Photojournalist Sami Siva: Ignorance is more shocking than harsh events

Sami Siva has covered post-conflict and social-issue stories on three continents. His work has been published in The New York Times, TIME, The Guardian, CNN, and other media outlets. Now Sami studies at the University of Tartu.

Sami Siva
Sami Siva. Photo from a private collection

In May 2010, Sami Siva arrived in Sopore, a town in Kashmir, India. He was there on a mission: to photograph the ongoing civil unrest. Sami was supposed to meet a contact who would take him different places for interviews and photographs. Suddenly, he found himself surrounded by an angry crowd.

It was a collision between the locals and the policemen, and he was in the middle of it. He came from the wrong part of India, as the Kashmiris are wary of people from other parts of the country. Young guys full of anger and holding big stones in their hands stood around Sami. It was the first time he felt scared and in danger. Luckily, Sami was able to speak to one of the guys in front of the mob. Meanwhile, his contact arrived and clarified the situation.

“That’s the nature of the job. If you are a firefighter and you are afraid of fire, then you can’t do this job. It comes down to how you deal with situations and people. It’s a crucial element of being a photographer who works in conflict areas,” admits Sami.

Girls from Sopore (Kashmir, India)
A girl from Sopore complained that the local police had seized her brother. Photo by Sami Siva
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How social distancing affects coworking spaces in Estonia

The year 2020 brought along a massive shift towards remote work within a short period of time. The principles of mobile, paperless, and flexible working methods were conceptually established already in the 1970s. However, surveys show that in many EU countries, more than half of the workers who have started working from home since the pandemic started had no prior experience with teleworking.

The Covid-19 crisis accelerated several trends already under way. An increased demand for contractors and gig workers, as well as more remote work, will remain as the new normality in our working lives.

In this period of rapid changes, a team from the University of Tartu – Professor Tiiu Paas and PhD students Anastasia Sinitsyna, Luca Alfieri, and Kaire Piirsalu-Kivihall – joined the international research on “The geography of New Working Spaces and the impact on the periphery” (COST Action CA18214), which involves 140 research partners from 33 countries.

The project aims to share the scientific outcomes regarding new working spaces. The latter include coworking spaces and smart work centres, makerspaces and other technical spaces, hackerspaces and informal working spaces. Additionally, the aim is to compare the best practices within different countries. The work will continue until 2023, but we can share the first results of the qualitative study carried out among locally owned coworking spaces in Estonia.

Currently, there are 16 registered coworking spaces in Estonia; however, the awareness of such working spaces is still quite low. Image credit: Inga Külmoja / icons8.com

What are coworking spaces?

Coworking spaces are open-plan offices that mobile or independent knowledge workers share as places of work. In the beginning, coworking offices were used by freelancers, start-ups, and knowledge workers in the creative industries. Nowadays, however, 36 percent of the members worldwide are corporate employees, compared to 41 percent of freelancers. Many international organisations do not establish local offices for their branches but rent coworking spaces for their employees. Also, some corporations purposefully look towards coworking to benefit from its advantages. These include community building, a social workplace, and an increase in revenue as well as improved workflow.

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How robots can guide us safely through the pandemic

The World Health Organization has recommended that to cut the chain of Covid-19 transmission, people should keep social distance and avoid touching surfaces in public places. The question is: how we can manage our lives in a way that reduces interactions with people? Our answer, as researchers at the Institute of Science and Technology, University of Tartu, is that humans can hand over some tasks to robots.

Fatemeh Rastgar
Me flying quadrotors in the lab. Photo from a private collection

Robots could deliver medicine and transfer patients’ blood tests

In some situations, keeping physical distance and not touching objects is inevitable. For example, in hospitals, doctors and nurses have to check the physical status of the infected, hospitalized people and provide them their medicine and food.

Robots could be helpful assistants for doctors and nurses. In hospitals, without being exhausted, they could acquire information by moving autonomously in patients’ rooms or deliver medicine and food. Moreover, they could help with recording patients’ physical condition and transferring their blood tests.

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From a propeller made of an ice cream stick to Estonia’s first solar car

How an ice cream stick shifted Juri’s world

Juri Volodin. Photo from a private collection

In Juri Volodin’s home there wasn’t a single toy that was left intact – everything was meant to be taken apart in order to understand how something works. One day, Juri’s father took the motor of a broken toy, two wires, and an ice cream stick. As he connected all the parts, the ice cream stick placed on the motor started moving.

“These were pointless things to me, broken and without any use, but suddenly it all started working. For me, this was something impossible, and from that point on my world had shifted,” recalled Juri of the moment his passion for creating started.

Juri’s interest in life sciences manifested in a similar way and has carried him through his young life. From the 8th grade on, Juri took part in countless chemistry Olympiads. As there wasn’t an apparatus for every chemistry experiment in his school, Juri, as a model student with a desire to do and learn more, put the apparatus together himself, for the most part.

As a high school student, Juri wished to connect his love for chemistry with his future studies, which is why he applied to many UK universities to study it further. Although he got into most of them, he still decided to go with his gut feeling and began studying informatics at the University of Tartu. After a year in informatics, he went on to study physics, chemistry, and material science. As of now, he is on his third year writing his bachelor’s thesis.

Building a solar car makes Juri’s inner child happier

Last summer, Juri wanted to be a good big brother and bring his sister to Solaride’s model solar car workshop to see whether it could spark a love for life sciences in his sister as well. Unfortunately, they didn’t make it to the workshop, but nonetheless Juri did not forget about Solaride. A few months later, he became an electronic engineer for Solaride, helping to build Estonia’s first solar powered car which will race in Australia’s World Solar Challenge.

“It seemed to be the project I had always hoped someone would start, so that there would be a chance to actually use the knowledge gained so far. It seemed to be destined for me to apply and also the people working there seemed to be really cool. And in projects like this, getting to know people is really important,” said Juri.

Solaride
This is what the solar car’s 3D model looks like in the final stages of design. Image credit: Solaride
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Would you clone your dog?

In 2017, my cohorts and I became the first students for the newly developed Folkloristics and Applied Heritage Studies master’s programme. After a few false starts, I finally found my project topic when I heard that American celebrity Barbara Streisand had cloned her dog Samantha.

Barbara Streisand’s dog Samantha on the cover of her album. Image credit: Jonathan Tommy / Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

I was instantly conflicted by unease and regret – unease at how unnatural cloning seemed, and regret that I never had the chance to clone my beloved cat, Nero. I quickly realized my internal conflict was a reflection of both the highly controversial aspects of pet cloning and the driving force behind cloning – love.

In order to explore this conflict further, I focused on the ways cloning companies, cloning clients, pop culture, media, and cloning dissenters perceive and talk about companion dog cloning. My research culminated in a massive open online course called Folkloristics and the Vernacular of Companion Dog Cloning that is available for free on Udemy.com.

Screenshot of the author’s MOOC

Strong bond between people and their dogs

People who clone their dogs (or want to clone their dogs) have several things in common. First and foremost, they love their dogs. People and their dogs usually live together, sharing their lives and often food and the furniture as well. The dogs in these relationships are considered friends and/or part of the family. In these close-contact and shared lives, people believe their dogs love them just as much as they love their dogs. These bonds are so strong the person cannot imagine life without their best friend.

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Switching from average success in Moscow to opportunities in Tartu

I have lived all my life in Moscow, the huge, metropolitan city of 15 million. I got my bachelor’s degree in geography at Lomonosov Moscow State University in 2008 and my master’s degree in geography at the same place in 2010. For several years afterwards, I worked on a project developing an enterprise GIS in public organization “Mosvodostok,” which focuses on developing, building, and maintaining stormwater sewer networks. After this project was over, I continued my work as an employee in the company’s GIS department.

Ivan in Moscow
Me in Moscow. Photo from a private collection

By the end of 2016, I had started to feel a dead end in my life and further career and thought that it was time to move forward, or I would be stuck in the same place and position until retirement. Also, I got tired of living in an overcrowded, polluted city and spending 2-3 hours every workday commuting. That is how I became obsessed with the idea to move somewhere to live and work for a longer period. 

It was obvious to me that in the world of the global economy and international labor market a significant and almost necessary step in a career and with the possibility to travel at the same time would be a job in an international company. To be successful in this endeavor, it seemed crucial to be fluent in English and to have an education that would be competitive enough on the international level.

So, I came to a decision to complete an academic program in GIS abroad to get a more solid foundation in this field, extend my job opportunities, and simply travel. It was not an easy decision at all. I had to drop pretty much everything considered to be attributes of successful average big city life. I quit a stable job, sold my car, rented out my flat. But, although it might sound too cinematic, when looking back I can confidently say that it was the best decision in my life so far.

I didn’t have sufficient skills to pass the IELTS exam for a score sufficient for foreign universities, so I decided to finish English courses first. By that time I became so sick of living in Moscow that I decided to do that in New Zealand, the furthest place in the world which you can go from it. Looking back, it wasn’t a reasonable decision in financial and logistical terms, but travel wise it was remarkable.

After half year of English courses and successful IELTS exam, I realized that I would like to continue further with my plan somewhere closer. I started to look through master’s programs offered at European universities. I sent applications to several universities and because of several factors and circumstances, decided to choose the Geoinformatics for Urbanized Society master’s program at the University of Tartu.

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How to see plants again: The plant blindness phenomenon

Plant blindness, or the lack of attention to plants as active agents in ecosystems, may seem to be a harmless ignorance. However, its consequences are directly related to the current state of environmental deterioration.

Plants have been of crucial importance to maintaining ecological processes of the planet Earth as well as for sustaining cultures and societies around the world. Plants themselves are complex, sensitive organisms that employ intricate signalling strategies to monitor, adapt to, and benefit from their environment.1 Baldwin, Ian 2015. Plant Science: Rediscovering the Bush Telegraph. Nature 522: 282–283. ,2 Ryan, John C. 2012. Passive Flora? Reconsidering Nature‘s Agency through Human-Plant Studies (HPS). Societies 2(3): 101–121.

However, despite their complexity and the central role in functioning of the living world of the planet, in Western society plants have been habitually marginalised and described in neutral collective terms, such as, e.g. landscape or agriculture, a tendency which is symptomatic of a wider phenomenon of plant blindness.

Paeonia leaves
While the flowering parts of plants or stand-alone trees may attract our attention, groups of plants or the less conspicuous parts, such as these Paeonia leaves, may more likely blend into the undifferentiated green mass. Image credit: Yekaterina Lukina

In his book Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany, Matthew Hall observes that “most places on Earth which contain life are visibly plantscapes”.3 Hall, Matthew 2011. Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. p. 3 Indeed, plants comprise the major part of the Earth‘s biomass4 Bar-On, Yinon M.; Phillips, Rob; Milo, Ron 2018. The Biomass Distribution on Earth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115(25): 6506–6511., being of crucial significance to maintaining the planet‘s environmental balance and ecosystem stability.5 CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity) 2010. Global Strategy for Plant Conservation 2011–2020 [online]. Retrieved from: https://www.cbd.int/gspc/intro.shtml

Thinking on the larger temporal scale, plants feel much more on home ground on the planet Earth than any animal species that ever existed. “If millions of years could be measured in meters” – state Gagliano, Ryan, and Vieira – “the history of plants would equate to a 500-meter-long walk, while ours would be no more than a few centimeters”.6 Gagliano, Monica; Ryan, John C.; Vieira Patrícia (eds.) 2017b. The Language of Plants: Science, Philosophy, Literature. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. vii.

Yet even this tiny footprint of the human species on planet Earth is profoundly embedded in the vegetal world – it is impossible to comprehensively approach the history of any cultural or social formation without simultaneously considering the history of plants.

Nevertheless, in the conceptual framework of the Western cultures, plants, for the most part, have habitually been overlooked and considered no more than a trivial backdrop for daily human practices and activities.7 Aloi, Giovanni (ed.) 2018. Why Look at Plants?: The Botanical Emergence in Contemporary Art. Leiden: Brill. ,8 Marder, Michael 2013. Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. New York, NY: Columbia University Press

Botanists and biology educators James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler9 Wandersee, James H.; Schussler, Elizabeth 2001. Toward a Theory of Plant Blindness. Plant Science Bulletin 47(1): 2–8. once argued that these tendencies to marginalise plant forms are symptomatic of a wider phenomenon of plant blindness – the inability of humans to distinguish and appreciate plants as active agents in the ecosystems.

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