The Book Passage in Corte Madera, California holds an annual Travel Writers and Photographers conference that is considered one of the most informative and fun conferences in the travel industry today. Accomplished writers and photographers from all over the U.S. gather to teach and schmooze for four days, talking about the craft of adventure, drinking, traveling and storytelling. This year I had the pleasure of speaking with National Geographic photographer Catherine Karnow. She shared her personal and professional views on photography and the meaning of her work in Vietnam, a legacy that, to some extent, she inherited from her father, Stanley Karnow. Catherine recently published Vietnam: 25 Years Documenting a Changing Country, now on sale at The Book Passage in Corte Madera. She’ll be talking about her book at the Corte Madera store on January 10th at 1 pm.
This past weekend, a few photographers told me that for them, photography is a calling. Is it for you?
Sometimes I feel like I married my high school love, that is, photography. As a young photographer I was greatly inspired by August Sander, Mary Ellen Mark and various Magnum photographers, like Marc Riboud, Bruce Davidson, Rene Burri and others.
Now as an adult I realize that a photographer lives quite a lonely life. You have to know how to be alone. At the same time, I’m a people photographer and I love how photography connects me with people around the world. My friends are everywhere, especially in Vietnam. Nevertheless, it’s a solitary life. But it’s the life that I have chosen, and to some extent I accept it. Most of the time it suits me.
Given that the life of a professional photographer is so solitary, how much do you look forward to conferences like this at the Book Passage, or the annual National Geographic seminar in January? Do you find these conferences helpful and inspirational for your own work?
The Book Passage conference is terrific and it’s great fun to teach alongside Bob Holmes and Andrea Johnson. We all have a great time. I fill a notebook with ideas when I go to the Book Passage Conference. The National Geographic one I have mixed feelings about. On the Thursday we see the works of all sorts of photographers of all genres: fine art, news, portraiture and though it’s a mixed bag, it is nevertheless usually quite inspiring. Otherwise, the seminar has become somewhat dispiriting actually.
Tell me what is like when you are on assignment. Do you have a team of people who research and plan the shoot for you?
I do everything myself, even though I do hire local assistants who often help quite a bit. Once I arrive in that place, I hit the ground running. There’s never enough time, and I am researching where to shoot at the same time as I am shooting. There are always so many places to scout, people to meet, places to shoot, a lot of decisions to make. I am overwhelmed. I am eager to find amazing situations, which will yield great shots. The first few days are full of unknowns. Because of the sheer amount of work, and the anxiety, I quickly get pulled into the chaos of the work. I go without stopping and have more energy that anyone I know. The fatigue, adrenaline combined with the excitement of starting to get good shots, pulls me into a realm of extreme focus, and also sort of a crazy zone. I am completely inside my story. Every night until the wee hours, I stare at my selects. Every assignment I think I am going to fail. But I have to keep the faith. I succeed every time, and come home with great photos.
Often in the middle of an assignment I become untethered; I forget what good photography is; I question my own creativity. To become inspired, I look at the photographs of Dave Alan Harvey and Carolyn Drake. I try to get into a space where my work is more poetic, and also “rougher,” not so perfect and carefully composed. I try to loosen up.
A lot of your vision and what you do for an assignment is intuitive. At this stage, how much is intuition and how much are you consciously thinking about when you shoot?
Expertise and experience lead to having intuition, both over the years and during the course of an assignment. Research is key. Before and during my shoot, I spend a lot of time interviewing people, and gathering information about the place. Hopefully the information seeps into my head and I am creating photographs that are informed. I understand what I am shooting and my captions have meaning. I aim to create images that feel authentic and true. Good photojournalism, good travel photojournalism has depth and meaning. That’s why I love photographing in Vietnam, because it’s a place I know and understand. I am often astonished by something unsurprising, perhaps because I understand how brand new the subject is: like pampered pets, or childhood obesity, a pedestrian mall, or a just a convenience store or supermarket!
You recently published a book which accompanied your May 2015 Hanoi exhibition documenting 25 years of photographing in Vietnam. Tell me a little about the beginning of your personal history and family legacy with Vietnam.
I was born and raised in Hong Kong, during the Vietnam War. As a small child I didn’t understand war, but I felt that something scary was very close. My father, the highly esteemed foreign correspondent Stanley Karnow, covered Vietnam for Time-Life and The Washington Post; he traveled there often.
In Hong Kong, my parents were always entertaining luminaries, ambassadors, and journalists. The talk was often about China and Vietnam.
My mother had lived in Vietnam in the 1950s, before she met my father. In Hong Kong, she was an extremely talented Chinese brush painter and later would become an astonishingly good abstract artist. The journalist and storyteller in me comes from my father; and from my mother I got my creativity and my eye.
My father’s seminal book on Vietnam (Vietnam: A History) was published in 1983. It was the first book to really address our involvement in Vietnam and it changed the way America began to look at the war.
Although as a teenager, I didn’t have a burning desire to go to Vietnam, I knew that one day I would. I finally got my opportunity; my first trip was in July of 1990. I continued to shoot in Vietnam for the next twenty-five years.
And my Vietnam is … my Vietnam, not my father’s Vietnam. I am not a historian. I am much more interested in people and culture. My father often said to me in recent years, “you are carrying on my legacy.” Towards the end of his life, if he was asked to give a lecture, he would sometimes defer to me, “Why don’t you do it. You know Vietnam better than I do; I don’t know the Vietnam of today.”
Would you tell me about a little bit about your father’s legacy and what that means to you?
I’m so happy and proud that my father and I had those times together talking about Vietnam and my trips and assignments. He loved hearing my stories. Before each of my Vietnam trips, my father would get totally involved with the planning. We’d chat on the phone or I’d be in the kitchen in Potomac (where my parents lived) and he’d always ask me how the research was coming along, and tell me stories from his days there. It was a very special bond we shared.
He was always surprised about the changes in Vietnam: Gucci, Hermes, Prada, suburban developments, shopping malls. He was especially proud of my friendship with General Giap and his family. I had met the General through my father. But my own friendship went much deeper. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I have become a part of the Giap family.
In your book you have a striking portrait of General Giap which captures the essence of the complex man you knew. How did your relationship with the General and his family begin?
I first met and photographed the General in 1990. The family instantly accepted me, in a way that I would later learn was a sort of destiny, they felt. When I returned in 1994, I was at the General’s house for a friendly visit. The 40th anniversary of Điện Biên Phủ was in about two weeks. Hanoi was swarming with journalists wondering if General Giap would be going to Điện Biên Phủ. As I sat there in his living room sipping tea, he leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Would you like to accompany me to Điện Biên Phủ? We’re going this Thursday. Don’t tell anyone.” Even as a young journalist I realized the significance of this invitation and this access. On that trip I was the only western journalist. That trip boosted my credentials, ended up defining my career and opening doors for the next twenty years in Vietnam. Even today I am regularly recognized as “that photographer friend of the General Giap family.”
Looking at your work over the last 25 years, what patterns and themes do you see?
My photography is all about people: connecting with people, and sharing their stories with the world. I am particularly concerned with the lasting effects of Agent Orange, both in Vietnam and in the US. In 2016, I will be producing a photography project for which I raised $27,000. It is imperative that I document the lives of the families. That is where money needs to go, to help support them.
What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned through photography over the years?
It’s astonishing to me that I’ve been shooting since 1986, and at least once a week I still have some epiphany about photography in general, or why I do what I do. This is what keeps the “marriage” exciting. Through your images you learn about yourself. For example, you become aware of when you need to slow down and be kinder to yourself. I used to self-flagellate. I beat myself up; I was angry a lot of the time. I fueled myself with fear and frustration. But I have realized that you can be a little kinder to yourself and still get great results. You still have to sweat and work like the devil and you cant get too soft or complacent. The doubts about your creativity and talent never go away. But you just have to get out there and do the work. You cant wait to get inspired.
Tell me about the workshops you have coming up. I know you have one in Vietnam now and one in Umbria, Italy. What will Italy be like?
In Umbria, we drink a lot of wine, laugh, and have zany experiences with the locals. It’s so much fun. I designed my workshops to give participants the experience of being on a National Geographic Traveler assignment without the endless scouting, searching, permissions, and magazine deadlines. In my workshop, we provide the perfect shepherds; the penultimate festival; the adorable Cinquecento Fiat 500 Club; the gorgeous fishermen to go out with; the charming farmhouse “agriturismo” where we stay; and the best Italian food around.
I provide translators so you can learn about the culture. We stay in a fantastic farmhouse called La Locanda della Quercia Calante, with great food, as the cook there is considered one of the best in the region. It’s so beautiful, with a lovely yoga room, an organic farm, lush gardens and a swimming pool fed by natural mineral springs.
Make no mistake though; the learning is very serious. The whole experience is so much more than just a Photo Workshop. My guests experience transformation. I cant tell you why or how, but it happens. Maybe it is because I love teaching; I love photography and I love people so much. This brings out the love in me and in the group, every time.
You can find more information about Catherine’s workshops on her website, Catherine Karnow Photography Workshop or email her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
The next Umbria workshop is May 8th -17th, 2016.
Her next Vietnam workshop is October 2-15th, 2016.
You can also follow Catherine on Facebook Catherine Karnow
An organization Catherine is closely connected to, Children of Vietnam helps take care of children and families with Agent Orange afflictions.