Travel Lens: Catherine Karnow’s World

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Catherine Karnow was born in Hong Kong and lived there until she was 11. When she started experimenting with cameras in high school, she knew she would be a professional photographer for the rest of her life. The Brown University graduate currently lives in San Francisco and shoots both travel and documentary photography for magazines and books.

Karnow has been part of the National Geographic family for the past 15 years, going on assignment for both National Geographic and National Geographic Traveler, where she’s a contributing photographer. She also shares photography tips on the Nat Geo Travel site and leads photo seminars and workshops for the Society, including her signature workshop in Umbria, Italy, which will be taking place in May 2015.

Find out more about Catherine on Facebook and on Instagram @catherinekarnow.

Here’s a look at the world through Catherine Karnow’s unique lens:

Ben Fitch: You live in the San Francisco area. Why, out of every place in the world, do you choose to make your home there?

Catherine Karnow: Though I live in San Francisco, I will probably never be able to feel fully at home anywhere.

My heart is in Asia, and I have one foot on each coast of the United States, but San Francisco suits me. The topography is like Hong Kong: mountains and sea. I love the culture of healthiness, the easygoing lifestyle, the great food, and living among so many Asians.

BF: When someone comes to visit your hometown, where’s the first place you take them?

CK: Because I love food, and because the Bay Area has so many great places to eat, the day would involve many stops to nosh.

In between a drive through the Marin Headlands to view the Golden Gate Bridge, a hike up Mount Tam, a visit to the Mission District, and a stroll through Hayes Valley, we might stop to eat thin-crust pizza at Bocce in Sausalito, pastries at B Patisserie, salt-and-pepper squid at Yuet Lee in Chinatown, and top it all off with ice cream at Bi-Rite.

BF: What’s the biggest misconception about the place where you live?

CK: That Fisherman’s Wharf is authentic and wonderful.

BF: Is there a place that draws you back again and again? Why?

CK: I go at least once a year to Vietnam. It was love at first sight, 25 years ago. Not only is it a beautiful country with great food, an exquisite coastline, and a gorgeous capital city—I adore the people.

And though I feel I have a pretty good understanding of the culture, I am still intrigued and challenged with new questions every time I visit. It is that onion analogy: You peel back a layer and there is another layer, and another, and another. It keeps me coming back again and again.

BF: Why is travel important? How has it changed you?

CK: I grew up traveling. I had been around the world five times before the age of nine. My parents were always on the go, and I often went with them. I am most comfortable in foreign countries. I can land on my feet anywhere and I never tire of discovering a new place. I do think travel opens up the mind and also helps you appreciate the gifts you have at home. It gives you perspective—about your culture, your life, and yourself.

Karnow has been photographing Vietnam for more than 25 years, covering every angle of the country's culture—including the nightlife scene in Saigon (above). (Photograph by Catherine Karnow)
Karnow has been photographing Vietnam for more than 25 years, covering every angle of the country’s culture—including the nightlife scene in Saigon (above). (Photograph by Catherine Karnow)

BF: If you could only recommend one place in the world to visit, what would that be?

CK: Vietnam.

BF: Which city has it all, and why?

CK: I love Hanoi.

The French architecture is lovely, and the Old Quarter is charming in its crumbling decay; the lakes are lovely; the food is great. I love the art, the people, the streets, the shops, the café culture.

I have many friends there and am always meeting new and interesting people.

BF: What’s your favorite way to travel? In other words, how would you describe your “travel style”?

CK: I like to travel both first class and roughing it. I like the actual travel part—the airplane, train, car—to be easy and comfortable. I don’t want hassles and I want to arrive refreshed.

I love grand hotels, but I also love small inns and lodges with great service and quiet rooms. Once I’m on the ground, I tend to go about on the back of a motorcycle and eat on the street, go into underinvestigated areas, and spend time with locals.

I hate touristy places and avoid the beaten path. I often find myself invited to stay at people’s homes, outside of the city, and then the real adventures begin.

BF: What made you want to become a photographer?

CK: I took a class in high school and immediately fell in love. Over the years I realize that it is the perfect career and lifestyle for me.

I am lucky—though I think I have earned it—to be given a huge amount of freedom on my assignments. I have always wanted to do things my way and don’t like routine, fixed schedules, and timetables. I am very self-disciplined and have an enormous amount of energy.

Travel is in my blood. I love people and am intensely curious about the way people live, think, eat, worship, all of it. I am absolutely the daughter of a journalist and an artist. I am a writer and a thinker, but also a person who experiences the world emotionally. I am intuitive and work by feeling out a situation. All of these traits are essential for success as a travel photojournalist.

Artist and designer Douglas Young at the opening of the "Detour 2009" exhibit at the former Police Married Quarters in Hong Kong (left); Pork congee at the traditional Yung Kee congee shop in Sheung Wan (right). (Photographs by Catherine Karnow)
Artist and designer Douglas Young at the opening of the “Detour 2009” exhibit at the former Police Married Quarters in Hong Kong (left); Pork congee at the traditional Yung Kee congee shop in Sheung Wan (right). (Photographs by Catherine Karnow)

BF: How does being on assignment in a place change the way you approach it?

CK: Being on assignment allows me to go deep into understanding a place: its history, culture, people, architecture, art, mores, and values. I love creating powerful and beautiful photographs in which I really try to show the underlying truths of wherever I am.

In turn, my own photographs show me how I feel about that place and my experience. For example, before embarking on an assignment in Hong Kong for Traveler, I envisioned my images being gray and moody because I had so much nostalgia and sadness for my first home.

Yet after a few days shooting, I saw that my pictures were full of color, and had a childlike joy to them. I photographed bright green plastic bowls of won ton soup, schoolchildren in uniforms, a museum designer playing on a giant beach toy. It was as if I was still that delighted child. Or maybe the act of knowing Hong Kong through photography made me happy and helped me move past my sadness.

BF: The best travel photography captures the true essence of a place. What do you do to connect with locals and seek out authentic experiences when you’re out in the field?

CK: I always work with a local translator. And through that person I come to be acquainted with his or her family, friends, and lifestyle. My assistants are often young people and this tells me a lot about the future of the place in which he or she lives.

BF: What’s your dream assignment?

CK: To do a book on Indian food. I want to spend time in a few very different areas—the coast, the mountains, the cities, and so on—and go to the sources both geographically and historically. For example, I want to document fishermen and the culture of the sea; the spice industry; the Himalayas; sweets and desserts. The book would cover each major region.

BF: What’s been your favorite “Nat Geo moment” over the years?

CK: My favorite Nat Geo moment happened after I completed my first assignment for National Geographic, which was a small story on Bob Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota.

Once I had finished presenting my images, my photo editor, Susan Welchman, put her hands on my shoulders, looked into my eyes, and said I was perfect for the magazine. It was at that moment that I knew I had arrived.

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