fire/ http://blogs.reuters.com/rick-wilking/2013/08/21/revisiting-the-waldo-canyon-fire/#comments Wed, 21 Aug 2013 14:06:41 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/rick-wilking/?p=16 Colorado Springs, Colorado

By Rick Wilking

Covering natural disasters is a strange thing. You get there all in a huff, as fast as you can after the tragedy, and then try to seek out the major damage. You document all that, often busting hump for very long days, for a week or more depending on how bad it is.

Then inevitably the first weekend after the storm or fire comes and the story falls off the radar. Your editor sends you home to lick your wounds and wait for the next “big one.”

[yospace_video ratio=”16:9″]67817648[/yospace_video]

As I wrote this, another tropical storm cooked up off the coast of Africa, heading west. “It might be here in a week,” I thought. (Yes, people who cover hurricanes monitor such things.)

Would this be the next big disaster story? Or would it fizzle out?

After covering dozens of hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires (no earthquakes for me, at least not yet) I have often thought about what happens to those places after the media says adios. Sure, after Katrina we all went back for the one-year anniversary to look around but most places are just ignored years on.

Fires usually don’t have the sexy dateline a storm like Katrina does and while a fire may displace thousands of people, no one will go back to check on it.

It’s often a two-fold problem. First, there just isn’t much news value in covering the aftermath and thus it sure isn’t worth the cost to produce it. So when the Waldo Canyon fire hit in Colorado Springs, 90 minutes from where I live, burning up 346 houses in the process, I thought “here’s my chance to do some follow up.” At the time it was the most destructive fire in Colorado history. It was beaten less than a year later by the Black Forest fire that burned 488 homes, only 12 miles away.

I picked a street, Courtney Drive, where only three of the 33 houses survived intact. I got special permission from the police department to get around their roadblocks in the immediate aftermath and hung around the street shooting what I saw. Eventually I met several of the residents as they cleaned up and identified several who said they would rebuild.

Using a quadcopter (please don’t call it a drone) with a camera mounted underneath I shot the progress from the air as well as from the ground. I shot regularly from the day of the fire right through to the one-year anniversary when a big celebration for the neighborhood was held.

My goal was to produce a multimedia project to be released shortly after the anniversary but news events got in the way. I already mentioned the Black Forest fire. And then the Yarnell, Arizona fire took the lives of 19 firefighters. I covered both and the project was put on hold.

But despite the delays, the project is now done and due to wildfires in the west, the interest is high.

In talking to the Courtney Drive victims and hearing them describe events leading up to the total loss of their house and possessions I was struck by their resilience. The Howell and Foster families, while sad for their loss, were both very philosophical on where they were now. Perhaps because they were given virtually no time to get ready to go with a last-minute evacuation order, which made them feel helpless and affected their outcome. Kind of like getting ill or having some accident happen where you have no control over it – you have to just deal with it and move on.

And they have moved on, by building new houses in the exact same place as the old ones. They don’t look the same but the family will all be there in the same place together and that’s what matters most to them.

People being where they want to be, even if it’s in a fire zone or a tornado zone or an earthquake zone or hurricane zone, is why we photojournalists will always have stories to tell the next time something terrible happens. As it inevitably will.

Now I’m off to check the latest track on that tropical storm…

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Chasing the rich and (some) not-so-famous http://blogs.reuters.com/photographers-blog/2013/07/12/chasing-the-rich-and-some-not-so-famous/ http://blogs.reuters.com/rick-wilking/2013/07/12/chasing-the-rich-and-some-not-so-famous/#comments Fri, 12 Jul 2013 20:26:21 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/rick-wilking/?p=14 Sun Valley, Idaho

By Rick Wilking

In between covering tornadoes and forest fires this year I have covered several business conferences and related stories. Starting with the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, to the SALT hedge fund conference, to the Wal-Mart annual meeting I’m now at the big kahuna, the Allen and Company conference in Sun Valley, Idaho.

Never heard of the Allen and Co. conference? Well maybe that’s because most of the attendees are people you’ve never heard of either. Even though they are millionaires and billionaires, huge investors and big-time global CEOs, most of the people here stay far off the radar. Even if you have heard of their companies you probably haven’t heard of their leaders, let alone seen a picture of them.

But then there’s the “A-Listers” of technology and media companies attending. Many people have heard of Mark Zuckerberg (founder and CEO of Facebook) or Tim Cook (the new CEO of Apple, replacing the late Steve Jobs) or the venerable Warren Buffet. But have you heard of Philippe Dauman? (CEO of Viacom, the company behind networks like MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central and movie studio Paramount.)

How about Rakuten and its CEO Hiroshi Mikitani? It’s the Amazon of Japan and he’s a billionaire.

Covering the conference is more challenging than it might appear. The media here is tolerated but only to a point. The host only allows you on the (private) property mostly because we all stay at the hosting Sun Valley Resort and are thus also guests. They won’t credential us or give us any access to the meeting itself at all. David Zaslav, the CEO of Discovery Communications (one of the few CEOs who actually are willing to talk to us) put it well today when he said to me while waiting outside the meeting “they want you here but they don’t want you here. They do want the pictures though.”

And it’s true. Allen and Company don’t have a media liaison that helps us but the security team they have hired does their best to accommodate us to the limits Allen sets. They let us stand in places where we are sure to see the attendees arriving or departing, but again, it’s all outdoors, never in the building. And we can’t shoot anything else, not the outdoor lunch, not the activities, only the walking back and forth.

There are two entrances to the venue and if you guess wrong about which one to stand outside of you could miss the key names of the day.

After you get past figuring out where to be, the next challenge is knowing who to shoot.

With around 300 people attending, and maybe only 50 of those people who we actually need to get photos of, it’s tricky. Remember what I said about obscure people? It does help that the attendees are required to wear name tags but you still have to know the business news of the day, what company might be trying to buy who and you have to know the CEOs of major companies that are not famous, like the heads of companies like Groupon, Evernote and Square. Even if you think you have learned a lot of these people (as I have by covering the conference multiple times) you still have to be careful – some of these guys no longer work for who they did last time around.

After you get by those hurdles it’s a piece of cake – shoot people walking down a sidewalk, hope they do something interesting in the 100 feet you see them and you’re golden.

After all is said and done, if your picture, instead of the competition’s, is in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, you get to come back next year and do it all again.

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Back for more in Moore http://blogs.reuters.com/photographers-blog/2013/05/27/back-for-more-in-moore/ http://blogs.reuters.com/rick-wilking/2013/05/27/back-for-more-in-moore/#comments Mon, 27 May 2013 22:53:30 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/rick-wilking/?p=12 Moore, Oklahoma

By Rick Wilking

My wife and I were just about to open some little gifts celebrating our 36th wedding anniversary on May 20th when my cellphone rang.

I said “that’s going to be the Oklahoma call” without even seeing it was Bob Strong, North America Editor in Charge, on the other end. The presents went on hold and the packing began.

The next day I was back in Moore, Oklahoma, waiting for the weather to clear enough to fly in a Cessna 172 over the path of the storm. I say “back in Moore” because I covered the massive tornado that hit the same place in 1999 and again in 2003. The locals call the 1999 version “the May 3rd storm.” That F-5 storm killed 44 people and destroyed more than 300 homes.

Despite that devastation in 1999 it would be much worse this time. Much of the area covered by the ’99 storm was just open fields. Seeing grassy fields turned into mud with the grass torn out by the roots was eye-opening back then but this time the grassy fields were covered by new housing developments and the schools, stores and hospitals that go with it. The 2013 storm, also an F-5, killed 24, injured 377 people and destroyed 1,200 homes – four times the number of houses damaged in 1999.

With this tornado, Moore suffered its fifth massive storm in 15 years. The paths of the ’99 and ’13 storms were near-identical, even overlapping in some places. So, what is it about this place that makes it such a target? Geography. The low-pressure systems that flow down from the Rocky Mountains where I live collide with warm moist air from the gulf that form thunderstorms – huge thunderstorms, that often spawn tornadoes, lots of tornadoes, right over central Oklahoma. They don’t call it “tornado alley” for nothing.

In covering storms like these we have many ways to try to tell the story. The photo flight over the affected area is top of the list. Often it’s hard to get in on the ground right away with roads closed either by authorities or debris. Next on the list, of course, is getting in on foot, often hiking long distances to get to the hardest hit area. Photographer/EIC Adrees Latif and I split up and probed the perimeter to find a way to walk in with success on the first day. To their credit the authorities had let residents in almost immediately to try to recover what they could from their destroyed homes before more rain came in. As the sun went down people were finding photographs and jewelry and even some salvageable clothes.

It’s tricky to photograph scenes like this. You have to be very, very sensitive showing up in the front yard of someone’s destroyed home with a camera. Not everyone understands the good we do with showing the world what has happened. For one thing if you just climb over their possessions, that’s disrespectful at a minimum, even if it is all trash. Secondly, you technically trespassed to get to that spot. So I don’t shoot first and ask questions later. I introduce myself, ask permission and 99% of the time it’s granted to me. Only once did a woman not understand. She kept saying “I’ve lost enough, I’ve lost enough” and so I moved on.

Building rapport with people can lead to other things too. I was working around one of the destroyed elementary schools shooting pictures of parents trying to get their kid’s backpacks out of the school when a woman mentioned that the next day would be the last day of school with the kids from the destroyed school being sent to another location. I found out where and when, and was there the next day when 6-year-old Kaden Shippers came out with his dad. His arm was bandaged, forty stitches were in his back, staples in his head and he was wearing a t-shirt with the name of his destroyed school on the front. Bingo, I made a nice story telling picture without another competing photographer in sight.

While filing my pictures after school was let out, a woman approached her car and parked next to mine with her three kids while talking on her cellphone. “Yes, I am going to come over there with the kids. They really want to see it and I think it will bring them closure,” she was saying. My journalist radar went off again and I introduced myself. As I guessed, Tracy Stephan was talking about taking her children to see their destroyed house for the first time since the storm. And yes, she was OK with me following along carrying cameras to shoot the moment. While there I shot a picture of her three-year-old son Timmy looking for his bed. A photographer colleague described the image as “absolutely haunting.”

While cruising a neighborhood one day I came across Sarah Dick reading a Doctor Seuss book to her three-year-old daughter Jadyn in the driveway of her tornado-destroyed house – another moment you just can’t plan for. That picture was chosen as “picture of the week” by a prestigious French magazine and website. I figure since many think France is where photojournalism was born, that’s a good thing.

Next to Sarah’s house was Charles Taber’s place. Charles was keen to show me how he survived the storm in a newly built shelter nearby. It was another story-telling picture, as the shelters turned out to be a hot topic.

Another thing this place is known for – it’s the “Bible Belt.” There’s seemingly a church on every corner and these are indeed people of faith. Over and over I heard “God will take care of us, he will provide.” In the ’99 storm a destroyed church held services in a tent in the parking lot praising God and looking forward. And was the same today.

And so it went, one thing leading to another. Covering the storms wasn’t all that different once on the ground, but I did add an element to my own photography.

I flew a small radio controlled quad-copter with a camera slung underneath to get some low-level aerial photos. These were very different from the images I got the first day from the airplane restricted to fly at 3,500 feet or above. Some of the copter images were only 40 feet off the ground; just enough to give a different view and to tell the story yet another way.

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Of gain and loss (and the longest story I’ve ever done) http://blogs.reuters.com/photographers-blog/2012/09/21/of-gain-and-loss-and-the-longest-story-ive-ever-done/ http://blogs.reuters.com/rick-wilking/2012/09/21/of-gain-and-loss-and-the-longest-story-ive-ever-done/#comments Fri, 21 Sep 2012 11:17:25 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/rick-wilking/?p=10 By Rick Wilking

In the summer of 2011, as a chapter in a broader two-year project on obesity in America, I started a photo story on an almost 300 pound teenager who was planning bariatric surgery as a last resort to lose weight.

When a photojournalist starts a project like this there is always a lot of doubt. How much time will it take? Over how long a period and with how many visits. Will the subjects (and their friends and families) get tired of having me around? Will they cooperate in giving me the access I need? Since it’s a medical story will the hospital and doctors involved cooperate too? And most importantly will the time investment from both my subjects and me produce quality images that convey a compelling story?


After bariatric surgeon Dr. Michael Snyder told me he had a candidate for the project I was introduced to Jazmine Raygoza. Just 17-years-old at the time she was preparing to have a lap-band placed, a highly controversial procedure for a teenager.

I first met her at the psychiatric evaluation young bariatric patients go through and was surprised to learn at that meeting her mother Veronica had just had gastric bypass surgery two months earlier. Now I had an even more interesting story to tell than I planned on.

Last week I shot what will probably be my last picture of the two. Fifteen months after starting the story mom Veronica has lost 73 pounds and daughter Jazmine has lost 87. I myself lost 30 pounds (with no surgery,) just because when I thought of making my normal McDonald’s run I remembered the brave Raygoza women and got a salad somewhere instead.

But this story was about much more than numbers on a scale. It was about how bariatric surgery, while very helpful for many people, is no quick fix.

While it’s hard enough for an adult to handle, Jazmine had to get through her last year of high school while adapting to the changes. She started a fitness club at school to get some built-in positive peer pressure.

At prom she was still heavier than most of her classmates but had a lot more confidence than the year before and at her graduation she looked a lot more like the rest of the kids crossing the stage.

One of the downsides was when she lost weight too fast (common in the procedure) she started developing kidney stones and had to have her gall bladder removed as a result. Eating tiny portions of food, forcing herself to go to the gym regularly and enduring some jealous (now former) friends along the way wasn’t easy to take either.

Jazmine’s goal is to lose about another 20 pounds and it seems this may be the toughest – excess skin that hangs off her now. So even though I won’t be documenting it she still has plenty of changes to go through.

The reality is, if she wants to stay trim, she will probably need to eat those tiny portions of food for the rest of her life, hence the controversy in teens getting the procedure. Many professionals believe that such a decision with life-long consequences can’t be properly made by someone so young.

But for now Jazmine and her mother are both enjoying a new “joie de vivre” and have no regrets. They have more energy, are healthier, have more self-esteem and self-confidence and they both say they really like being able to stay on high heels all night!

Take a tour of this story and more on The Wider Image app for the iPad

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Obesity in America http://blogs.reuters.com/photographers-blog/2012/05/22/obesity-in-america/ http://blogs.reuters.com/rick-wilking/2012/05/22/obesity-in-america/#comments Tue, 22 May 2012 22:30:21 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/rick-wilking/2012/05/22/obesity-in-america/ By Rick Wilking

Almost 2 years ago I started work on a photo documentary simply titled “Obesity in America.”  It’s a simple title but with complex subject matter.

Getting the access, the various permissions from individuals and institutions and working through the convoluted American HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) that protects patient privacy to extremes was quite a challenge. But trying to tell a story with this many layers and permutations was even tougher.

It was a hot topic back in 2010 when I started, with obesity-related stories moving frequently on the Reuters wire but with few images to go with them. I set out to change that and decided to work the project in multiple chapters.

Since I last blogged about the documentary, I have shot several more chapters and learned a lot more about how complicated this topic is.

After the early chapters in 2010 on “fat acceptance” and on an obese woman getting a gastric bypass, I’ve done work on:

–       Local hospitals fighting youth obesity

–       Morbidly obese people auditioning for The Biggest Loser TV show

–       The Biggest Loser Boot Camp in Utah

–       A clinical study on infants born from obese mothers

–       How schools are working with very young and obese children to eat better and exercise

–       A teenager having a controversial lap band procedure and her mother who had gastric bypass at nearly the same time

–       And most recently, free Zumba classes for low-income people

What I have learned along the way is there is no easy fix. Simply telling people to eat less and exercise more is not the solution in and of itself. There can be complex genetics involved, psychiatric implications and much more to address.

Then there are the societal influences like the “super sizing” of fast food offerings. There are the “food deserts” in the inner city where supermarkets selling healthy food are completely absent. Convenience stores selling cheap hot dogs and chips are the sources for dinner for many. And there are traditions like bringing giant cakes to school for parties celebrating every kid’s birthday.

Possibly the most rewarding work has come in covering Jazmine Raygoza and her mother Veronica who both had bariatric surgery. I’ve been covering them consistently from the days before Jazmine’s surgery, through her procedure, and post-surgery life with gym workouts, learning exercises with other bariatric patients and just hanging out with friends watching her get thinner. Since she is in her last year of high school I’ve shot her at prom, her graduation. I will be shooting the final set of pictures at her one year mark on June 20, 2012. By then, between Jazmine and her mother, they will have lost nearly 200 pounds. That’s a lot of weight they won’t be carrying around anymore – hopefully forever.

As for me, I did well in the gym and lost 20 pounds myself. But don’t look to see me in a photo documentary any time soon!

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The Tebow phenom http://blogs.reuters.com/photographers-blog/2011/12/19/the-tebow-phenom/ http://blogs.reuters.com/rick-wilking/2011/12/19/the-tebow-phenom/#comments Mon, 19 Dec 2011 22:53:46 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/rick-wilking/2011/12/19/the-tebow-phenom/ By Rick Wilking

Do a Google search on this new celebrity and there are 299,000,000 results. Brad Pitt? No, he only has 187 million. I’m talking about the newest phenom in the world of sports – Tim Tebow.

Being a Denver-based photographer where Tebow plays starting quarterback for the Broncos has kept me in the vortex of the Tebow storm. Going back to his first start late last season and then training camp in August, we’ve been focusing on his young career. Would he start this year or would he not was the hot topic back in late summer. Kyle Orton was eventually chosen as starter but when the team went 1–4 Tebow got the nod and Orton was out. Then the fun really began.

Tebow was a superstar in college at the University of Florida (first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy, won not one but two NCAA National Football Championships) but how would he do in the big leagues? He was a first round draft pick in the NFL meaning many had high hopes for him to succeed. But the NFL game is so much different than college there’s no guarantee a player will repeat. Scrambling around on the field can only go so far in the NFL before getting tackled repeatedly by much bigger and faster players will destroy you.
Being a rookie in the league with a great pedigree means extra attention to start with but then add this element: religion. I don’t think a sports writer out there can remember any athlete starting most press conferences with “First and foremost I have to thank my lord and savior, Jesus Christ.”

Growing up the son of active Christian missionaries Tebow has always been devout, and very public about it. Now that he’s on the biggest stage in American sports he’s not about to clam up. In fact he has said he uses the attention to spread his beliefs whenever he can.

And this is a big part of all the hoopla surrounding him. At a time when Americans are more polarized on almost every topic the “I love (or hate) Tim Tebow” yelling is at a fever pitch. “Religion in sports? – no way!”, many say. Except the Tebow fans who say “about time!”

Covering the Broncos since Tebow arrived has added another dimension. With any team that has a standout player you have to have good coverage of him no matter what the team is doing; he will be in the news win or lose. So you keep one eye on him while trying to watch everything else going on. Imagine picture-in-picture on your TV only it’s you doing it not your TV. Don’t try it at home.

When Tim comes down to the endzone to pray before a game he is surrounded by still photographers and TV cameras to get the famous “Tebowing” shot. The “Tebowing” has started to spread – earlier this month when I was in the Colorado mountains covering World Cup ski racing the winner of the women’s Super G event, American Lindsey Vonn, struck the same pose before climbing the podium – in her ski boots.

Shooting from the sidelines since Tebow has started with the team means more photographers than ever. Media outlets that normally might send only one photographer are sending two or three now just to be sure to have every Tebow angle covered. If this team makes the playoffs I can only imagine the sideline chaos.
Still the fans in Denver are loving it. Even non-religious types are on board to the thrill of “the kid” succeeding which, after all, is one of the oldest themes in sport. Tebow has just had two losses this season since starting. With three games to go in the regular season people all over will be watching to see how the story ends.

Until next year when it will all start up again – as long as Tim Tebow’s name is still on the roster.

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Choosing surgery for weight loss http://blogs.reuters.com/photo/2011/06/27/choosing-surgery-for-weight-loss/ http://blogs.reuters.com/rick-wilking/2011/06/27/choosing-surgery-for-weight-loss/#comments Mon, 27 Jun 2011 18:11:32 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/rick-wilking/2011/06/27/choosing-surgery-for-weight-loss/ Obesity.

Just the word is ugly. Morbid obesity sounds even worse, the clinical term for someone with a body mass index of 40 or higher. Morbidly obese usually means someone is at least 100 pounds over their suggested normal weight.

With all the media attention on the topic the word obesity by itself might conjure up images of giant sized people waddling down the sidewalk, pulling into a handicapped parking spot or riding electric carts that have popped up at almost any major store. You might pray you don’t get seated next to “one of them” on a train or an airplane.

The media inevitably run video or photos of giant people shot from behind to go with the latest story on obesity.  Is it because they are protecting the person’s privacy or is it just to emphasize how big they are?

You might be thinking “Wow, there goes another one, glad it’s not me.”  “What in the world does that person eat to get that big?”  “Why don’t they just go to the gym?”  “Such a shame for someone so young, good looking too, if he/she lost about 100 pounds they would look great!”

Of course you never say that to a perfect stranger.  But your questions remain.

In covering the broad topic of obesity in America over the last two years I have made an effort to have our readers get to know obese people as just people. To learn about them, who they are really, and get past just their size.  I’ve asked my subjects the questions you have been thinking about, and been with them at home, at work and out in public.

Jazmine Raygoza shops with her mother.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Newsflash:  They are just like anyone else even if they don’t fit into the “healthy” category on a BMI (Body Mass Index) chart.

Jazmine Raygoza and her mother Veronica.   REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Ranging from people aligned with the fat acceptance movement (that subject was a nearly 500 pound girl who thought her size was just right) to those who signed up for a “Biggest Loser” camp where they only eat 400 calories a meal and work out 5 times a day to those who chose surgery as a last resort, they have all been a joy to meet.

A teenager and her mother who both recently underwent bariatric surgery are my most recent subjects.  Jazmine Raygoza is 17 with one year of high school left.  She just had Lap-Band surgery to restrict the size of her stomach in a last ditch attempt to lose weight. Her mother Veronica has already lost 35 pounds after she had a gastric bypass two months ago.  The mother and daughter hope they can help each other along in the journey to lose almost 200 pounds between them.

Jazmine Raygoza is wheeled into an operating room for her gastric banding operation.   REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Bariatric surgery on teens and youths is a controversial topic in the medical world. The surgeon who worked with me on this latest story, Dr. Michael Snyder is one of the very few who will even consent to perform the operation on such a young patient in the Rocky Mountain region.  He has done less than 3 dozen patients under 21 as opposed to thousands of adults.

Jazmine Raygoza breathes with the help of an oxygen mask. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Snyder says commitment is one factor that makes the difference. First he has the young patients go though nutrition, behavioral and exercise counseling and a psychological evaluation.

Jazmine Raygoza and her mother as they eat bacon-wrapped hot dogs.

Only about 50% of those who start Snyder’s teen program have actually had the surgery. He compares it to marriage. He can perform the surgery in about 15 minutes but then the young patient has to live with it.

Doctors operate on Jazmine Raygoza.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Still for many it can be worth it.  A clinical trial, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in February of 2010, showed 24 surgery patients losing an average 76.3 pounds, nearly 28% of their total body weight. The equivalent for the diet-and-exercise group of 18 people was 6.6 pounds, or 3% of body weight.

A surgeon prepares the injection port for Jazmine Raygoza's Lap-Band during her gastric banding operation.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking

But questions remain. Ongoing studies are still trying to determine long-term metabolic, nutritional and psychological effects of the surgery in adolescents.

Jazmine Raygoza starts to wake up after her gastric banding operation. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

All of that doesn’t concern Jazmine.  She still tears up as she recalls her classmates calling her “earthquake” or “cow” at elementary school.   She still has horrible memories of being afraid she would get stuck in her desk in middle school. And she fears diabetes,  as she has a family history of the disease.

Both Jazmine and her mother Veronica felt the surgical solution was all they had left.  Before choosing surgery, they joined a gym together and worked out most every day for a year. Veronica lost some weight but Jazmine lost almost none which made her even more discouraged on weigh-in days.

Jazmine Raygoza walks through the kitchen of her home.   REUTERS/Rick Wilking

So their new life-long chapter begins.  I’ll be checking in with them to get new photos as the weight comes off.  And I can’t wait to be there when Jazmine starts senior year at high school and see the reaction of her classmates.

Photographer Rick Wilking at the hospital.


Slideshow: Jazmine Raygoza decides to undergo surgery to reduce her weight.

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