Stories of the World: A Q&A with Photographer Cameron Karsten

A while back, I was fortunate to be interviewed by WordPress.com’s Discover, a fantastic blog platform that I’ve been using for years. Below is a great post from last week about my work as a professional photographer and the range of projects I’ve had the opportunity to work on. Enjoy, share and spread the love!

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Give photographer Cameron Karsten an assignment, anywhere in the world, and he’ll bring the story to life with his lens. From documenting the Vodou religion in Benin to exploring the remote Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park in the US, Cameron photographs people, customs, and processes, breaking down the barrier between viewer and subject in vivid scenes and stunning landscapes. We’re thrilled to chat with him about his body of work and the photography on his blog, Cameron Karsten’s Imaginarium.

You photograph a range of subjects, from oyster harvesters in Washington State’s Puget Sound to American children holding toy guns. What attracts you to a story?

I’m attracted to people, and events that will make a significant difference in our lives. My oyster harvest photo essay is a larger project about ocean acidification, which is little known to the public and picked up by Bloomberg Business. The story will potentially endure beyond this generation and not just affect the oyster industry, but the entire seafood industry and the chemistry of every ocean. That’s huge, and the story is extremely complex involving all kinds of individuals.

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The American gun culture project involves a disturbing matter: children playing with guns, bringing them into our schools, and the consequences.

Originally, these projects started with questions and a deeper curiosity I wanted to explore. Stories are ever-evolving and they take me to new places of understanding, meeting new people, and learning what is happening within our society.

For one past project, you joined All Across Africa through Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi. Can you tell us about it? What are your goals as a photographer on a trip like this?

All Across Africa (AAA) is an organization based in San Diego that helps build women-owned cooperatives who specialize in artisanal East African crafts. These women have been affected by their country’s violent conflicts and geopolitical histories. With business training by AAA, they’re able to lift themselves out of their past to create job opportunities to send their children to school, put a roof over their heads, and empower their lives.

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On the assignment, I traveled with the COO, Alicia Wallace. With her familiarity of each country and individual involved, I was able to photograph people who were filled with excitement, appreciation, and joy. Their energy was infectious and inspiring, and it was such a fulfilling assignment, which I think shows in my images. That was the end goal: beautiful images of the women and people involved with AAA.

You effortlessly capture warmth in your images, especially in your portraits. Can you talk about your approach to photographing people?

I look forward to photographing people when I pick up a camera. I approach a person not as a subject but as a person who has needs and wants, a history of joys and sorrows, of gains and losses.

I’ve never connected with the industry’s idea of using a camera to hide behind a lens as if to separate myself from the rest of the world.

I’ve never connected with the industry’s idea of using a camera to hide behind a lens as if to separate myself from the rest of the world. People aren’t subjects to me. Inanimate objects are what I call a subject. I first try to relate to and connect with a person by just being myself. Taking the photograph comes later.

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Your photo essays are a rich, vivid mix of image and prose, as shown in your Vodou Footprints series. What’s your thought process when creating a photo essay for your blog? How do you know when a photo essay is complete?

With each photo essay, I hope to create a compelling story. I want to develop a sense of intrigue, curiosity, and awareness. I want consistency and development in my own work, so I’ll edit and edit again. Then I’ll add more and edit more. But I realize I am my own worst editor and have begun to work with professional editors to hone my craft and present more polished stories.

In terms of form and style, I know I can always improve a piece. But it’s complete when it feels complete. I also remind myself that less is more.

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You’ve traveled widely, documenting different locations, cultures, and people. What has been your most challenging shoot?

I love to travel. My blog began as a travel blog, backpacking around the world as an aspiring travel writer. Storytelling with words developed into storytelling with photographs. Today, I enjoy creating photographs as much as I enjoy traveling because of the unknown within each situation. Problems arise and you have to think and act quickly to continue. That’s like any photo shoot.

One challenging project was a shoot for a foul-weather gear company in the Hoh River Rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State, in which I joined a hunting team in search of the elusive blacktail buck. It poured for four days and three nights, with few breaks in the weather. We rose every morning at 4:30 and spent the day bushwhacking through the forest — in silence.

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The challenge was getting the right shots in the pouring rain, while also experiencing fatigue and hunger — as well as giving up all sense of control. But in the end, it was a fantastic experience, and my client was happy.

What’s your go-to camera at the moment? What equipment do you always take along with you on outdoor shoots?

I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark III. It’s a durable workhorse, rain or shine. And for the size of the camera, the video is superb. For shoots, I’ll bring a variety of Canon and Zeiss lenses, as well as filters, a tripod and monopod, light stands, pocket wizards, portable strobes, batteries, and more. Now that I’m shooting more motion work, the list increases with audio gear, stabilizer, and slider.

It’s one thing to put this in the back of your car — it’s quite another to bring it into the rainforest. (And it’s an entirely different beast to pack it and put it on a plane to Africa.) Good insurance is a must.

Next step is a medium format Phase One 645DF+ with an IQ back, and a Sony a7R II for video work.

As a working photographer, what have been the benefits of having a blog?

My blog is a clean and simple outlet to share new projects, new adventures, and new stories. It exposes my work to an ever-widening audience and allows me to connect with like-minded storytellers. In the digital age when blogs seem as ubiquitous as photographers, my blog was an easy setup, allowing me to publish and share new work in minutes for my family, friends, and subscribers.


Follow Cameron Karsten on WordPress.com at Cameron Karsten’s Imaginarium, his website, Facebook (Cameron Karsten Photography), Instagram (@cameronkarsten), and Twitter (@CameronKarsten).

Vodou Footprints: A Wonderful Machine Interview

Below is an excerpt from Wonderful Machine, who earlier this week posted an interview about my project within the Vodou religion. It is an effort to learn more about the Vodou Footprints project, the preparation and experiences had within this magical culture, future direction and goals, as well as help spread the news about the successful publication in GEO Magazin. Share the knowledge and enjoy!

Cameron Karsten : Vodou

Dec 1, 2015
PHOTOGRAPHER NEWS

Largely misunderstood in Western culture, Vodou has often been depicted as an evil or sinister type of black magic, with the all too familiar dolls and accompanying pins and needles created to punish or torture your enemies. For photographer Cameron Karsten, who views exploring a new culture, place, or people as a continuous source of inspiration, he admittedly felt that he too hugely misunderstood this ancient religion. It wasn’t till extensive research and a one way ticket to West Africa that he began to have a clearer picture and deeper appreciation for this ancient religion. What transpired was a multimedia project spanning across two countries Benin in West Africa and Haiti uncovering the untold stories on the origins and evolution of Vodou. Read more of the Q&A with Cameron below!

The West Africa Project - Origins of Vodou, Ouidah Priest consultation

Zanzan the Witchdoctor of Ouidah pours a shot of venomous snake-infused gin. Take the shot, repeat, “Danji, Danji!” and you’ll be protected from your enemies.

How does this project fit into your photographic style? Were there any new approaches you took to capture it?

Having spent a ton of time out of the country around the world—traveling, writing and photographing—this project was a natural progression in the development of my career. The combination of both still and motion, along with audio components and writing, fit my skill set well. What I added to the stylistic approach is the option of lighting the individuals in an editorial style with strobes and modifiers. In the end, it’s a lot of gear, but with the amount of time I spent in-country and the amount of research, it was worthwhile and allowed for a unique form of storytelling.

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A boy vendor sells a dried gorilla foot at the Akodessewa Market in Lome, Togo.

Were there any challenges involved with this project? If so, how did you overcome them? 

The challenges were plentiful, though rewarding. Securing attendance into specific rare ceremonies and the related logistics around the timing of these events or celebrations was understandably tough. Additionally, West African Vodou is entirely different from Haitian Vodou. Although the religion traveled westward to the New World with the slave trade route, the metamorphosis was great, and this is exactly why it survived the brutality of slavery and the successive dictatorships that crippled the people. Keeping track of these differences, as well as making and maintaining key contacts across two opposing continents, required the creation of a new volume of research and planning to fully understand each real and true Vodou ceremony.

The West Africa Project - Origins of Vodou, Visiting the Kingdom of Allada in central Benin during Allada's Vodou FestivalDjagli spirits, known to chase witches from villages, rest after a performance in Allada during the National Vodou Day in Benin, West Africa.

What was involved in planning/preproduction? 

Before leaving home, I read and researched like mad. From books to blogs and personal tourist memoirs to anthropological university studies, I devoured as much as possible. Likewise, I reached out to locals via social media and email, asking for advice and on-the-ground knowledge. Finally, I organized, packed and carefully deliberated over gear—performing that rigorous judicial act of every seasoned traveler: what to bring.

The West Africa Project - Origins of Vodou, Ketou Guelede dancing mask ceremoniesKetou Guelede dancing mask ceremonies last all night, from sunset to sunrise. The costumes are rare these days, made by artisans from the Yoruba tribes of Nigeria.

What has the reaction to the images been so far? 

Reactions to the work from West Africa, specifically Benin and Togo, from the first trip have been phenomenal. The still and motion work, combined with the essays, have offered people exposure to a culture that has never before been documented with such visual impact and cultural appreciation. With the subsequent chapter in Haiti, the response has been likewise, as the images have carried a little more darkness and mystery behind Vodou’s changes from its place of origin across the waters in Africa. GEO Magazin picked up the West African piece, utilizing both stills and motion for their publication. National Geographic continues to show interest, encouraging the project to develop and progress.

The Vodou Trail in Haiti exploring the ceremonies and rituals of Haitian VodouVodouisants pray in congregation at Montagne Noire outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Any future plans for this project? 

The Vodou Footprints project has only just begun. In 2016, I will return to Haiti in July/August and October/November in order to complete that chapter before moving north in 2017 to document Vodou throughout the American south. After this, I intend to trace the historical spread of Vodou across the Caribbean, Central and South America, as well as east from West Africa into the surrounding countries as far as Zanzibar. The final goal for this long-term multimedia project is a complete visual encyclopedia of modern day Vodou, from where it originated in the cradle of Vodou to its evolution through the wake of the European slave trade. This will include a volume of books, traveling exhibitions, presentations and a documentary film.

The Vodou Trail in Haiti exploring the ceremonies and rituals of Haitian Vodou

Two pilgrims bathe in the sacred falls of Saut d’Eau

Did you learn anything through the creation of this series?

As with every foreign culture, it’s offered me glimpses into the complexity yet simplicity of our world. Vodou’s sole purpose is to celebrate life and death while providing all participants access to every human right: health, happiness and prosperity. It is a beautiful, mysterious and unique tradition, which has nothing to do with a doll or pins and needles. And of course, the more I develop this project, the more I myself develop—both as a growing presence in this ever-changing technological industry and as a critical practitioner of compelling storytelling.

View the video Cameron created below :

 

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To see more of Cameron’s work visit cameronkarsten.com

Washington State’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness (Cascade Mountains)

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A short week of city work and then we were out.  It was 6pm and we were stocking up, eating, forgetting things, stocking up again, getting licenses, and then heading east up and over Interstate 90.  Seattle – Snoqualimie Pass – Roslyn – Salmon La Sac.  It was dark by the time we reached the trailhead, about 11PM, and we were beat from the seemingly endless dirt road that only became visible through the truck’s headlights.  Everything else was black as the sky above.  We took swigs of whiskey, unrolled our pads and bags, and slept like babies under the canvas’ cover.

From Deception Pass trailhead, we enjoyed the wide path to Hyass Lake, before a slowly inclining climb got us sweating.  Simon and I were conditioned.  It had been too long since we were on the trail, so our mind’s excitement took up the body’s slack.  In less then three hours we reached the pass, an uneventful merging with the Pacific Crest Trail.

We had no plans except a start date and the last day we needed to be back down heading home.  We pulled out the topo maps and traced lines with our fingers.

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Our pace didn’t slow, it quickened with ease.  We couldn’t contain the thrill of being out, winding north from Snoqualimie Pass in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains to Steven’s Pass.  The area we were exploring was the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area, a land nestled between I-90 and Hwy 2 with enough lakes to last you 10 lifetimes.  And at high altitudes, many cresting above the timber line, they were quiet, and well stocked.  Fly-rods: check.

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In less then 5.5 hrs from the trailhead, up to Deception Pass and north along the PCT we reached our first night’s destination: Deception Lakes.  And they were exquisite.  Two glistening bodies of water with long shallow shores that dropped into deep emerald hues.  The fish were going crazy.  Set up camp, pull shoes, rig the rods and throw some line.  But there was one problem.  These rainbow, brook and cutthroat trout were tiny, skipping across the water as they emerged for a vast array of insect life the size of gnats buzzing around your wine.  We had nothing, they had everything.  Hooking one small brook did not afford us the glamorous backpacking dinner we hoped, but the excitement to be here and how far exceeded expectations.

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The next day we rose and kept camp at Deception.  With light packs, food, water and fly gear, we headed up to Mt. Surprise for a summit before dropping down further north to Glacier and Surprise Lakes.  More fish, more action, but the same small size.  But what made the day was the Saturday morning spent atop Mt. Surprise.  With a thick rolling cloud cover the temperature of a warm bath and nobody within eyesight or earshot, Simon and I sat, played a deck or two and sipped our libations.  Nowhere else was more accommodating before dropping down through Piper Pass onto Glacier and Surprise Lakes.

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To return to camp that evening, we continued along a loop, rejoining the PCT south to Deception Lakes, trying to never walk the same path twice.

With sunrise, oats, and full water jugs, we packed camp and headed west down to Deception Creek, a small tight valley that originated at the base of Mt Daniels.  Simon and I hiked south toward Deception Pass, taking a new less-traveled trail that brought us through a rich land of moss and wild mountain blueberries.  The trail was minimal and our eyes were awake for lingering bears.

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By noon we were back at Deception Pass, before turning west along Marmot Trail to Marmot Lake.  And beyond that, a Shangri La called Jade.  It was a long afternoon hike as we took side routes for smaller excursions to ampitheatres of rock and screen.  The views were vast, as if we could reach out to the trails we were on just days prior.  Shortly before the late afternoon, the thick blue waters of Marmot met us, but it was the Jade that took our breath away.

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Jade Lake was an additional mile above Marmot, a steep perilous hike under darkness, but just manageable with light packs and three days of hiking under our feet and within our knees.  Jade Lake with it’s hushing sounds of wind screaming through the pass just south, was all to ourselves and the large trolling trout that could be seen beneath the surface, careless about our imitation flies.

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One more night, one more morning before the trail descended beneath our boots back to Salmon La Sac (after a morning fish of course).  Beers and billiards at The Brick in Roslyn washed down the 4 day/3 night dream to mere memories.  Next summer will be just as beautiful.

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SOG Knives: What Not To Do/Drunken Beach Party

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Unveiling the faux SOG Knives Beach Party Campaign.  I had a blast with this shoot, from vision to pre-production to execution outdoors and the very fine details in-studio.  Then there was post-production.  Here you have the SOG Fielder knife, the SOG Machete and two SOG Tomahawk throwing axes (one chrome, one black) – and the characters that like to use them.

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Visit www.CameronKarsten.com for more

Cameron Karsten Photography

Seattle Central Creative Academy: Photography Assignment (Fill Light)

Tobacco-smoked meat; it’s what’s for dinner.  This is my “still-life food” shot for an anti-smoking advertisement.  Originally I sought to make the meat look like a heart hooked and strung-up over a smoking ashtray, but the meat just looks like meat.  Next time, I’ll get a realistic-looking heart and blacken it a little more to show the ill-fated effects of smoking cigarettes.

Window light was the light source to camera left and an off-camera Canon 580EX II Speedlite bouncing off a silver reflector was the fill at camera right.

Location: CK Studio, Bainbridge Island, WA

Camera/Lens Specifics: Canon 5D Mark II with Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro Lens

100mm, 1/10 sec at ƒ/6.3, ISO 100, tripod mount.

Post: Adobe LR3 & PS5

Seattle Central Creative Academy: Photography Assignment (Stop Motion)

There were numerous things that went wrong with this shoot, which I did not become aware of until after during the hours upon hours of editing.  To say it before I present to you these pieces: I don’t like them.  In fact, I loathe them.  Then why this post, you might ask?

First off, it is a visual record.  Having rediscovered my love of fire, unleashing the pyromaniac youth within, stored memories from the times after school alighting pine needles with a magnifying glass to more explosive encounters involving cans of highly flammable RAID and a stack of wood set next to my mother’s house, I love fire.  So, why not shoot it?

Secondly, I want these images to rest upon this web layout as a stage of photographic development.  With this rekindled love of flame, I now have the desire to master the quickest, most intense flash of heat through the lens, and elegantly incorporate it’s fluid speed into my work creating a uniqueness and individuality.

Thirdly, using fire during work makes work so much more exciting.

So I present the first two shots involving TRESemme and fire.  Again, these images are not worthy of due credit or professionalism, therefore I would never finalize them for a client and expect a pat on the back with a fat check.  They’re merely a recording of the road to fire I am just now beginning.

The first one was shot with the bottles on a white background.  These have too many reflections in the cans to represent the product accurately.  Then when shooting the flames I discovered the speed at which they release.  I sprayed the hairspray over a lighter, which singed all knuckle-hairs instantaneously, and witnessed these flames all but vanished on the sensor before the white background.  So I switched it out for black and added a mass of strobes and hot lights.  When I went to composite the images in PS5, I realized the task at hand to mask the black background flames with the white background cans was near impossible for a realistic, sellable product.  Plus, for stop motion, the flames are not frozen, even at 1/1000th of a second!

This next image is an improvement considering the background, but the rest is just an attempt to experiment and learn after staring at a computer screen for 5 hours.  I’m displeased with how both of these turned out, but the learning curve was steep and that’s all that matters right now.

Location: SCCA, Seattle, WA

Camera/Lens Specifics: Canon 5D Mark II with Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro Lens

variety of settings, ISO 100, tripod mount.

Post: Adobe LR3 & PS5

Seattle Central Creative Academy: Photography Assignment (High Key Product)

High Key photography is a classic product set-up: bright subject, with few shadows and nice highlights.  To go with au naturel consumerism, Tom’s of Maine toothpaste came into play.

The idea was to showcase the “Crystal Clean” result after using Tom’s.  Somewhat pleased, I don’t feel totally successful with the project.  The crystal in my model’s hand appears too large and the actual toothbrush on the right feels unnatural due to the lack of the bottom of the brush.  In the end, the photographer decides about his/her image, while the audience decides on their individual experience.

Location: SCCA Studios, Seattle, WA

Camera/Lens Specifics: Canon 5D Mark II with Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro Lens

variety of settings, ISO 100.

Post: Adobe LR3 & PS5

Seattle Central Creative Academy: Photography Assignment (EDFAT – aka Stranger Danger)

Ian Cipra is a man with a passion for apples.  Working the tourist crowds of Pike Place Market in Seattle, WA, Ian sells not only apples, but grapefruits, plums, seasonal fruits and loads of vegetables.  One day it might be a free slice of pear to push their sales.  The next might be an orange.  But on this day, he was representing the crisp sweetness of the Jazz apple.  And thus the tourists flocked – passing, observing, tasting, purchasing – while the apple man put on a show of  wit and camaraderie.

The assignment was to photograph a stranger.  Approach someone.  Collect a volume of point of views:  EDFAT.  Broken down, it stands for 1) ENTIRE, for observing the entire subject; 2) DETAILS, dissecting the subject into specific details; 3) FRAME, framing those details into strong, original compositions; 4) ANGLE, to shoot a variety of angles; and 5) TIME, building visuals by using slices of time.  After 500 frames, an hour and a half of time, and switching between four different lenses for variety, Ian Cipra came out with energy and sold loads of jazz apples to smiling customers.

Location: Pike Place Market, Seattle, WA

Camera/Lens Specifics: Canon 5D Mark II with various lenses

variety of settings

Post: Adobe LR3 & PS5

Seattle Central Creative Academy: Photography Assignment (Dark Glass)

While on break, I had three weeks to come up with a composition for dark glass.  When I was young, my grandfather gave me this old Kahlua bottle, and for years I burnt a candle in the crown.  So, with the ambience of candlelight, I created an evening scenario with the added smooth tasting digestif White Russian.

I shot the bottle, and from there worked around the composition.  And since it was an old bottle, the label was long removed.  Therefore, I took today’s bottle, captured the label, and masked it within PS5, shot the tumbler with the White Russian, added reflections and a tabletop, brushed in the smoke and took my archived image of a wood stove fireplace to fill the background.  The text was selected from the label and fit within the frame.  Complicated but well-worth the time, as well as multiple White Russians consumed throughout the process.

Location: CK Studios, Bainbridge Island, WA

Camera/Lens Specifics: Canon 5D Mark II with Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro Lens

variety of settings, ISO 100, tripod mount.

Post: Adobe LR3 & PS5

Seattle Central Creative Academy: Photography Assignment (George Hurrell Heavy-Set)

A George Hurrell-inspired photography assignment creating a classy black and white 1920’s film noir/glamour shot.  Involved set construction, props, wardrobe and some serious lighting skills.  Here is my mortician with a new patient waiting behind the walls.

Location: SCCA Studios, Seattle, WA

Model: William O’Donnell

Camera/Lens Specifics: Canon 5D Mark II with Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM Telephoto Zoom Lens

70mm, 1/100 sec at ƒ/7.1, ISO 100, tripod mount.

Post: Adobe LR3 & PS5