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

Vodou Footprints: GEO Magazin Publication/TearSheets

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Thrilled to share the current issue of GEO Magazin, printed and distributed in Germany and parts of Europe. To secure this story, I traveled to New York to meet with GEO’s editors and presented a printed portfolio of my travels in West Africa exploring Vodou culture. Following up, I expressed the fact that this type of documentation of Vodou has never been done before, shooting both stills and motion within a long-form multimedia project covering the origins and evolution of one of the oldest and most misunderstood religion in the world.

The following are tearsheets from the current article, along with a video produced by GEO for the iPad edition and website of video footage shot while in Benin and Togo, West Africa accompanying a photographer’s interview discuss the project and experience within the culture.

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Vodou Footprints: Photo Essay (Haiti)

A Haitian bathes and prays in the waterfall of Saut d'Eau during the annual pilgrimage.

A Haitian bathes and prays in the waterfall of Saut d’Eau during the annual pilgrimage.

Haiti is a magical island with a heart of generosity and resilience. It is a nation of peoples who were sent to their new home in the iron shackles and rusted chains, having crossed the tumultuous Atlantic Ocean in the bowels of wooden hulls, from a homeland of ancestral purity. The darkest hour of humanity was the Western slave trade, taking tribes from Guinea to the New World. One of their first stops, Hispaniola (Haiti). And there, centuries later, occurred the world’s only successful slave revolt. This, among many other feats of survival, including buckling before the atrocities of successive dictatorships, earthshaking natural disasters and a hopeless material poverty wrought with the inhumane forces of international policies and internal governmental corruption, couldn’t have happened without Haitians’ spirituality, the worship of the Loas, the great Les Mysteres, from the motherland of Africa.

A man spreads his arms under the falls of Saut d'Eau.

A man spreads his arms under the falls of Saut d’Eau.

 

A pilgrim at Saut d'Eau sits still in the rushing waters.

A pilgrim at Saut d’Eau sits still in the rushing waters.

 

Two pilgrims bathe with soap near the falls of Saut d'Eau.

Two pilgrims bathe with soap near the falls of Saut d’Eau.

 

A man sells candles for pilgrims at the waterfalls of Saut d’Eau.

A man sells candles for pilgrims at the waterfalls of Saut d’Eau.

 

A man finds stillness among the throngs of pilgrims who often get completely nude to bathe in the waters.

A man finds stillness among the throngs of pilgrims who often get completely nude to bathe in the waters.

 

Pilgrims gather to bathe, scrub and offer prayers to the Virgin Mary and vodou spirits Iwa Damballah (the snake) and his wife Ayido Wedo (the rainbow).

Pilgrims gather to bathe, scrub and offer prayers to the Virgin Mary and vodou spirits Iwa Damballah (the snake) and his wife Ayido Wedo (the rainbow).

 

In a moment of solitude, a pilgrim enjoys the cool healing waters of Saut d'Eau.

In a moment of solitude, a pilgrim enjoys the cool healing waters of Saut d’Eau.

 

A young man prays before the waterfalls of Saut d'Eau in the Artibonite Valley.

A young man prays before the waterfalls of Saut d’Eau in the Artibonite Valley.

 

A young boy is bathed by his parents in the sacred waters of Saut d'Eau. He will also be scrubbed with a mixture of herbs including parsley and tree leaves believed to cleanse the body of sins that also bring good luck.

A young boy is bathed by his parents in the sacred waters of Saut d’Eau. He will also be scrubbed with a mixture of herbs including parsley and tree leaves believed to cleanse the body of sins that also bring good luck.

 

A man climbs the slick rocks to retrieve water from the waterfall to bring with him on his return home.

A man climbs the slick rocks to retrieve water from the waterfall to bring with him on his return home.

 

A pilgrim cleanses and scrubs himself of his sins in the waters of Saut d'Eau.

A pilgrim cleanses and scrubs himself of his sins in the waters of Saut d’Eau.

 

A young woman goes through a consultation with a vodou Mambo. Haitians visit Houngans or Mambos, vodou priests, in search of health, happiness and prosperity.

A young woman goes through a consultation with a vodou Mambo. Haitians visit Houngans or Mambos, vodou priests, in search of health, happiness and prosperity.

 

Cemeteries are both part of the Catholic and vodou traditions. For vodouisants, many of the celebrations surrounding the dead are held at cemeteries, as well as the much misconceived zombie phenomenon.

Cemeteries are both part of the Catholic and vodou traditions. For vodouisants, many of the celebrations surrounding the dead are held at cemeteries, as well as the much misconceived zombie phenomenon.

 

Charcoal is a huge commodity for the Haitian economy, yet as of 2006 there was only 2% of Haiti's original forests remaining. From the city streets to the country roads, charcoal can be found in large white canvas sacks sold by the "marmit" and not by weight. A marmit is approximately the size of your average coffee can, which in Haiti is the equivalent of about $0.60 USD.

Charcoal is a huge commodity for the Haitian economy, yet as of 2006 there was only 2% of Haiti’s original forests remaining. From the city streets to the country roads, charcoal can be found in large white canvas sacks sold by the “marmit” and not by weight. A marmit is approximately the size of your average coffee can, which in Haiti is the equivalent of about $0.60 USD.

 

Construction vehicles and earthmovers dot the landscape from the failed efforts of international aid organizations to rebuild Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake. The earthquake registered a 7.0 magnitude, killing unconfirmed citizens. Estimates range widely from 100,000 to 316,000, leaving families ruined, debilitating the infrastructure and crippling an already suffering economy.

Construction vehicles and earthmovers dot the landscape from the failed efforts of international aid organizations to rebuild Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake. The earthquake registered a 7.0 magnitude, killing unconfirmed citizens. Estimates range widely from 100,000 to 316,000, leaving families ruined, debilitating the infrastructure and crippling an already suffering economy.

 

Haitians collect water and wash laundry in a dry river bed north of Port-au-Prince in the Artibonite Valley.

Haitians collect water and wash laundry in a dry river bed north of Port-au-Prince in the Artibonite Valley.

 

A view of the Port-au-Prince slum Jalousie, just above the affluent neighborhood of Petionville. Visible walls within the slum were painted a rainbow of colors to make the hillside more beautiful for Petionville residents.

A view of the Port-au-Prince slum Jalousie, just above the affluent neighborhood of Petionville. Visible walls within the slum were painted a rainbow of colors to make the hillside more beautiful for Petionville residents.

 

Sanba Zao is an internationally-renowned Haitian drummer with a rife knowledge of the history of vodou drums. Each drum has a specific role and is the key to calling Les Mysteres from across the waters in Africa to the island of Hispaniola.

Sanba Zao is an internationally-renowned Haitian drummer with a rife knowledge of the history of vodou drums. Each drum has a specific role and is the key to calling Les Mysteres from across the waters in Africa to the island of Hispaniola.

 

The Virgin Mary resides within an altar of a vodou temple, representing the facade Catholicism has played for the very survival of Haitian vodou.

The Virgin Mary resides within an altar of a vodou temple, representing the facade Catholicism has played for the very survival of Haitian vodou.

 

Catholicism and Haitian vodou are syncretic religions. Catholicism acted as the facade during the era of slavery, vodouisants utilizing the religion's idols to hide the true rituals of their African ancestors.

Catholicism and Haitian vodou are syncretic religions. Catholicism acted as the facade during the era of slavery, vodouisants utilizing the religion’s idols to hide the true rituals of their African ancestors.

 

A vodouisant prepares to receive the spirit Ogue Feray, the warrior spirit whose main color is red.

A vodouisant prepares to receive the spirit Ogue Feray, the warrior spirit whose main color is red.

 

The houngan Sanba Zelle excites his congregation at his hounfour in Montagne Noire outside of Port-au-Prince. Haitian vodou is as much a party for the community as it is a religious celebration. Vodouisants gather to sing and dance, shedding the hardships they face in a post-earthquake Haiti. As of 2011, 61.7% of the population lives below the poverty line.

The houngan Sanba Zelle excites his congregation at his hounfour in Montagne Noire outside of Port-au-Prince. Haitian vodou is as much a party for the community as it is a religious celebration. Vodouisants gather to sing and dance, shedding the hardships they face in a post-earthquake Haiti. As of 2011, 61.7% of the population lives below the poverty line.

 

Vodouisants pray in congregation at Montagne Noire outside Port-au-Prince.

Vodouisants pray in congregation at Montagne Noire outside Port-au-Prince.

 

A vodouisant in attendance goes into trance as the congregation calls Les Mysteres from across the waters in Africa by the sound of the drums, the singing and pure merriment of the people. Vodou spirits are believed to have been mortals in past eras. By entering the body of a human, trance is the spirit's way of enjoying the pleasantries of humanity once again.

A vodouisant in attendance goes into trance as the congregation calls Les Mysteres from across the waters in Africa by the sound of the drums, the singing and pure merriment of the people. Vodou spirits are believed to have been mortals in past eras. By entering the body of a human, trance is the spirit’s way of enjoying the pleasantries of humanity once again.

 

A woman in trance by Ogue Feray embraces another vodouisant. When in trance, vodou spirits are looking to experience the physicality of humanity.

A woman in trance by Ogue Feray embraces another vodouisant. When in trance, vodou spirits are looking to experience the physicality of humanity.

 

Two congregation members in trance embrace at a hounfour in Montagne Noire, Port-au-Prince.

Two congregation members in trance embrace at a hounfour in Montagne Noire, Port-au-Prince.

 

Sanba Zelle is a Houngan, or Vodou priest, leading his community of vodou practitioners in Montagne Noir outside of Port-au-Prince. As a Houngan he is a leader who contacts Les Mysteres from across the waters in Guinea (Africa), helping his people find health, happiness and prosperity through Vodou.

Sanba Zelle is a Houngan, or Vodou priest, leading his community of vodou practitioners in Montagne Noir outside of Port-au-Prince. As a Houngan he is a leader who contacts Les Mysteres from across the waters in Guinea (Africa), helping his people find health, happiness and prosperity through Vodou.

 

A sculpture by André Eugène. All of the skulls in his work are real human skulls. I asked him how he was able to get a hold of the skulls and he said, “Many things are easy to come by in Haiti. All my work is recycled. You ask for a human skull, you can easily get one.”

A sculpture by André Eugène. All of the skulls in his work are real human skulls. I asked him how he was able to get a hold of the skulls and he said, “Many things are easy to come by in Haiti. All my work is recycled. You ask for a human skull, you can easily get one.”

 

André Eugène, founder of Atis Rezistans in downtown Port-au-Prince believes that Haitian culture must be preserved, from its past to present. Vodou is a part of Haitian culture. It is said that 95% of Haitians are Christian while 100% are vodou.

André Eugène, founder of Atis Rezistans in downtown Port-au-Prince believes that Haitian culture must be preserved, from its past to present. Vodou is a part of Haitian culture. It is said that 95% of Haitians are Christian while 100% are vodou.

 

A sculpture of Osama bin Laden from recycled bits by André Eugène, founder of Atis Rezistans on Grand Rue in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

A sculpture of Osama bin Laden from recycled bits by André Eugène, founder of Atis Rezistans on Grand Rue in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

 

Vodou Footprints is an intercontinental multimedia project that traces this millennia-old belief system from its roots in West Africa to the shores of the New World and beyond. For most people, the word “voodoo” conjures up images of needle-pierced dolls, imbued with dark magic, made to harm unsuspecting targets. This project shatters these narrow misconceptions by documenting the truth, both positive and negative, about the clandestine practices that make up Vodou. 

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Malecón Nights

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The thrill of travel is not just the location, change of weather, exotic food, cold crisp lager or sweet watered-down poolside cocktail; and neither that departure from the doldrums of a 9-5er as adventurer enters the foray of a new culture. In large part, it is the people and the very fine reclusive act of people-watching. Amble to a reposed locale, with or without inclement weather, put on your sunnies and take in the forms, motions, gestures and secret underlying nature of humanity’s greatest gift: the fleeting expression.

For this, I headed to the great malecón – Mazatlan, Mexico’s fine gift to locals and foreigners alike. The malecón is a boardwalk stretching a total of 13 miles along Pacific sand and stone, one of the world’s longest waterfront escapades. By daytime it’s sparsely populated, the heat and harsh bite of sun repelling personnel. But by night, as twilight dims, those heavenly swathes of orange, yellow and pink fade into sheer depths of purple, the individual and group collide along the concrete seawall. There are walkers. There are joggers. There are bikes, dogs, merchant stalls, blustery palms and ephemeral statues of a past Carnaval: el malecón.

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The Last American Homesteaders: Pt II

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Country living is dynamic, inside the cabin and out. Things don’t appear the same as if you’re living in an urban environment. Instead of concrete or brick foundations, walls are made of not just wood, but entire logs…big logs. And instead of finding house plants and framed pictures on these wall of beautiful distant locations, you’ll find what was once living in your yard stuffed, anthropomorphized and placed inside. Once again, country living is all about being in harmony, or being one, with nature, and then taking that to a new level.

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Sand rats are friendly despite their appearance once giving a human personality

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A coyote guarding the door

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A black bear and badger go head-to-head for a dead sand rat.

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Stepping outside you’ll spot a frozen land awaken as a river passes listlessly through the valley. Hints of pinks and oranges wash away the purples of night while geese begin to ruffle and hawks take flight. Another day in the country.

Next Post (Pt. III) –>

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The Last American Homesteaders: Pt I

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Life in the country is not an idealized peaceful existence unless you subscribe to the following as elements of such; 5AM start times to milk Daisy Bell the Cow, -5 degree temperatures while hopping on a quad with windchill factors in the -20s, your tears turning eyelashes into frozen shelves, your lips taut and crisp, ears and hands burning as if squeezed in a vice just before numbness sets in, and full days in the field, combing the backcountry for livestock and breaks in the fence line. Add to this clearing pathways of 50 foot toppled trees using a 32 inch chain saw or employing the exhaust of your Polaris’ engine to warm freezing hands after removing three inch thick ice sheets from the numerous watering troughs the cattle need to survive during these cold winter months.

To the ranchers and farmers who thrive out here around the John Day river near Spray OR on the east side of the Cascade mountains, these elements feed their deep spiritual and physical connection to the land. Our rewards for their sacrifice are fresh fruit, vegetables, grains and grass fed beef. Their rewards though are profound and pure. Fresh unpasteurized milk, with warm chicken and duck eggs, and turkeys for Thanksgiving. Here life is shared with elk herds that roam the pristine hills, with bears that hibernate in their caves while cougars and bobcats stalk deer and other game through the sparse pine forests of the hillsides and valleys. The setting sun with its darkening sky reveal, in this high desert, an Atlas of stars, shining with a native brilliance undimmed by the light pollution we’ve all grown accustomed to. A moody fog, lit by that brilliance, courses along the path of the frozen John Day below. As day turns to night, the night crawlers fall into their sleep as the daytrippers awaken.

All around the sounds of the natural world play unspoiled by human industry. The meter of this hard but simple life is not kept by a clock, rather, by the dawn’s early light, the shrunken shadows of high noon, and finally their elongated statures as the sun begins to set are, the timepieces of these hills. As the sky’s hues expand and intensify at sunset and the temperature begins to plummet, the body’s hunger will be satisfied in a kitchen where a pot of steaming milk with honey and spices warms and perfumes the air. Here is a glimpse of life in the high country of Spray, Oregon.

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Daisy Bell the Cow being milked in the barn just after 5AM

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At -5 degrees, this 2,000lb mare had no issue watching the morning sun rise

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Tom the Turkey was the stud

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Micheal F. starts the day with his wife at 5AM and as soon as there is light he is off into the backcountry. Micheal provides full-care to ranch owners; managing and operating a ranch, and learning new ways to evolve the farmer’s marketplace.

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Clearing watering troughs requires thick skin, but the breath and the Polaris offer enough relief. The daily high while in Spray was 10 degrees.

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The John Day River below

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Providing mineral and salt blocks in the backcountry

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Juniper trees are weeds in the high country. They are clear cut to make room for grasses in order to form pasture.

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Sunset in the backcountry pasture at an elevation of 4000 feet

Next Post (Pt. II) –>

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IRC’s Winter Party in Seattle, WA

International Rescue Committee's Winter Party in Seattle, WA

Seattle’s chapter of the International Rescue Committee celebrated a gift-exchange between refugees and sponsors this passed week. Families from around the world got together for gifts, games and activities, filling the auditorium with smiles, laughter and a few cries from the overwhelmed little ones.

International Rescue Committee's Winter Party in Seattle, WA

International Rescue Committee's Winter Party in Seattle, WA

International Rescue Committee's Winter Party in Seattle, WA

International Rescue Committee's Winter Party in Seattle, WA

International Rescue Committee's Winter Party in Seattle, WA

International Rescue Committee's Winter Party in Seattle, WA

International Rescue Committee's Winter Party in Seattle, WA

International Rescue Committee's Winter Party in Seattle, WA

International Rescue Committee's Winter Party in Seattle, WA

International Rescue Committee's Winter Party in Seattle, WA

International Rescue Committee's Winter Party in Seattle, WA

International Rescue Committee's Winter Party in Seattle, WA

IRC teams provide health care, infrastructure, learning and economic support to people in 40 countries, with special programs designed for women and children. Every year, the IRC resettles thousands of refugees in 22 U.S. cities.

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STORMR Deer Camp: Into the Hoh Rainforest (Pt. IV)

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When there is a river nearby, there must be fish. Always bring your fly rod, seek the thrill and reel in those steelhead. Somewhere up the S. Fork Hoh River on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State on a Stormr assignment.

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STORMR Deer Camp: Into the Hoh Rainforest (Pt. III)

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Nature is stealth. Walk out into the woods and count the number of wild animals spotted. Many are heard, but few are seen. However there are eyes watching you and scents tracing your every movement. Stalking and hunting a wild animal is one of the most difficult thing to do, especially in the shadows of the Hoh Rainforest, but the rewards are one that will feed your family for months to follow. Practice the art of patience, endurance and awareness while chilled temperatures permeate the saturated environments of the Olympic Peninsula. On the hunt with STORMR foul-weather gear.

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Life by Water: Ambergris Caye, Belize

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And this was a lot of fun!

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Cameron Karsten Photography