Amazon HQ for Handelsblatt

An interesting assignment for a new client… Handelsblatt… I don’t know what the article reads, but it was fun to see the insides of Amazon HQ in downtown Seattle, and learn the future of automation with Alexa. I’m out.

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GEO Magazin Vodou Article

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Translated from German to English thanks to the talented Martina Moores. Original text by Andrea Jeska. Publisher GEO Magazin. Thank you and enjoy!

VODOU

… is the state religion of Benin. A faith like a perpetual feast. Fantastic, alive and expensive for all its followers.

Text: Andrea Jeska    Photos: Cameron Karsten

The sky was just blue. Now clouds move in and rain starts pattering the corrugated roof. The cackling chickens fall silent. A woman suddenly lashes about, her hands, arms and back of her head crash into a wall, her face shows pain. With a deep voice, seemingly in trance, a spirit speaks through her: the European visitor is not invited. He did not honor Ogoun respectfully before entering his home. He has to undergo rituals and bring offerings. After all that, he will be allowed to enter the temple.

People take me outside, wrap me in white cloths as a symbol of innocence and have me kneel in the sand. I have to give money in order to honor Ogoun. Ogoun likes expensive gin, lemonade and cola nuts. It takes time to get all this, long enough that I get dizzy from the sun above the stench of a white, dying duck as it quacks its last breath.

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Cotonou, a city in Benin, West Africa. At a farm close to the beach, I can hear the sound of the waves from the Atlantic Ocean, the roaring of old cars and mopeds, the never-ending honking and the booming of bar music—a shrill mélange, which nearly drives me crazy.

In a distant house on the farm, within crumbling walls and under a roof sagging from many heavy rains, Towakpon Amankpe has paid homage to Ogoun for 30 years. Towakpon was still young when the god and ancestors elected him to become a Vodousant, a follower of the faith. After many ceremonies and years of learning, Towakpon is now a priest, which is a marriage of sorts to the warrior god Ogoun. All of Towakpon’s efforts revolve around his god, whose wishes should be granted so he will remain gracious and continue protecting those who bring him offerings.

“Vodou” says Towakpon, “is the entire life”.

And death. Today as well as yesterday and tomorrow. Vodou is the cosmos and the bridge that spans all contradictions of the world’s course. It can be translated as spirit, soul or intangible being. This is how Vodou is in Benin. The question of reality or myth, sense or madness, is completely irrelevant. Likewise my hope to just observe. Gods and spirits simply don’t care whether they will be noticed or not. In Benin, they simply surround you until you stop trying to apply any kind of logic.

Huts are temples. Trees are spirits. Every event, illness, wish and hope is embedded in ritual and tradition. Every sentence and every movement resonates with what drives humans: dreams and death, coming and going, hope and fear. Vodou is the state religion in Benin. Whoever thought Vodou was just for occultists and horror movies, will learn different while visiting this country.

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The priest guards secret knowledge and is also a mediator between gods and people.

The morning started peacefully in Ogoun’s temple. Towakpon sits on a foot stool. His skirt is wrapped between his legs. Except for a string of cowries, his upper body is naked. I see that his body is well trained. He tells me that for Ogoun’s sake he stopped having affairs and became a faithful spouse. He snaps his fingers against his six-pack as if to prove what he has just said.

A pink clock with a glitter border hangs on one wall. Another wall shows the following words written with chalk: Please, my dear friends, be completely quiet. Switch off your mobile phone. Ogoun never talks to you on the phone.

The priest’s brother, who has not done so well in the Voodoo hierarchy, assists Towakpon to prepare the offerings. Tirelessly, he molds large clay figures, which represent Legba, a heavenly messenger, the gate-keeper. Legba allows people to contact the spirit world. Each figure gets a hat made of cowrie shells, chicken feathers, bits of tortoise shell, scraps of goat and leopard skin, as well as some bark. The room is filled with people who seek advice. They squat on their mats. It smells of sweat and offerings; palm oil, lemonade and gin being served in small glasses. Most of it is consumed in one shot. A few drops get poured on the ground. This is for the god. The lemonade follows suit.

The priest listens patiently to all the stories and lamentations of man: one has pain in his hand, the other suspects his wife is having an affair. Towakpon promises to prepare the proper offerings. What these offerings are and how they work remains the secret knowledge of the priest. On one side of the room are wooden boxes filled with junk. Only on closer observation can I gradually make out individual items: bicycle chains, nails, rusty metal bits, and then shells, feathers, wood, clay figures in another.

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The objects are fetishes that represent the tangible version of the god they are dedicated to. Towakpon tries to explain this strange collection. Fetishes are inanimate and unfold their power only if infused with spiritual energy. My attempt to find out what is “spiritual” and what is “god”, fails miserably. So I settle for the following: the wooden box is a gift from Ogoun, who was a piece of metal before he became god and helped make the earth livable by clear-cutting trees and cultivating fields. He showed people how to handle fire and metal—like a West African Prometheus.

Another box with fetishes is dedicated to the god Sakpata, keeper of the Earth. He brought crops to the people, but also smallpox. He spreads diseases and helps to prevent them at the same time. Towakpon explains further that what looks to me like random junk, are actually carefully chosen objects for ceremonies. He keeps a book with the names of his clients and the reasons for their visits, along with a list of the fetishes he will need for each patient. These will then be symbolically offered to the god. Most of the time the priest will keep those offerings or the client will take them home.

He has long lists.

“The more complicated the world is, the more complex are people’s problems. And the more laborious the offerings,” says Towakpon. The search for the right objects in the fetish markets is a time-consuming affair. He starts filling small hand-woven baskets with pieces of guava and banana while he talks. He wants to put these offerings in the sea. Ogoun is the god of all four elements, therefore offerings should be of earth, wind, fire and water. Offerings keep a god in a good mood and guarantee his goodwill.

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Messages, mysteries, wishes, threats, intoxication and trance—this is the stuff Vodou is made of. Vodou is magical, great, unaesthetic, dirty and wise. Above all, it is profoundly human, and so are the gods. Or maybe people are deeply divine. My logic is unable to follow the confusion of responsibilities, rituals, gods and spirits. The Greek gods on Olympus, in contrast, are clear.

It takes awhile until the offerings are purchased. During that time the duck dies, the sun burns even hotter and my legs, which are not used to the kneeling, fall asleep. The Vodousant washes me with fragrant water and powders my neck and back. Finally, the messenger boy comes running. He bought a bottle of gin called Stark. The label promises an elegant taste. The lemonade was only available in grapefruit flavor, but the priest nods and disappears behind a curtain to the most holy place that only he is allowed to enter. Still on my knees, I have to slip back into the hut and hand the offerings through the curtain to the priest. The female students of Vodou, who complete several months of training, come back with more fragrant water. The priest touches my shoulders and head with a palm frond. For purity? He nods.

I spill gin on the floor as a sign of respect, and finally there comes Ogoun out of his medium, showing up as an exhausted woman leaning like a saggy wrap against the wall. It is suddenly quiet in the temple.

At the crossroads of life, an oracle provides information on your destiny.

The gods use priests and mediums speaking in trance to inform the people. The pure expression of divine will and wisdom is Fa—the oracle. Fa is the soul of Vodou. This alleged 10,000-year-old religion arose in the region of Yoruba, which is in current day Nigeria. How the religion together with Fa came to the country currently called Benin can be explained by Sagbadjou Glele as part of the Glele royal dynasty along with a bokounon, or a priest of the oracle. But whomever wants to hear this legend, needs to have a lot of time. The story intertwines with the daily chores on the farm of the priest, which is in Abomey, the former capital of the Kingdom of Dahomey.

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For now, advice seeking people stand in front of the round hut in which Sagbadjou sits on an ornate throne-like stool, holding court under a canopy roof. He wears a hat, a skirt made of heavy fabric and handmade shoes, bearing the name of his dynasty Glele. The day is almost over, the priest waves his hand to send the remaining advice-seekers away. He asks for a beer and puts his elbows on his knees. “A story,” the children whisper, rolling like little balls toward his feet.

“It was at a time,” begins the priest, “when the people already prayed to the gods of Vodou, but they could not understand their will. Then a drought came, and all the offerings brought little to no rain. The twins Sossa and Sousson traveled to the kingdom of Yoruba and learned about a powerful oracle. They were taught the art of Fa and on their return to Dahomey, they went before the king and told him they could bring rain. Five cowries they demanded for their services, and if they could not succeed, the king could chop their heads off … ”

The bokounon is a big man with a chunky face and only few teeth. His voice is deep and loud. His Fon—the language of Benin—sounds drawn-out and melodic. On dramatic points of his story, he raises his arms in the air. “Wee!” he cries out as he talks about the beheading, running his hand along the edge of his neck. Ooooooh the scared children chirp. Another pause, and even though the tension in the audience is bursting, the narrator is hungry for corn porridge and chicken in spicy red sauce with beans. A feast. The children sit desirously glancing at the plates. They grab at everything Sagbadjou and his guests brush aside.

It has been dark for a long time. The smell of wood fires comes from numerous houses. When the priest casts the Fa at his feet, he resumes the story. The Fa is a sacred instrument consisting of a cord, on which eight halves of an oil palm nut hang. The oracle’s answers to questions are shown in the way the nut halves are positioned after cast to the ground. Fa reveals destiny through a mathematical system. The eight nut halves form 16 allegories that are called Du. It are these Du that create 256 combinations with 4096 interpretations. Priests use a kind of manual to interpret the positions and meanings of the Du. Every single one has been handed down orally.

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“The Fa that was cast by the twins Sossa and Sousson, was the first oracle ever that has been interviewed by us. It’s called Letaip Leteigbe” says Sagbadjou. He asks one of his 23 children to bring him a piece of paper so he can draw the position of the nut halves. “Seven point outwards, one is inward. Even today, this sign announces rain or that problems will be gone before the evening comes.”

In fact, it should have poured rain at that time, the drought was over, the twins could keep their heads.

Fa never speaks in riddles. The advice seeker whispers his question or desire in his fist, silently and only for himself. The bokounon throws the oracle and then delivers the god’s message, even though he does not know the question. The Fa is consulted on all crossroads of life, especially at the birth of a child. Are strokes of fate awaiting the baby? Will it stay healthy? If the oracle predicts something bad, offerings must be given to avert the disaster.

Most of these offerings are expensive, some take several months worth of pay. The Beninese say that about one third of a year’s salary is spent on Vodou. In years, in which they consult Fa, even more. Many people are in debt because of these rituals and offerings. However, not providing the offerings, would be asking for disaster. The acts of a person affect his next life, and a successful life consists of worshiping the gods, the ancestors and questioning the oracle. Serious offenses against the order of things or even turning away from the faith will be punished with illness, malformations, mental derangement or even death.

The priest will soon be 70 years old. But he does not think about quitting. “The gods and the people, both need me.” His father and his grandfather were interpreters of the oracle, and they sent him to famous teachers so he could follow in their footsteps. Thirty years ago he was the one who warned the Marxist President Mathieu Kérékou not to mess with the gods. The President wanted to exorcise Vodou. Temples were closed. Priests fled to neighboring Togo. But even Kérékou was uncertain of his future, so much so he consulted Sagbadjou. “Here with me he sat,” says the priest. “The oracle revealed that he would win the election, but also that he would eventually lose the favor of the gods and men. And so it was. ”

Unlike other religions, Vodou does not give people the choice to confess. Instead, it is an obligation from birth. Most people in Benin believe that Fa links the ancestors with their descendants, inseparably. The covenant is sealed typically just before a child begins school. Fa reveals which ancestral soul resides in each child. This affiliation locates the child in his family lineage like a pearl on a continuous string. Because Vodou is so inextricably part of being human, the gods can be forgiving. If someone also believes in Allah, in Jesus Christ, in Buddha, or in a self-proclaimed savior, Vodou gods simply don’t care. Sixty percent of Beninese say they are Christian or Muslim. The vast majority are Vodou followers as well. To sing a Hallelujah to Jesus Christ on Sunday morning, bring offerings to Ogoun the same afternoon and enthusiastically join one of many magical Vodou ceremonies with dance and masks later that evening is absolutely normal.

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Vodou is an everlasting process. How could such an irrational and colorful faith based on godly megalomania and human fear, survive colonialism and post colonialism? And how could globalization, neo-capitalism and cybermania not harm it? The believers’ answers are always the same: adaptation and tolerance. It has come a long way from the kings of Dahomey to the modern day priests who use social media networks to market themselves. The less powerful gods surrendered during this journey through time.

The temple stinks like a pub. The gods like to drink and smoke, as do their priests.

“The goal is key. And the goal is to believe in and respect the sovereign god Mawu. It is not important how we achieve that” says Zanzan Zinho Kledje, who is known as “Zanzan, the Great” in Benin. His godly ties are particularly tight, which gives him significant power with his god Damballah. Zanzan’s temple is in Ouidah, which historically was one of the main West African ports that sent hundreds of thousands of slaves to America and Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. National Vodou Day is celebrated here every year in January, where the gods love the drama. They love the dances and jokes, the bright colors and costumes. Vodou festivals are a blend of carnival and antique theater, wild dances and the finest ballet choreography, with poetic downfall and shy resurrection. All at the same time. The whole town is in delirium on that day, which also attracts tourists. Zanzan finds this annoying because strangers disturb the gods by standing around taking pictures. It also creates the impression that Vodou is a big show and not a serious religion.

Zanzan pays homage to the god Damballah, a sort of spiritual head of all Vodou gods. Similarly, Zanzan calls himself the spiritual head of all Damballah priests. “The Pope of Benin,” he says, holding up his hands in despair. “Do you know how many envious people there are? How many times someone tried to poison and jinx me?”

Damballah is the god of snakes, his symbol a python, or often a rainbow. Just like the one that God sent Noah as a promise not to destroy the people again. It is possible that Damballah adopted this symbol. He is a friendly god and popular with women who want to have children or are looking for a husband. However, he is not particularly health-conscious. He drinks and smokes. And Zanzan does too. His temple smells of a pub in the morning, afternoon and long into the evening. Cigarette butts and empty gin bottles are everywhere. Stone images of gods have cigarette butts in their mouths, their heads are a yellowish grease from the mixture of palm oil and maize flour that is poured over them as an offering. There are old un-used fetishes made of stone, feathers, fur and hair, all soaked in oil. These seem to form numerous black piles in the corners of his room. But all this supports a trusting dialogue with the gods. Gods provide protection, therefore they demand honor and sacrifice.

However, sometimes the gods can be abused, for revenge, for viciousness. What is the dark side of power about? What about the curses, the witchcraft? What about pushing needles in dolls?

Zanzan laughs. “All created by the West. But the evil in Vodou, yeah, that’s real and it’s ordinary. ”

And why should it not be? “Everything has a brother. The good has the evil. The day has the night, the sky has the earth, and water has fire. Vodou is duality. Whoever wants to live must be able to die. Whoever wants to stay must be able to go.”

The gods are male and female, healing and destructive, preserving and threatening, loving and mean, caring and cruel all at the same time.

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Zanzan believes the dark side of Vodou won power when the slaves were shipped to America. They beseeched the gods, taking revenge on those who shipped them away from their homeland. The dark side of Vodou is still present in today’s Haitian Vodou. Believing in witchcraft is also a strong part of Benin’s culture. Mental and physical diseases, death, disability, bankruptcy or other misfortunes are blamed on witches.

Zanzan has a five-liter bottle in front of him. It is wrapped in leather and bark, with a small gourd strung to it. He generously pours gin from this flask. “Anyone who believes that Vodou is a dream machine is wrong,” he thunders. He blows out the smoke from one of his many cigarettes, doing it so vigorously as if to blow away any kind of misapprehension.

Vodou has, like Christianity, a moral code, similar to the Ten Commandments. “Anyone who infringes the rules will be punished. A murderer will die by murder. A thief will loose everything through theft. A sinner who does not respect the gods will loose his mind. Without the spiritual support of Vodou men will die, not because they will be killed by gods, but because they will wither physically or mentally.”

Nobody really knows how many Vodou gods exist in Benin. At least a hundred, the priests say. Every single god has its’ own tasks. Some limit their power to a village, others dominate vast regions and are worshiped across national borders. When times change, even the gods go out of fashion, and some are forgotten. New cults are suddenly hip, smart phones will become fetishes, and priests are YouTube Stars. Yet despite all of this flexibility and perseverance, the Vodou religion is threatened, mainly from competing religions. These other religions find followers among intellectuals on one hand, and the poor on the other. The average income per year is around 620 euros, and one third of the population in Benin lives below the poverty line. People in need are seduced and easily intimidated with the promise of quick salvation. The pastors of evangelical churches, for example, preach about God’s wrath if believers worship other gods. They are gradually becoming successful doing so.

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Reality changes fast in big cities like Cotonou and Porto Novo. Rural areas are still spared, but Cotonou and Porto Novo are both on their way to becoming an urban nightmare. Uncontrolled development, traffic jams, smog and unbearable noise. Their population is enviably young and fun-loving, but unfortunate with limited opportunities. These young people dream like all young people do; dream about money, travel and fast new cars. Vodou does not support that. Vodou tries to control their desire for freedom.

Although young people do not dare to question the covenant between ancestors and the gods, they do disregard it wherever they can. They participate in family ceremonies, but forget about their spiritual tradition in daily life. To be seen as the reincarnation of an ancestor and therefore chosen to be a Vodousant is no longer considered an honor.

“I would actually prefer self-determination,” says Stephano Medatinsa, a young entrepreneur from Cotonou. His family belongs to the middle class and lives in a large house on the outskirts of the city. Father Etienne, mother Catherine, three adult children, one grandchild and at times grandmother Sissethinde, a Vodousant since the age of four all under one roof. The grandmother never went to school, but is seen as a wise woman. She can see the future, people say. And Catherine is a Christian. A cross with Jesus is in her living room, as well as a statue of Mary.

Religious conflicts? The Medatinsas say that everyone can believe what they want. Etienne is practically an atheist. Catherine goes to Christian worship service on Sundays. Sissethinde practices her own rituals. But the wise woman will soon be 90 years old, and it is expected that her spirit will soon need a new body, a young and strong body since her spirit is strong. The spirit will want to continue to pay homage to Vodou and preserve its’ knowledge and power. Sissethinde’s daughters are too old. Moreover they are apostates. That leaves Stephano, who is in his late twenties and a straightforward, intelligent young man, to follow Vodou’s call. But this would limit his business activities, or even force him to give them up completely. It would also mean he could no longer party with friends and would have little time for family.

Stephano hopes that the cup passes him completely. He knows people who tried to run away when they were chosen. Some even fled to Europe. “But the ancestors and the gods will always find you,” he says cheerless: “Vodou is everywhere. One cannot escape.”

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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).

Culture Hopping: Life is the Essential Ingredient (Location: Planet Earth)

Like a roasted pepper, you’re done: well cooked, charred on the outside, burnt and spent. But on the inside, hidden within the veil of life’s fire-burner, you’re soft and ready.  Anticipating for more.

However, it doesn’t come all that easy.  After the months, weeks, or maybe only the days of travel, you return home to the accustomed life once left behind, and there, piled with new baggage you were ready to unpack, you find yourself overloaded with a new beginning.

And despite how many times you attempt to escape from this, seeking the bliss of freedom discovered upon the open road, mixed within the world’s vast cultures—leaving, returning, leaving, returning—you are met face to face time again with this long winding road home.  It stares at you.  It tempts you.

Upon returning, afflictive emotions once erased resurface (hint: they never leave!).  In order to take this road, you know you must begin the new journey with your new bags; keep on traveling, keep on truckin’ to peel away your surface layers to reach that core initially sought.

You must emerge from the cultures of the ancient times of open-air fires with stone, brick and mortar to reveal the modern complexity of steal and chrome.  The time allotted is the progress made, and until then the core will not be exposed.  Instead, the fires will continue to char, and char, and char returning you back to the start of that winding path, through and through.  Call it culture hopping.

And You Are?

Whether Africa, Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, South America, North America, or some distant cardinal tropic marooned from the flanks of one’s accustomed culture, the traveler is an explorer in the miasmic layers, colors and spices of the world’s cultures.  To have that desire for taste, for preparation and creative roast is to obtain the initial interest of discovering a lifestyle other than one’s own.

It is a yearning for experience, for knowledge, for an accumulation of wealth that can never be bought, taught or sought in books:  It’s the potential growth of the soul that comes with willingness, dedication and an awareness given the time and space to be sown in the soils of one’s consciousness.

Through the journey beyond, an epic tale of letting go and allowing the fires to char on their own accord, experience becomes wisdom.  It becomes that seed enriched with appreciation for life, a life involving a continued exploration of man, woman, Nature and their intriguing interwoven dynamics.  Alone, this path cultivates and further roasts one’s seed of awareness allowing the pepper to blossom and the fires cook.

For such a traveler, life is the essential ingredient.  Within mind, body and soul there contains essential components only fed when the traveler throws oneself into this very unknown.  This is where life revolves.

Certain characters are necessary for the traveler to embark and take upon these fires when ready:  Such one loves the unknown.

He or she loves taking this upon destiny like a parasite caught in flesh.  It is a necessity, a fertilizer sucked from the deepest soils, where the senses abide to the farthest root tips; stretching, distending, growing further and reaching for that appreciation of life, its beauty and the diversity which flourishes.  These cultures of humanity define the sustenance of life, and without their firsthand experience there would be no worth to the traveler in the life surrounding.

And so, with a firm grip upon an adventurous nature, a character ready and willing to let it all go for something without any future at all, the traveler within me tossed this mind, body and soul into the deep soils of the earth.  Seed planted, sustenance fed—my pepper of various layers, colors and spices began to sprout.  The fire was already provided.  I began my culture hopping.

Cultures Revealed, The Culture Transformed

I went abroad, explored the cultures of islands, of development and riches, of poverty and those stricken with the despair of unjust treatment to their basic human rights.  I went abroad and found turmoil in the markets, unlike my hometown grocer’s well stocked and aligned isles.  I was ingrained within these new markets like a spider in a neighbor’s web, weaving my thread with theirs, calm and observant with the people of Africa, Asia, south-north-east-west and beyond.  I spun more, throwing an innocuous trust within my surroundings.

Further, I found isolated pockets of forest, tropical with malarial mosquitoes and monkeys.   I saw fauna and flora of the imagination, and I let my own wander to color my thoughts with its fragrance.

Things filled my senses.  Life invaded me.  From one culture to the next, I let go, stepping deeper into the unknown.  And I let go once more.

Literally it all consumed me, and as the small seed, a sponge underneath the flowing faucet, I soaked in it.  I was free.  I was the traveler.  I absorbed this flow—people, thoughts, situations and circumstances, foreign politics, cuisines and their palates, lifestyles and manners.  They became a part of who I was, and who I sought to become.

From one individual to the next, from village to village, city to city, via bicycle, rickshaw, tuk-tuk, taxi, bus, train, boat—or by foot—I was culture hopping.  I was experiencing this life I knew and never knew.  It was withdrawn from within me where I allowed an awareness to manifest the road ahead.  And on every step, the journey started anew as the flames were fueled, the fires turning hotter.

Eventually, I was done.

The pepper: blackened, charred, burnt on the outside.  Work was now necessary to peel away the layers, and so the traveler returned home to the culture left behind.  There, after faced with one phenomenon to the next, culture hopping at its finest (the pepper well-done, the spider entombed within, a sponge oozing the sustenance of life), explorations changed courses and routes led homeward to the familiar lifestyle.  But through each interlope and interchange of culture there was that reunion affected by this so-called hopping.

It was a reemergence with the traveler’s old self, bags ready to unpack before discovering there were still more bags to be carried.

Still Traveling

Often it’s unexpected, meeting this thing left behind which is now present; all around you, within family and friends and customs and routines.  It is the traveler of the past; the traveler before the traveler was ever a “traveler”.  In essence it is the mind, body and soul in which everyone knew and everything expected despite the change.

Returning from Southeast Asia to southern California, my confidence and belief within my own self and the direction I was heading hit a steel-plated wall.  All happiness faded.

But now, unexpected, the new traveler facing the old traveler before the traveler was ever a traveler becomes paralyzed.  He or she is overwhelmed with the past culture amounting to that of the new various cultures adopted.  Known collectively as “culture shock”, there is no turning back.

The old sages comment, “Easy is the choice to begin or not, but once begun, better finish.”

And like a dish of foie gras to a vegetarian consciousness, like a Russian bath for the Hawaiian local, culture shock throws you into a chasm where the lights are dimmed to view only the faintest silhouettes ahead.  There is nothing left behind.  You must continue and accept a responsibility, for this very shock is the effect of your culture hopping.  It stuns, saddens—and more significantly—paralyzes the senses and any feeling of centeredness.

Questions arise again, afflictive emotions stir as remorse composes a symphony of disgust, despair and pain before the next layer of pepper is charred.  There’s never the chance of having the opportunity to live the life of its soft sweet flesh.  This is the case of reemergence into Western society.

Returning from Southeast Asia to southern California, my confidence and belief within my own self and the direction I was heading hit that wall.  Happiness gone.  Despair arisen.  Confusion ahead.   What I remember most having returned from the months abroad was entering that Ralph’s “superstore” on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena.

Culture shock as loaves of bagged bread—signed, sealed and delivered—shook with a consumerism’s shopping rage.  It was like an exemplified spree; carts with gargantuan mouths, open and wired to the teeth.  They could be stuffed full, occupying up to ten bags if willed.  There were meats, animals to be more specific, which now took the form of slice after slice, shank and steak and thigh and breast—or why not whole? My eyes witnessed the abundant glory to what a Newari family in the Nepalese Himalayas might perceive:  I’m in heaven!

No.  To me, having experienced the impoverished of India, Africa and Asia—as well as the freeway underpasses of California’s forgotten homeless; having walked the mountains and beaches where a family was considered lucky if a porter succeeded in bringing what they requested, this mass production of animals, genetically modified fruits and vegetables, and aisles upon aisles of sugared dumplings called Ding-Dongs hit my lower abdomen with an iron cudgel.

Cheeses and yogurts fermented beyond their expiration date.  Fizzing bottles of Coca-Cola and Dew blew their tops.  Bottles of water became dirty.

What happened to the market?  To morality?  What happened with globalization and to our care for others’ well-being?

No, I concluded, there was never a moral concern for life.  And there never will be.  What the hell am I doing here? I was culture shocked.

A Welcome Home

It’s the most difficult stretch of the journey; to return home to family and friends, to routine—to life as you once knew it—and apply successfully all the lessons of travel.  People look at you as they did in the past, but you say, you stand up for yourself:  No, I’ve changed.

The world revolves.

You see the news.  You have the luxuries you once forgot and indeed took advantage of in the past.  Daily life causes its stresses.  Anger, confusion, and all the other emotions come to greet you with a slap in the face, smiling like they’ve never done before.  Even those plates of food adorning your dining table are a blessing, but no one else seems to see.

Likewise, you yourself begin to struggle.  In your silent prayers you return your conscience back to the center and thank the sustenance before you and your family.  You thank the Universe for this life compared to others witnessed far away, an observance you’re beginning to forget.

As with most, the first return and its adaptation is the hardest.  You cope with it, you deal with it and you hopefully take in the lessons for your growth.  The second and third become easier due to experience, and with the appropriate placement of the lessons recalled, your life, whether traveling or at “home” in your own culture, becomes a continued journey of culture hopping.

You are the traveler and you feed this, caring for yourself with the practice of your experiences from the places you’ve been.  It is your new culture in which you live and grow from.  But how do you get passed the initial return, and the second and the third?

Over my travels, an unknown quote to an unreligious individual has reminded me of strength and courage: “God comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable.”  It is a message shouting there is always more growth to be had.  Once you think you’ve reached the top, you’ve actually hit bottom.

Greeted with the eruption of past habits and routines, I have taken the journey of reentering the life I left behind as a whole new opportunity to evolve further to that infinite goal.  And what keeps me sane throughout the process is the remembrance of the journey passed and how it’s still in its entirety churning within me.

Therefore, I’m brought to the present, the internal traveler awoken within to become the traveler of the present moment no matter what road I might be on.  I see family and friends; they might mistake me for someone of the past.

Sure, I’m still that person, but now I’m him, which includes this new traveler.

I see shelves of abundance in a culture appearing oblivious to the rest of humanity’s infirmities and I become grateful to have that awareness of the resources in my life, their precious blessings, and how most persons round the globe might not have such a luxury as the basic necessity of shelter to plates to eat upon, or surviving family and a network of friends.

I remember how I used to take things for granted, including as a boy that dumpling of sugar, the so-called Ding-Dong.  Hence, there is no need to despise it, but better yet be appreciative of the options and leave it for others who might harbor interest.  And I’m grateful for the world’s diversity and the cultures out there to be explored.

Though what remains most important, disregarding the adventure of external discovery, is the magnitude of a continued internal exploration.  It is an application of one’s new understanding and belief into mainstream life that keeps this cyclone of the Self gyrating.

Barriers discovered, analyzed and then toppled; passed through to advance further into the conscious Self.

Each step hosts the opportunity for growth—mentally, emotionally and spiritually—and with the continued practice of one’s lifestyle within the new surroundings of home, obstacles of daily living no longer appear as they once did.  Instead they take the form of that flame, licking the edges of skin to provide a tool to peel away the outer layers to reach its deepest core.  That fire is of love and peace, as is the core—as is the practice, the people and places—as are those once termed “obstacles”.

And So, To Hopping

Today, there is more of Asia, West Africa, Europe and more Central America, including my own culture, within me.

As a traveler with a continuous yearning for growth through an experience of culture hopping, and a lessening culture shock, I have come to peer through a cleared perception, recognizing the differences and similarities of each land and its people.  I have come to accept these cultural barriers as a part of this physical world, established in total for our growth.  Beyond these barriers, they dissolve and I perceive a life with the oneness of all peoples.  My heart opens as I remind myself and take recognition.  Happiness returns.

Yes, I’m still traveling.

Life keeps churning, and as a morsel within the stew—that spice—as a bubble in a boiling pot, I have only so long before I leave and transform, before I am eaten by my own creation.

In order to fill this duty with its finest, in order to allow the fires to masterfully complete its roast, a strive to dig deeper attains progress.  It is the act of reaffirming the underlying connection between people and their cultures.  It is the subtle continued establishment within the mind that they—we—have founded this very life and that we are here together to share it.  Through this realization, carrying for myself and reawakening from sleep each fleeting moment, the afflictive emotions associated with the road and the return into daily life subsides.

A roasted pepper, charred skin peeled, I am now ready to continue with the ingredients of this infinite stew of culture, traveling deeper into the feast of life.  Culture hopping is my vehicle of choice.

Travel Photographer Interviews: Cameron Karsten

Travel Photographer Interviews: Cameron Karsten by Lola Akinmade (from The Traveler’s Notebook)

In a new series on Notebook, we interview professional photographers, and discuss their different perspectives on travel photography as well as tips for taking better pictures.

Photographer Cameron Karsten is currently traveling around East Africa, documenting the work of various communities and nonprofit organizations. With a unique eye for composition and lighting, Cameron is capturing particularly soulful images. According to him, “he yearns for expansive adventure of the deepest value in order to express the tales of humanity.”

Cameron Karsten has also written a series of spiritual and health travel articles for Brave New Traveler. He left his formal classroom studies to indulge in dreams of travel at 19 years old, and has been wandering ever since.

Over the past few months, Cameron has also contributed to MatadorU’s Travel Photography Program. Matador Goods Editor Lola Akinmade and Matador contributing editor Paul Sullivan took some time out to ask Cameron a few questions:

How long have you been a professional photographer?

I’ve been practicing photography for six years. It was only two years ago I decided to convert the hobby into a passionate career.

What – or who – got your initial interest going in terms of photography?

Travel. At the age of 19 I left my comfort zone with backpack, journal and pen, and my camera. I began writing and photographing in order to share my experiences and inspire other individuals to follow their passions. Today, with diligent practice and belief, I continue to develop and evolve my skills to create the life I desire.

Cameron Karsten

What were your first photographic experiments or experiences?

The first time I mindfully began photographing was on the first day I landed in Bangkok, Thailand at 19. The new culture, architecture, environment and faces sent my eyes spinning along every street. I was enthralled with the new surroundings and found every detail, from an old shirtless man to the spires of a golden temple, worth photographing.

My family and friends had to see what I was witnessing. It became a way to transport my followers into my traveling adventures and become a part of the journey.

How would you describe the work you do now? Are you involved in the commercial world also? Any stock photography?

I am continuously building and expanding my photographic styles. Currently, I work as a professional portrait, wedding, and event photographer. However, my drive is to develop into a full-time commercial, travel and editorial photographer with fingers in lifestyle and fashion. The possibilities in the industry are limitless, and these options keep me inspired as I move forward.

Which other photographers – old or contemporary – inspire you most?

Ansel Adams with his patient lighting. Ricard Avedon with his brilliant creativity and stylistic eye. Annie Leibovitz through her skill of caricatures and personalities. And Steve McCurry for his wanderlust.

You seem to have an eye for shapes and working with patterns. Is this a fair assessment?

Shapes and patterns are where my eyes are drawn to. Within my surroundings, through my lens and into my brain, I see the world as shapes creating patterns. Everywhere, there are arrangements of order built within a format of forward-movement. From whatever cause, whether my practice in meditation to my careful observations abroad or at home, I have adapted this technique as my first and foremost.

Like jumping into a stream and letting the current take you, I pick up my camera only when the moment feels right, only when that inner fuel burns and that surge of inspiration sears.

Cameron Karsten

When you are approaching subjects to shoot, how do you set about it? Do you chat and explain what you’re doing? Or shoot first, ask questions later?

As mentioned above, when there’s inspiration, I shoot. When there’s none, I leave it alone and keep truckin’. Often, I leave my house, hotel, or camp without my camera.

There are many scenes, subjects and settings that are so captivating, there’s no reason to try and capture it. Then and there, I soak it in and use that moment for my inner fires.

Pick and choose selectively. Don’t shoot everything. Beauty is everywhere, all the time.

When approaching a human subject I wish to photograph, the situation varies. Sometimes I sit down and create a conversation before photographing; therefore, the image will have a deeper story in my memory and in print. Other times, I make eye contact, smile and politely ask/gesture for a photograph.

Other times, when in the zone and feeling the comfort of the atmosphere, I shoot and shoot and keep shooting, moving my feet while snapping the shutter. I go with my instincts photographing, writing, traveling, and daily living.

Cameron Karsten

What’s the craziest or most inspiring encounter you’ve had in general?

Most inspiring moments are when I find myself in nature. I spent four weeks backpacking from Giri to Everest Base Camp alone, without a guide or porter. That time by myself was intense during the off-season. I met locals. I sat alone atop granite spires overlooking the Khumbu Valley. I walked through sun, wind, rain and snow. I sat with locals and heard their tales of The Yeti.

I bumped into Maoist rebels and experienced the tension of a violin string coarse thru my veins. And I drank chai with Royal Nepalese soldiers over conversation about the region’s struggles.

Those memories will live on forever.

What kit do you use / carry with you / can’t do without (camera make, lenses, flashguns etc.)?

Nikon for life. I used to carry two lenses, a 55-200mm Nikkor and a 28mm. Yet, I’ve liked the challenge of cutting out the zoom and forcing myself to get into the scene, closer and more intimate. Therefore, I’ve sold the 55-200mm and dove into the photograph with my 28mm.

Finally, what else are you working on right now and what are your ambitions for the future in terms of your photography work or anything else?

Currently, I’m finalizing a new photography website that will enable me to sell and distribute my work online to a wider audience, which can be found on PhotoShelter. This site is combined with new websites for my writing and multimedia projects. I’m off to East Africa in January 2010 for six months to document the visions and progress of various communities and nonprofit organizations through these mediums.

My ambitions are to continue creating a lifestyle of travel with photography, writing, and multimedia as an outlet to educate and bring awareness to the world about different cultures, their current issues, and how we can preserve their environments for sustainable well-being.

To see more of Cameron’s work visit his site, www.cameronkarsten.com

Cameron Karsten

10 Online Magazines That Survived (& will continue to survive) the Writer’s Market

It is often daunting to think of presenting your personality to an audience, whether in the form of art such as painting, drawing or sculpting, down to the very basics of speaking a hand-written speech to a rabble of family, friends and strangers.  You express.  You divulge in a passion.  But are you ready to share?

As a writer, you are an artist with words.  They are your tools like a paintbrush is to a painter.  And language is your color palette; a vast choice of styles, techniques and individuality.  Once the order is composed, the structure aligned and your voice vibrant with character, it’s time to reveal your creation and share.

But how?  What’s next is the submission process to expose your artistic skill as a writer to audiences that will gain a new perspective and understanding, and hopefully appreciate your abilities.  Below is a list of publications that cater to the adventurous, the culture dwelling, and the storyteller of the senses—lived by travelers, composed by travelers and read by travelers.  These peoples are your friends, and they’re hear to assist you in your passion.

Action 1 (Mandagho-Peace)

Travel Explorations
Want to expose the fearful?  TravelExplorations.com is an online magazine devoted to shedding grassroots light where there is media darkness, revealing a culture from behind the iron curtain by true explorers.  Real travel.  Real adventure.  Real investigation by undercurrent people.  No mainstream bullshit here.
Editor(s): Geir Moen & Stein Morten Lund
Submissions: Compose an article about your adventure, an exploration—a journey into the heart of “darkness”.  Spice it with your soul at 1,000-1,500 words and email the symphonic words to Stein@TravelExplorations.com

Inside Out Magazine

By backpackers and the independent wayfarers, this bimonthly publication is for those who prefer the new versus the old.  Instead of consuming, collecting and rotting within the four walls of daily routine, sell your shit, hit the road with a new lifestyle on your back and begin exploring the cultures of this planet.  Ready to share?  InsideOutMag.com
Editor(s): Helene Goupil
Submissions: Briefs, tips and facts; destinations to languages, health to the traveler’s life—pull your words into a structured alignment for the budgeteer and send it off to submissions@insideoutmag.com.  Upon publication you’ll receive $10-$20 for your expenses.

Go World Travel Magazine

“Honest, down-to-earth descriptive writing” is the focus of this magazine.  Prizing intelligent composition, GoWorldTravel.com wants more than the How to get there and the What to do.  They want the picture of a back alley in Fez painted in twilight mood and a spice market within Kashmir to tickle your nose and water your eyes—all with words.
Editor(s): Mim Swartz, Rachel Barbara & Sheri L. Thompson
Submissions: Travel within the last two years is good for description, so recall your memory or sculpt a new journey within a 500-1200 word article.  Check your facts before shipping it to submissions@goworldpublishing.com.  Include article location in the e-mail subject line with your pasted manuscript, word count, brief author biography and whether images are available.  $35-$50 upon publication.

The Cultured Traveler
Whether freelance or tour host/travel agency, TheCulturedTraveler.com works around a monthly editorial calendar with theme-based publications searching for stories about the unexpected, the bizarre and the eclectic.  Not only anecdotes, but facts, tips and resources are necessary for the all-around traveler’s account.
Editor(s): Patrick Totty
Submissions: With the regal elegance of an opera performance, conduct your language into a 1,000-3,000 word count and invest in the guidelines.  Specifics here, so follow the formats on the submissions page and prepare for edits, rewrites and a $25 sum after publication.

Travel Outward
Looking for a story of the senses portraying a unique destination combined with history, culture, people and your own melodic adventure?  TravelOutward.com is a place for your craft to evolve, develop and be shared via publication, focusing on that preferred destination.  This is not a place to divulge romantic sojourns in the arms of the jet stream’s cherubs, but a community narrowed down to intelligence and knowledge.
Editor(s): Laurence Constable & Harman Stinson
Submissions: Features from 1,500-2,500 words should be attached to an email to Travel Outward as a Word doc. that includes a brief bio with “Submission” in the subject line.

Devotion 3 (Statues-of-Chinta)

EscapeArtist Travel Magazine
Not for the faint hearted, EscapeArtist.com seeks the daring, the challenging, those who live, travel and express on the edge…possibly the cusp of insanity.  But the publication is not out to offend, simply to present intelligent writing about culture with history, purpose and flares of risqué.
Editor(s): n/a
Submissions: An article between 1,500-3,000 words flavored with the ribald and the daring that highlights a cultural expedition through the heart of the unknown.  Should be completed and either faxed or sent via email.  Check the Article Submission page for specifics.

TravelMag
Welcome to the worldwide writer’s circle of fellow explorers.  Set up as an online magazine, TravelMag.co.uk wants whatever you got, as long as it reads well, structured with a unique perspective and offers an angle that is possibly more esoteric than your standard publication.
Editor(s): Jack Barker
Submissions:  Travel away, then write away.  If your article is interesting, unique, lively, filled with senses and intelligently composed at an approximate word count of 2,000 send ‘err off in an email with accompanying photographs to ed@travelmag.co.uk

InTheFray Magazine
At InTheFray.org, writers are provided with a plethora of categories from reporting international news to travel narratives and today’s evolving art world.  This publication seeks everything that is cleverly written and allows readers to be a part of a progressive evolution.  Race, gender, activism, sexuality and ecological impacts are center stage.
Editor(s): Vivian Wagner, Annette Marie Hyder, Anja Tranovich, Matthew Heller, Liz Yuan & Naomi Ishiguro
Submissions: Check out the various sections featured in the publication, format your article to its specifics and submit your finalized piece including full name, email address and phone number to the designated editor of your selected category.  Pay ranges between $20-$75.

Get Lost Magazine
Seeking travel, adventure, natural history and lifestyle writing, GetLostMagazine.com is an award-winner with stories ranging from the basic facts and tips to the more daring adventure of description and risk.  Who eats acorns?  One man does, and he chose to write about it, discovering flavors akin to billy goat semen.  Not sure about either of those tastes.
Editor(s): Leslie Strom
Submissions:  Articles should be under 1,000 words and fall into the distinguished character of “top-notch”.  Paste article into the body of an email with accompanying photographs formatted as .jpeg or .gif and send to lstrom@getlostmagazine.com.  Don’t expect payment upon publication.

In The Know Traveler
You wanna be In The Know.  Readers wanna be In The Know.  So get In The Know and write to inspire.  InTheKnowTraveler.com’s number one priority is to inspire travel with acceptance and appreciation.  Readers of this online magazine want to learn about the world’s diverse cultures and those funky destinations, not in investigative reporting, but in the skillfully written articles about your traveling.
Editor(s): n/a
Submission: Correct grammar and punctuation, somewhere between 400-600 words, and send it on in with photographs to editor@intheknowtraveler.com.  Time to get published, but before you receive a whopping $10, be prepared to edit to the editors liking.  Then you’re In The Know.

Pain 1 (Thoughts-of-Another-Home)

Advice?  Keep traveling.  Keep writing.  Keep photographing.  Keep doing whatever you’re doing as long as you’re happy and respecting those around you.  You’ll be in the know no matter who publishes you.  Such is the traveler’s life.