Stories of the World: A Q&A with Photographer Cameron Karsten

cameron karsten

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.


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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. 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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Local oyster harvesters on Bainbridge Island, Washington State.

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.

Margaret, a paper bead jeweler from the Lira District in Northern Uganda.
Margaret, a paper bead jeweler from the Lira District in Northern Uganda.

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.

A portrait taken in Cotonou, Benin.
A portrait taken in Cotonou, Benin.

Cameron uses the Minimum theme and a traditional blog format, which displays his images beautifully.

Your photo essays are a rich, vivid mix of image and prose, as shown in your Vodou Trail 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.

A lively shot from among Cameron's Vodou Trail series.
A lively shot from among Cameron’s Vodou Trail series.

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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.

A journey deep into the Hoh Rainforest in Washington State's Olympic National Park.
A journey deep into the Hoh Rainforest in Washington State’s Olympic National Park.

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.

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), and Twitter (@CameronKarsten).

December 3, 2015Culture, Interviews, Photography, Travel