Interview by Claire Sykes. Home page cover photo © Cameron Karsten
Curious and diverse, Cameron Karsten, of Bainbridge Island, Washington, has always been interested in a million different things, and after exploring and experiencing many of them, he arrived at photography—the perfect vehicle to transport his eclecticism. His commercial photography shares the ride with his social documentary work with images that range from portraits and product shots to those of ocean acidification and Vodou. In October 2013, he attended the prestigious Eddie Adams Workshop, “an intense four-day gathering of the top photography professionals, along with 100 carefully selected students . . . chosen based on the merit of their portfolios,” reads the Workshop’s website.
In February 2015, Karsten talked with me about his time at the Workshop and how it stretched his own creative boundaries, while spawning an exciting new body of photojournalistic work. His personal projects and client jobs have him traveling the globe and climbing mountains. But even if he’s just walking into a downtown office with his camera gear, it’s still thrilling for this young photographer, who is clearly enjoying growing his business, developing his talents, making connections and pushing himself to expand the limits of the photography industry.
© Cameron Karsten
It’s quite an honor to be selected for the Eddie Adams Workshop. What does it mean to you to have participated?
The Eddie Adams Workshop is completely photojournalism-based, so when I was accepted, I was surprised. Generally, when I share with people that my work is a mix of commercial photography and reportage or photodocumentary, I often hear, “That’s not a possible career,” or “It’s really difficult to be a jack of all trades.” I do find it challenging. They’re two totally different philosophies, with two different ways of telling stories. Commercial advertising photography can involve huge crews and equipment, with hours of image manipulation. And with reportage, you can feel like the lone wolf, and what you see in the camera is what the photograph is, taking into consideration the importance of composition, subject and available light. So the Workshop was an affirmation I can do both types of photography. And that felt good.
What did you gain from the Workshop?
The Eddie Adams Workshop brings together a community of people out in the world making incredible images of things that should be remembered. It was amazing to sit by Kira Pollack, Director of Photography and Visual Enterprises at Time, and Lynsey Adarrio, photojournalist, as well as photographers Gerd Ludwig and Marco Grob. At the Workshop, a hundred emerging photographers are matched one-on-one with a professional influence-maker, a photo editor or photographer, so there’s a mass of talent. Hours into the night they’d share with us their stories and where the industry was headed, and throughout, we’d have the opportunity to ask them questions. There are all these individuals there who you can make connections and build relationships with, and obviously hope to work with. You realize that, as a documentary photographer, you’re not a lone wolf. Maybe you’re out in the world alone working on a project by yourself, but you have the influences of all these image-makers supporting you, pushing you to dig deeper and create something that has never been done before.
What inspired you most about being in their company?
Obviously, there’s this feeling of competition; I’m a competitive person and like to feel challenged. Today in the world of photography, videography and storytelling, whether advertising or reportage, photographers are creating multimedia work, shooting video and directing short documentaries. These were introduced and shared at the Eddie Adams Workshop, along with that drive to push the storytelling industry, realizing there’s so much more in this career, thanks in large part to technology’s advancement. That was hugely inspiring, understanding what the next level of being a photographer is really about.
You have to do more than still photography. You have to learn how things move, and capture that motion on video. It’s not about freezing one still image, but how can you make it more interactive and engaging for the audience. It’s about sharing that feeling or moment with sights and sounds, and how someone moves in the wind. I was already heading in this direction, before the Workshop; I was embracing video and audio, trying to get jobs working as a camera operator or grip, to be in that field to learn and understand what was happening. At the Eddie Adams Workshop, listening to people talk about this kind of storytelling helped turn that switch all the way on.
What happened when you flipped that switch?
A new project originated for me at the Workshop, called “The Vodou Trail.” I met a travel photographer there named Constantine Savvides [www.constantinesavvides.com], whose work focuses on different cultures. So in talking about all our experiences and the people we met, we got on to Vodou. It was something neither of us knew about, beyond Hollywood’s version of people going into trances and sticking pins into “Voodoo” dolls. Neither of us has been to Haiti, and we still haven’t. But we started investigating and learning about Vodou, first Haitian Vodou then Vodou in the States. It literally took us to West Africa, the cradle of Vodou, two months later, to begin this long-form multimedia project on the origins and evolution of Vodou. We want to create an encyclopedic understanding of Vodou, complete with an in-depth online interactive website, Taschen-quality book, exhibitions and documentary film. Vodou is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented belief systems in the world and is the official religion of Benin, a small West African country. We want to tell the story of Vodou from its origins in Benin as it traveled westward via the slave-trade route to the New World. Where is Vodou today? And how does it provide for the people of this ancient belief system?
In January 2014, we spent four weeks in Benin and Togo, exploring Vodou culture. From our research, through books and online searches, we found places we needed to go to—famous Vodou shrines or fetish markets—and hired a driver and guide and began exploring. We went to these locales to meet people and find stories. We asked around and shared what we were seeking. Everyone was so grateful that here were these two Westerners who wanted to learn about Vodou, so they’d tell us of an upcoming ceremony and take us there. We’d have to get permission from the village kings or elders, but eventually we’d be invited to join the ceremonies and photograph the events. Or, we’d be walking down the street in the early morning or evenings—because it’s brutally hot there in January and almost impossible to be out in the middle of the day carrying gear—and hear music. We’d follow our ears and come upon local Vodou ceremonies, people having been up all night dressed in costumes and masks hundreds of years old, dancing, beating drums and singing in unison, praying to their different Vodou gods, sacrificing animals for the things all of us seek—good fortune, health and happiness. It broke through our linear thinking of what it means to be spiritual or how humans believe, think, act and move. And here it was all happening in one of the most rural parts of the world, where everyone has cell phones, yet they still practice an ancient religion and find pure joy in it.
Constantine and I will spend the next ten to 15 years going every year for a month to different Vodou hot spots around the world, creating not just stills, but also video, audio and traditional writing to create this encyclopedic understanding of Vodou within our modern world. Next is Haiti in July 2015 where we’ll let “the trail” unfold itself. We’ll be there to discover, to learn and to document “The Vodou Trail.” This past year, we applied for a couple of grants and we’re actively promoting “The Vodou Trail” to publications like Geo, National Geographic, COLORS, Washington Post and Photo Evidence, to name a few, trying to find a wider audience and fund the next installment of this project. The goal, after a few more trips, is to develop an interactive app like National Geographic’s, complete with stories, photos, videos and animation. We want to find a team of website developers, publishers and storytellers to make this story as big as it is, in order to educate people about this incredibly magical and mysterious religion called Vodou.
© Cameron Karsten
“The Vodou Trail” is yet another expression of your eclecticism. What is it in you that makes room for such diversity?
I’ve never been able to do just one thing, focusing on it for a long period of time. When I was growing up, living on Bainbridge Island, I had odd jobs—not photographic work—as a landscape artist, restaurant server, boat repairman and whatever else I could find. I could never do a nine-to-five job; it’s not within my bones. I want to keep learning, and that’s why I love photography. In modern photography technology is advancing so rapidly, as well as different platforms for sharing work and tools. Every day, I’m learning about a new camera or new ways to create a community of people and share work. The randomness of imagery I like to make is people photography within broader cultural issues like Vodou, or a local project about ocean acidification. My work is eclectic because I want to keep learning about our world, whether it’s an environmental issue, a belief system or someone’s new product; or how a glass artist blows glass and the technicality of photographing glass art and being able to work with that person to create images. It keeps me engaged and interested. And I’m inspired by other people and what they’re passionate about.
How did you first get into photography?
At Occidental College in LA, I studied philosophy and Spanish, and took this Buddhism class. That was in 2003. The professor had such an amazing air about him, and it inspired me to attain that same sense of calm and peace. I ended up traveling for six years around the world, four to six months at a time, then I’d come home for five months or so, figure out where to go next and prepare for the next trip. My initial draw was Buddhism, and wanting to learn more about what I’d learned in this class, beyond reading books and writing papers. So I went to Southeast Asia, and fell in love with the culture and people. I started in Bangkok, Thailand, then Cambodia, Vietnam, India and Nepal. I spent eight months in India; that’s where I garnered my love of the unknown. I was traveling alone with a small backpack. I was very nomadic. I had no idea what the next street corner or day would bring me. While traveling, I wanted to be a writer, so I journaled, blogged and shared stories, and shot with a Nikon film camera. It was through sharing on my blog that people started suggesting that I post photographs. Using a digital camera, I eventually did.
How did your photography develop from here into a thriving career?
With over six years of traveling, writing and taking pictures, the storytelling turned more toward images than words. A few years later, in 2010, my girlfriend, and now wife, Lily Karsten came up with the idea of traveling to East Africa. We went to Ethiopia and volunteered at an orphanage for a month. Then I offered my photographic services to a nonprofit called Global Team for Local Initiatives, [an NGO that works with the 16 local tribes of South Omo in Ethiopia, helping them adapt to a changing, modern world while maintaining traditional values]. It was an amazing experience, with such beautiful people living life in this stunning culture. From there, for the next several months, we went to Kenya and then Djibouti before going back to Kenya. Within that timeframe, Lily’s grandparents’ health deteriorated and her grandfather passed away. This was heartbreaking for her and her family, so our six-month backpacking excursion was cut short to three, having to bypass Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda in order to fly back home to be with family.
After I got home to Seattle, I hooked up with the commercial photography industry there and I started my own business assisting other photographers. Seattle has a small photography community, and once you get in there working with lighting and being willing to stand out in the pouring rain and not complain, word gets around and you start assisting more people. Via them and other clients they were working for, I found I really wanted to embrace this side of the photography profession, so I enrolled at Seattle Central Creative Academy, which focuses on commercial photography and graphic design, to get additional training. The two years I was there, from 2011 to 2013, I learned all about the business aspect of photography, and making ordinary objects look extraordinary with lighting and styling. While I was in school, I developed my skill sets and further developed my own business by promoting my work and learning what clients were looking for, following the current trends, and applying those to my schoolwork. It was a real benefit to have the experience of working on my own and knowing what I wanted from that and my career. By the time I graduated, I went right into working, still assisting other photographers but also shooting on my own.
© Cameron Karsten
Who and/or what have been the greatest influences on you and your work over the years?
It began with the desire to travel. I was born in Southern California and grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and by the age of ten we were living on Bainbridge Island, where I live now. My mom was a single mom who took us to as many places as she could in the summer and during the school year. We did a lot of traveling. We went to Mexico, France, Spain, Switzerland, Italy. Living on the West Coast, we went camping at Zion, Bryce Canyon and Yosemite National Parks. It was great that she was able to do that, and believe that travel should be a part of our education and childhood, which implanted that travel bug in me at an early age. So my mother is a definite influence. Also, when I was a kid, from five to ten, I remember going to our grandparents’ house and they had this glass-encased cherry-walnut cabinet filled with archival National Geographic magazines. And I remember every time, going to their house, I’d sit for hours flipping through the magazines, seeing strange cultures and half-naked people wearing costumes and animal skins. I was enthralled. This was a huge influence for me.
We all have those pivotal moments and we can choose to walk through that doorway, and that was one. I wanted to go out and explore the world with my own two eyes, and build my own experiences. As soon as I was out of high school, I had that desire to live differently and see unique aspects of the world I’d only read about and seen in National Geographic and the like. That really influenced my vision, how I saw things, and I wanted to share that. Then the Eddie Adams Workshop was a huge influence on my photographic career, as well as going to photography school to take the time to really study my craft.
You’re also an important influence for budding photographers. When you’re invited by Seattle Central Creative Academy to talk about your experiences as a professional commercial and documentary photographer, what do you tell students?
Yeh, it’s great to give back to my photography school, to those classes that helped me get to where I am, today. I say to students: Photograph the things you love and that bring you happiness. It shouldn’t be about the final image, but rather the experience you’re having with that product or person. So by shooting what you love, that gives so much more weight, personally, to your life and what you do, and only enhances your appreciation for whatever subject you’re photographing. And always try to see your subject differently from how you’d normally see it.
Since graduating from Seattle Central Creative Academy, your business rapidly grew in just a few short years. How do you promote your photography?
For “The Vodou Trail” project, I send emails and printed mailings to big-fish magazines like National Geographic, Geo and Time. But most of it’s been word of mouth. I’ve done a few portfolio reviews, and from connections I’ve made at those, emailing someone cold, networking and even just talking about my work with someone at a bar or a meeting for a different project, whether in New York, San Francisco or LA, I’ll shoot an email to people and ask to meet for 15 minutes. I love face-to-face conversation. And I love printed work, so I’ll always have a printed portfolio with me so they can feel the paper and see the inks. Some never answer my emails, but generally five out of 20 do, and meeting with just one is better than zero. It challenges me to stick my neck out there. I’m not a gregarious person, I’m more internal, and it forces me to talk about my work with someone I admire within the industry, and express my interest in wanting to join their tribe.
Your clientele includes STORMR, The Nature Conservancy, Seattle Colleges and Hana Skincare. That’s quite a variety. What do you look for in those you choose to work with?
I love traveling, outdoors and adventure, and want new experiences and challenges, so I’ve been steering my work more towards this outdoor genre. But even someone’s office can be an adventure, just getting there and setting up equipment in a new space. It’s almost the same as hiking a mountain to find the perfect viewpoint. I seek clients more interested in creating something different and new, and who trust me with my vision and skill to allow me to go out independently into the wilderness with models and merchandise, like I have with STORMR, a company that makes extreme-outdoor-sports apparel for freezing temperatures. They trusted me to go into Olympic National Park and to the Coast [both in Washington state], with the snags and craggy rocks, tumultuous ocean, huge trees and cliffs, and hike these trails and even bushwhack to get these epic shots of real-life hunters wearing their Neoprene® gear hunting buck. Even with the glass artist, let’s take it beyond shooting something against a white backdrop. Let’s make it more dramatic, with harsher shadows or bright highlights, rather than following your standard rulebook that says it needs to be within these color grades and scales. Let’s break the box open and push the work to a totally different feel.
© Cameron Karsten
What else do you offer your clients that other photographers may not?
I’m an extremely hard worker. I love what I do and I put that into my work. I know it’s not about me, either, when I’m working with the client; it’s about what the client needs. So my skills in communication and listening to their needs, and responding to that with my style of work, is how I believe I stand out. I’m flexible, easygoing, good-natured, and I always enjoy a challenge. I’m always wanting to do something new, better or different. And I’m really light on my feet. I’m able to move, literally, to look for different angles, and I’m willing to get dirty and keep shooting when it’s pouring down rain or getting dark. Or, let’s keep going up the hill and see what’s on the other side and carry whatever gear is necessary. If something breaks on the set or the sun isn’t where you want it to be, let’s problem solve, let’s figure it out, let’s find another way. And I do it calmly, coolly and collectedly. For bigger shoots with multiple people, there are the different personalities and emotions. Maybe someone experienced something bad or joyful that day that disrupts the shoot that I may have planned for a client. But I realize we’re all different, we’re all human, so I let people feel how they’re feeling, and also we have a job to do so let’s get it done.
What equipment do you use?
I could have a Polaroid or Instamatic or a $40,000 Phase One camera system. I have my wish list of things that would aid in my photography development and what I want to shoot. But in the end, it’s a few mechanical calculations and a push of a few buttons. Most of the time, I shoot with a Canon 5D MarkIII and use Zeiss lenses, with varying lighting and light modifiers. Each job calls for something different.
How do you prepare for a shoot?
Part of me wants to research my subject and get to know them, but the majority of me does not. I’ll do my research, but I also want to see this client or story with my own, fresh, innocent perspective, with an open heart and creative mind. It’s what I’m doing with the Vodou project. What’s making that project so amazing is the sense of the unknown. But if I’m photographing for a client, then obviously I’m having meetings with them and getting an understanding of what they’re looking for, and translating that with my artistic eye.
What do your clients see in your work?
I hope clients see my sense of adventure and endurance, not only in pushing my physical body, but also in pushing the limits of my vision while listening to what their goals are. They’re hiring me for what they expect, but also for something more than what they expect, something new.
What do you see as the common threads that run through all your work?
The honesty within the image or story. Stripping away any sort of barrier. Just having the intimate moments with the culture or the person, and creating a sense of who this person is, whatever they’re practicing or making. Or even with a product, making a piece of glass as fantastic as I can make it, showing the simplicity of ourselves and what we do and why it’s so enjoyable and so great. Also, I want to provoke a feeling, at the moment the person is having it, the same feeling the viewer will experience. And with each image, I try to make it look as natural as I see it, whether that’s with the ambient light on a reportage assignment or, with commercial work, using artificial light to create a natural mood, to make it not look like I’m in a studio with strobes and people watching. That’s what I strive toward.
What do you feel is the impact of your photographs on viewers?
I want people to appreciate our planet and the things we do on it. Nature is so fleeting, and there’s such a disconnect thinking that we’re not a part of it, when in fact we are. We’re beyond a part of it. We are creating it. All the work I do on location, I strive to show that connection, that intimacy, the reason to respect it and appreciate it. With all that’s going on in our world today with oil pipelines and politics, there’s got to be a way to share images and stories that inspire people to realize that planet Earth is not here for us to thrive off its resources. We’re just guests here. And if we want to keep enjoying hiking, the fresh air, cool raindrops on our faces and clean ocean beaches between our toes, we have to respect our surroundings and think about doing things differently. Look at Sabastião Salgado’s Genesis and photographers like Marcus Bleasdale who take a humanistic approach. These image-makers are changing the world, and I wish to do the same with each image I make. Even in my commercial work, whether of products, a dentist’s office or something built by someone’s own imagination, I think viewers see the honesty in my photographs, and what is true and awe-inspiring. The client wants to invoke a sense of trust, or health commitment or community, so in working with them, I’m supporting all that, as well as providing visual interest.
What does your photography give to you?
We as humans can do so much good. We have that potential for creativity, health, community and well-being. This, I think, is what photography brings to me. It also gives me something new every day. As a freelancer, I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I might have a job cancelled or get called to do another bid. The sense of the unknown is what keeps me engaged, and interested in wanting to continue to grow my business and develop my skills as a photographer; and have opportunities to go places I’ve never been or have experiences I’ve never had. That gives me a sense of joy and accomplishment and spontaneity. And it feeds my soul to give back and inspire others to feel good about what they do.