October 1, 2020

Last weekend, Beth Nakamura clipped herself into a bulletproof vest and walked with a colleague and personal security detail into a Proud Boys rally in Portland. There, she spent a few hours covering an anti-fascist counter event, then the rally itself.

The (Portland) Oregonian photojournalist has covered protest movements in her career and made photos around the world. But the things she needed to cover the Southern-Poverty-Law-Center-designated hate group are things Nakamura never thought she’d have to do at home.

In fact, if you’d told her during a pandemic that she’d emerge a conflict photographer, she would not have believed you.

“I have nothing to compare with what has happened in Portland and what continues to unfold,” she said.

A recent story Nakamura wrote and photographed captured a bit of hope, though, even if it was hazy.

Beth Nakamura is a photojournalist with The Oregonian. (Photo by Doug Brown)

In mid-September, as fires spread across Oregon, Nakamura headed to an evacuation site in Springfield. The air was thick with smoke at Springfield High School thanks to the Holiday Farm Fire. Nakamura wore a respirator with particulate filters. She found tables set up with food and clothing as she walked around, getting a sense of the site. 

Then, a man approached her, found out she was a journalist, and urgently beckoned Nakamura to follow him. 

Behind the bleachers and onto the field, she saw why. 

David Coddington, 7, of Thurston, plays What time is it Mr. Fox with Belle, Batman, and others. (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian)

Belle, Batman and Superman were playing recess games. 

“It was like a mirage,” Nakamura said.

The story she wrote the next morning captured that. 

Against the backdrop of this grim, bewildering landscape, Belle sits on a bench and, with cheer and calm, begins to read.

“All of us in this castle were put under a strange spell some years ago by a powerful enchantress,” she tells the child seated next to her.

“I’ve seen you in the movies,” the young girl says, transfixed.

 

Before the pandemic, Nakamura worked on long-form projects at The Oregonian, including “Ghosts of Highway 20” and “No Mercy.”

That kind of work takes a very different metabolism. 

Now, she said, “it’s raining news. It’s pounding news every day on your rooftop and leaking into your carpet, and it’s been relentless. I mean it’s been that way everywhere right? We’re all going through it, but here I think we’re on 120 days of protests in Portland.”

And that requires stamina, something Nakamura thinks all local journalists should start preparing themselves to maintain.

Belle, Superman and Batman play with children at the Silke Field evacuation site in Springfield, Oregon. Belle, aka Lexi Longstreet, owns Enchanted Parties in Junction City. The three decided to dress up in character and volunteer to help comfort and distract children at the evacuation site, where families are picking up food, clothing and other supplies after fleeing fire-ravaged areas. September 10, 2020. (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian)

She hasn’t had time to stop and think about the challenges of covering a pandemic, protests and wildfires. It’s been enough to work, rest and rise to do it all again. But Nakamura knows it will all become part of history.

“I feel like we are in stories that are the things our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be asking us about.”

There’s also never been a greater need for local journalism, she said, and it’s never been more under threat.

But it matters. 

Near the end, Nakamura wrote that Superman’s “red cape hangs lifeless in the stagnant air.”

She had to acknowledge the despair surrounding them in the midst of this catastrophe and, right beside it, the presence of hope.

“It was a lifeless cape,” Nakamura said, “but he was still wearing that.”

Beth Nakamura heard from readers about her piece, including a local minister who planned to use it for Sunday service. (Photo by Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian)

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our weekly newsletter on local news. Kristen Hare covers the business and people of local news for Poynter.org and is the editor of Locally. You can subscribe to her here. Kristen can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare.

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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