Blog posts


Good news: a success story

Friends, I want to tell you a story about an amazing woman I met, many years ago, when I was still in college. This young woman was super smart and funny. And more importantly, she was one of the kindest and most compassionate people I knew. And beautiful. We got set up on a blind date and I quickly fell in love.

We dated for five weeks, but she was leaving soon for Moscow and neither of us thought it could last. Hard to believe, but back then, when somebody left the country there was no easy way to stay in touch. We wrote airmail letters. And I became one of the few people on my campus who used email. She found a public computer she could wait in line to use, and we managed to correspond once a month.

After she returned to the US, I convinced her to come work with me at a summer camp in Vermont and we had one day a week together. I loved her gentle thoughtfulness, her magnanimity, able to listen to anyone with empathy and draw them out and make them feel like the most important person in the room.

We returned to college. She was at Bryn Mawr and I was in school ten miles away. We still only saw each other once a week but we talked almost every day on the phone. My dorm had only one phone for the entire floor, but it had a 30-foot cord so I could pull it down to our quad and hog the hall phone for an hour. She was not only caring but ambitious — a double major in Russian and political science, and a leader of the college environmental group and an editor of the campus paper. We’d often talk late at night as she sat editing in the newspaper office.

After we graduated, we spent the summer living in my parent’s rustic cabin on a lake in Michigan. We cooked and swam and played games and worked in a Birkenstock store. We had no running water, no deadlines, and no idea what we wanted to do with our lives.

I got a job back in Vermont and she landed an internship for an environmental group in DC called ISAR. It was hard to go our separate ways but she was always intrepid and went fearlessly off on her own. She took everything in stride — new job, new city, new housemates — even getting mugged her first week in Washington didn’t faze her for long.

She started working her way up through ISAR — from intern to assistant to office manager to editor of their magazine. She was always a hard worker, although somehow she always found time to help everyone around her as well.

When I returned to the US after a year in India and China, I only knew one thing for sure: I wanted to live with this wonderful woman. We got our first apartment together on Capitol Hill and I watched her grow from a young student into a confident, articulate leader.

When we next moved abroad there was no question: we were going together. We spent two years in Kazakhstan. We wrote a book together. But as she traveled in Central Asia, still working for the same non-profit, she got frustrated that international NGOs and US policymakers had insufficient understanding of regional politics and were therefore ineffective. She decided to go to grad school.

By then, I knew I would follow this woman anywhere. On a cold October afternoon in the Almaty Botanical Garden, shortly after she’d gotten her legs wet jumping a creek, I pulled a ring from my pocket and asked her to marry me.

Amy said yes. We moved to Wisconsin, she started a Master’s in Public Policy and a year and a half later, we were married at the same camp in Vermont. We bought a house. Always altruistic, she was one of the few grad students who actively engaged in the community, volunteering and serving on our neighborhood association board. She discovered her master’s program was not challenging enough for her. So she decided she wanted to get a PhD and wanted to teach. She’s been this way as long as I’ve known her: intellectual but dedicated to using her intelligence to help others.

Four years later, she passed her prelims while pregnant. That summer her dad was dying, and we went to Maine. I tried to support her, but she really she was fine and was in fact busy supporting her mom and sister while simultaneously nursing Jacob and planning her dissertation. When Jacob was eight months old we moved to Ukraine for her research. Again, I was amazed by her ability to interview government officials and simultaneously negotiate a new country and be a new mother.

Becoming a mom did change her, however. She is still munificent, generous with her time and attention, but her devotion has become more focused on our kids. And it brings me joy to see her kindness reflected in Jacob and Natalie as they learn from her.

It was no surprise that Hartwick College wanted to hire her before she even finished her dissertation. We moved to New York and she dedicated herself to teaching and serving the college. She’s a great and innovative teacher — she has an ability to make any topic interesting and gets students to engage and participate fully. She works so hard. She starts at 5 am and after we get the kids to school she puts in a full day, comes home and serves as a caring parent until the kids bedtime. If she doesn’t fall asleep in Natalie’s bed she goes downstairs to keep working. And somehow she finds time to still be engaged in the community. I tell you, I thought I was a hard worker until I met her.

For the past 3 months, Amy has been nervous. She’s been under review for tenure. Although the rest of us knew she had nothing to worry about, she still fretted. But of course, ATP (the tenure committee) admired her so much that they didn’t know what to ask her, and the provost also told she was doing a great job.

The news, therefore, should surprise no one: Amy has been granted tenure! 
(Ok, technically the college president has recommended Amy for tenure. Tenure is not official until the trustees vote on it in February, but the trustees always follow the president’s recommendation.)

Congratulations Amy! We all love you and we’re very proud and we know you will continue to do great things in the world, in the community and in the classroom. I’m grateful for 22 years of watching you work and love and live and I look forward to many more.


Wisconsin Bookfest

I am looking forward to going back to Madison for my Chernobyl book reading at the Wisconsin Bookfest! Oct 19, 11 AM.


diary of a solo parent

Hi blog readers,

My wife is away for 2 weeks and I started writing about it on Facebook. Below are the first few entries and you can find more here:

June 21
Day 0.
After 2 exciting weeks in Ukraine I came home - and today Amy left for 2 weeks in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Someday we'll travel together again... but for now I'm on dad duty until July 3. 

My question is: what should I do to surprise my wife when she returns? What would you want?

June 22
Day 1 of solo parenting: the kids begged for a swim and a picnic and I complied, even though it made for late bedtimes.


June 23
Day 2 of solo parenting: Natalie likes to make declarative sentences and then feels a need to prove herself right. As in: I don't need to hold hands to cross the street! Or: I don't like this toothpaste [which she has used every night for months], I like yours! Or: I need to wear a diaper! Why does Jacob get one, I need one too!


June 24
Day 3 of solo parenting. How do single parents do this? Today I was so busy working that I barely had time to go to Work. 

6 pm is not the best time to grocery shop with 2 young kids, but it was the only time it fit. Had I not kept policing Natalie, our cart would have ended up with matzoh ball soup mix, froot loops, honey nut cheerios, 16 hot dog buns, organic multigrain penne, and single-serving cups of cinnamon applesauce in it. As she proudly announced at checkout: "I helped my daddy the WHOLE TIME!"

June 25
Day 4 of solo parenting.
Me: Natalie, no more snuggles, you need to go to sleep. It's late, it's 10:30 at night.
I leave, followed by minutes of Natalie screaming and banging on her door.
Natalie: Daddy come back now, I'm really ready, I need a hug, I hitted my head.
Me: I won't come back unless you lay your head on your pillow and stop talking.
Natalie: I don't want daddy's rules, I want mommy's rules.

Confession: I am so cold hearted when Natalie has her meltdowns, which are frequent. But what am I teaching her by refusing her more coddling?

I read an article yesterday about the psychobiology of love, and the "micromoments of connection" that build love up. How important physical contact and eye contact are to feeling loved and teaching lovingkindess.

So at school drop off this morning, I tried asking Natalie to look into my eyes when she was upset and she refused to do it. Too much intimacy for her? She wanted to hug but averted her eyes and then pushed away.

When did you last stare lovingly into your kids' eyes? I am now convinced I do it too rarely.


Meet Vitaly, reluctant campaigner

 Campaigning in Kyiv

Watch Vitaly Valentinovich for a minute or two and it is clear that he’s quite shy. He bites his lip and rocks forward before launching himself into the crowd again. Shoppers and commuters rush past him at the Svyatoshin Metro station in Kyiv.
            Three days before Ukraine’s Presidential election, Vitaly is trying to pass out flyers for the Demokratiya Party. Despite his hesitations, he gets some takers. A few people grab papers out of his hands, unlike the advertisers down the aisle whom everyone ignores. I ask him why he does this work, since he is clearly uncomfortable doing it.
“I work because of the money. They pay me 18 hryvnia per hour” (about US$1.50), he tells me. “The money is the goal — politics is not what I care about. We have the war here and people were killed and that’s the main problem — it’s not about political views, it’s just about stability in the country. I still haven’t decided who I’ll vote for — there’s a lot of choice.”


TEDx talk: Boxing Outside the Think

I had a blast last week giving a TEDx Fulbright talk about creativity and photography in D.C.

My talk is temporarily online. Check it out while supplies last! (Eventually it will be edited and up on the TED site but I'm not sure when.)

For now, view it here on the livestream page. My talk starts at 53:20.

More about the event here: Thanks to the organizers who worked so hard to make it happen!


NPPA awards announced

Wow! I am honored to be among an amazing group of photographers recognized today by National Press Photographers Association's Best Of Photojournalism 2014.

I can't quite believe I won 3 awards considering how much great work is out there. Really, 1 award would have been plenty!

• Multimedia Tablet/Mobile Category: First Place: Michael Forster Rothbart for ZUMA Press for "Would You Stay?”

Best Use of Multimedia Category: Third Place: Michael Forster Rothbart and ZUMA Press for "Would You Stay? Life After Chernobyl and Fukushima."
      Chang W. Lee, Barry Bearak, and The New York Times won first, and the indomitable Kainaz Amaria from National Public Radio won second.

Contemporary Issues Category: Honorable Mention: Michael Forster Rothbart of ZUMA Press shooting for TED Books

Congrats also to Smiley Pool, Scott Strazzante, Claire O'Neill, Brian Storm, Josh Haner, James Estrin, Sara Lewkowicz, Corey Perrine, Mark Ovaska and many others for some amazing work which you can check out here:


Big Data test photos

These are test shots for tomorrow's shoot on Big Data. It will be even more fun with 8 live subjects instead of these mannequins.
In case you're wondering: 3 digital projectors as main light sources plus 2 off-camera flashes for sidelight/rim light.

Update: final photos posted here.


Washington Post

Gosh, they'll publish anything in the Washington Post these days!

I've been meaning to thank the Post for publishing a gallery of photos from my Chernobyl-Fukushima book. Thanks Post!

See them here:


Fast and company

I was psyched to hear that the story about my photo book is trending at Fast & Co.

I have no idea what that truly means in terms of actual eyeballs looking at my book. And is anyone really reading the book or are they just talking about it? I decided not to ask TED Books how many people have actually bought the book. Better not to worry about that.


live on CNN

So, I was on CNN yesterday to talk about my TED book.

I'll be honest, I got nervous, but I think I still managed to sound coherent. (I hope so - you tell me.) I just wish they had told me which camera to look at!


how do you talk about photos on the radio?

True, radio and photography are not two forms of communication that seem most compatible.

Still, I had an interesting interview with A Martinez, host of the NPR show Take Two in southern California. Martinez kept describing my photos and then asking me to tell the story behind it. It worked well, actually.

Here is the radio interview:

And here is the Take Two image gallery they posted so you can see what we're talking about.


the other side of the mike
I have to admit, I am not used to being on the other side of the mike.

Filmmaker Holly Morris interviewed me about my book last week. OK, we interviewed each other. She is making a film about the old women still living in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. TED released her TED talk at the same time as my book.

Today, I'll be describing some specific photos from my book on the NPR show Take Two, on KPCC 89.7 FM in southern California. Not sure exactly when I'll be on air, the show runs 9-11 am Pacific.

Livestream the show here and I'll post a link to listen later.

UPDATE: the broadcast of my interview was delayed due to the tragic shooting at LAX. It will air on Monday.


feeling thankful

Here are two crazy unbelievable things:
  1.  My book Would You Stay? which started as a little project in Chernobyl in 2007, will be a book out there in the ether, as of tomorrow.
  2. We were, I must confess, still making last-minute improvements until 10 o'clock tonight. But now it is really and truly on its way.
Tonight I am feeling so grateful to all the people who helped in so many ways over the years to bring this dream of mine to life.

Including photographers Alana Smith and Jason Sexton, who went out with me to the Susquehanna River on a chilly fall day and took a bunch of amazing author photos for the book.

(The one above is by Alana.)


Interview today on The Takeaway

I was just interviewed about my book by the NPR show The Takeaway. It will air at 9 am today (Oct. 29). Listen live here - Later I'll post a link to listen after the fact.

OK: here is the link to listen:


Chernobyl and Fukushima book in one week


It's still hard for me to believe, but in one more week my book on Chernobyl and Fukushima will be out. It's called Would You Stay? and it's being published by TED Books, the people who do the TED talks.

It's an e-book, which makes it feel less tangible but I am so excited I keep waking up and wondering if it is really happening.

I first went to Chernobyl in 2007 and I've been working on this on and off for 6 years. I never expected initially it would become such a big project but it always felt important, and after the 3.11 earthquake in Fukushima it felt doubly important.

During the next week I'll post some photos from the opening sequence. Today just the cover...

Here's a caption: 
If you arrive by train, as the nuclear personnel do, this is your first view of the sprawling Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, across the cooling pond. The station that once generated power now consumes it. The new heating plant has the only active smokestack on the horizon. Beside it are the unfinished, abandoned cooling towers. Beyond the smokestack at right is the “Shelter Object” which covers the Fourth Block of the plant.

Even after Fukushima, Chernobyl remains the site of the world's worst nuclear accident. The population within 30 kilometers was permanently evacuated, including residents of Pripyat and many villages. Although the Chernobyl plant finally stopped generating electricity in December 2000, today 3,700 employees continue to work at the plant. They commute from their new city of Slavutych, which was built after the accident to replace Pripyat.
Thanks for all the encouragement from many of you over the years!

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