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Inspiring Stories, Inspiring People

Catherine Karnow, photographer

Catherine Karnow, photographer

Meet Catherine Karnow, a photojournalist who has traveled the globe with her camera, documenting people and places for magazines such as National Geographic, National Geographic Traveler, and Smithsonian, as well as many other international publications.  Check out some of her extraordinary work here, and learn more about her photography workshops as well.

PPF: When you were little, what did you tell people you wanted to be when you grew up?

CK: I wanted to live on a farm with lots of animals.


PPF: Where did you grow up?

CK: I grew up in a fishing village in Hong Kong. My father was bureau chief for Time-Life.  He was a China watcher. You couldn’t go into China at the time. He also covered Vietnam and remains, today, the leading journalist-historian on Vietnam. He was writing for Time, for Life, and for the Washington Post, among other publications. I lived there for ten years, and that has informed everything in my life.


PPF: What was it like to grow up there during that time?

CK: It was my home, so I wasn’t aware of it being special. It felt comfortable and familiar to me. But in general, Hong Kong in the ‘60s was an intoxicating experience. I have a deep nostalgia for our years in Hong Kong. With my father’s position, anybody coming through Hong Kong would look him up, from celebrities to diplomats and artists, so our world was filled with interesting people. My mother was a master Chinese brush painter, designed furniture, and collected beautiful fabrics; the best tailor in Hong Kong made her clothes. She and my father traveled around Asia collecting antiques. My parents knew all kinds of characters. Jim Thompson, the famous silk entrepreneur, was a friend—they were friends when he disappeared. As a child, I was given a lot of independence and freedom. I’d take the dog or my little brother and go down to the village by myself at age seven and eight. I did not live a typical ex-pat lifestyle. It was normal for me to be amongst “foreigners.” I did then, and still feel now, very comfortable around Chinese people.


PPF: That ability to feel at home anywhere among any people must help you in terms of what you do now.

CK: I’m just as comfortable in a foreign country as in this country. To hear people speaking Chinese around me–it is like music to my ears.


PPF: So when you’re traveling on assignment to unknown places, is it daunting at all, even just figuring out how to get around?

CK: I don’t have the luxury of time on my assignments to get used to the place. I typically have one day to figure out the lay of the land, to scout, and that’s it. It’s like here we go: another country, jump in and do it.


PPF: Speaking of other countries, where did you go after Hong Kong?

CK: My father was a Nieman fellow at Harvard for a year, and then we moved to Washington, D.C. It was utterly traumatic for me to leave Hong Kong. It has affected every aspect of my life. I don’t own my house, for example;  I rent it.  I’m scared of loss. When I was growing up, it never occurred to me that we’d have to leave Hong Kong. I was not comfortable in the U.S. when we’d come and visit—whether it was New York, Boston or California. A couple of years ago, after a seminar I gave for National Geographic, a girl came up to me and said, “You’re a third culture kid,” and I hadn’t heard of that phrase. I don’t feel I can belong anywhere. I finally stopped trying to figure out where I should live, where is the best place for me to live, where it will feel right, because I realize the answer is probably nowhere. Home is inside me.


PPF: Something made you settle down in the Bay Area…

CK: San Francisco is actually similar to Hong Kong, geographically, with the hills and ocean. I live in Mill Valley and can be on a nature trail in minutes. San Francisco’s very authentic Chinatown is fifteen minutes by car. This is one of the main reasons I live here.


PPF: What was your first real job?

CK: I waitressed in college. I also worked at Magnum photos in the summer of 1977 when I was sixteen. To fund a film I made at Brown, I was a dishwasher in a French restaurant.


PPF: Why Brown?

CK:  I loved academics and liberal arts and was eager to learn everything from religious studies to linguistics, literature, etc. We valued a good education in my family, not only for what you learn, but how you learn to be a critical thinker. Also, I knew it would make me a better photojournalist. I chose Brown because it was the cool school, yes, but it also suited me well because it was a place for creative, smart people who were independent-minded.


PPF: What did you study?

CK:  I was a comparative literature/semiotics major, and I got into filmmaking because it was a natural extension of photography.


PPF: So you knew before college you wanted to be a photographer?

CK: I switched from public junior high to a private girls’ school for the academics, and in my sophomore year, started to study with an extraordinary teacher, Barbara Hadley. She changed my life. She was young, had worked at Magnum and was a new photo teacher at the school. We had an impressive library of photo books. She never gave banal assignments, like photograph an egg in six different kinds of light. In this straight-laced girls’ school, she was different and encouraged us to think for ourselves, to go beyond or even ignore the assignment. She could see our inner strengths and draw them out. I studied with her for three years. I was obsessed with photography. I spent every single night in the dark room. When I was 16, I knew I wanted to be a photographer the rest of my life.


PPF: Did your parents support that?

CK: They were worried about my obsession. So they asked a close family friend, Burt Glinn, a Magnum photographer, if they should encourage my photography, and he said, “Yes, she has talent, and obviously she has drive.”

So after that, they encouraged me in every way they could. As a journalist, my father had a lot of connections, so he helped me get internships. In the summers when I was in high school, I worked at Magnum Photos in Paris, the London Sunday Times, and so on. My mother was an amazing painter — she did modern abstracts — and I learned so much from her.  We always went to galleries and museums and on art tours in Europe.


PPF: Were you doing much shooting then?

CK: I photographed all the time. For my senior project in high school, I shot Asbury Park, New Jersey. There was a dark side to this run-down amusement park beach town. I was inspired by Diane Arbus and Bruce Davidson.  I photographed people whose mental states were questionable and immigrant families in their crowded apartments.


PPF: You said you made a film in college. What was the film about?

CK: I was influenced by  Faulkner, Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. My film, Brooklyn Bridge, was very impressionistic. The film was about how I imagined the last day of my uncle’s life, before he committed suicide by jumping out of his bedroom window. We shot the film in New York, and the editing took months. The film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. I was very proud of it, as were my parents.


PPF: And back to Europe you went.

CK: Yes, and my parents were so excited that they gave me the ticket to Europe. I decided to live in Paris, and stayed a year. I tried to get work as a photographer, or as a photographer’s assistant, or work in film production, with little success. I ended up working in a sandwich shop that hired me because they had American sandwiches. So they made me memorize the ingredients, and quizzed me daily: “What’s in the Elvis? What is in the Bogart?”  I had so little money I was always hungry, and I certainly couldn’t afford to buy film, so I couldn’t even shoot.  Meanwhile, I was getting fat because all I could afford was bread. It was not a good time; I was sleeping on people’s sofas.


PPF: What changed for you? Was there a watershed moment?

CK: Months went by, and then a National Geographic photographer came to Europe. Mike Yamashita. He was on assignment, and he needed an assistant for a shoot in Scandinavia. He was shooting the Nikon calendar and the Nikon lens manual. He had to shoot with every lens that Nikon made, and I, the assistant, had to carry all of it: fifteen lenses, many camera bodies, flashes, everything. We were in Scandinavia in summertime, and the good light lasted for hours and hours, so we didn’t sleep for two weeks. We were giddy, exhausted, and had the best time. And I was a great assistant. Mike appreciated my tenacity, and he wanted to help me in my career, so he set me on the path to National Geographic. I honestly owe my career to Mike. He introduced me to people. I started to forge relationships, which wouldn’t get realized into assignments for many years, but I was on my way.

Also, what happened with Mike was this. Mike had given me $300 for expenses on the shoot.  I was so proud of myself that I hadn’t spent any of it.  I had kept it in my makeup case. We were in the Oslo airport about to fly to London, and drinking champagne to celebrate the end of the shoot. I went in the bathroom to put on makeup, and I left my makeup case in the airport bathroom. The next thing I knew, we were on the plane, and I realized I had left my makeup case with the $300 in the bathroom back at the airport. I burst into tears. Mike felt sorry for me, and gave me forty rolls of Kodachrome 64.  What was so important about that gift was that he gave me the film that built my portfolio. Everything I’d been showing to photo editors for the past few years had been a collection of disparate images. Now I could shoot a real story, so I began to think about what it could be.


PPF: What did you decide to shoot?

CK: I was back in Paris and had lunch one day with a legendary photo editor from Life, John Morris. He suggested a story idea, “Go and shoot the wine harvest in Bordeaux. Go right now. They’ve already started picking the grapes.” Without wasting a moment, I took the train down to Bordeaux. A friend’s ex-boyfriend, and a wine lover, accompanied me to all the great chateaux where I shot: Margaux, Yquem, Latour, and so on. I shot innocently and happily, drank stupendous wine, and shot the forty rolls Mike had given me. So now I had a story. And everything led here from there.


PPF: What was your first travel assignment?

CK: With my Bordeaux photographs, I got an assignment to shoot the Insight Guide to France. I bought a car in Paris, and for four months shot what seemed like every village, town and region of France. I came to know the country really well, had the time of my life, and came back with a set of great travel shots.


PPF: When did you first get involved with National Geographic?

CK: Mike Yamashita had introduced me to Susan Welchman, a prominent photo editor with Geographic. I showed her about 120 pictures from France. She didn’t have a lot of time when we met that day. But she went through every slide and silently separated out her selects. That was it. I went home and studied those images. It was a tremendous learning experience. Her choices were images that were unusual and dynamic, where there was a moment that made the image unique. I maintained the relationship with her, checking in often, until I finally got an assignment.


PPF: What was your first assignment?

CK: In the late ’90s, they started a department in the magazine called “Zipcode” where they featured in a small story on one zipcode in the US. They assigned me Hibbing, Minnesota, Bob Dylan’s hometown. Of course I was wildly nervous when I got to Hibbing and could hardly leave the motel room because I was hyperventilating with anxiety. But somehow I got out there and started shooting this thing, and they loved the pictures. Everything unfolded from there.


PPF: How did you get in with National Geographic Traveler?

CK: With Traveler, it was a different path. Here is the long version. In May of 1990, I was in Sydney shooting a self-assigned project on Asian immigrants.  I met a Vietnamese guy named Lewis in a temple on a Sunday, and he said he was going back to Vietnam for the first time since he had escaped in ’75. He asked if I wanted to join him. I jumped at the opportunity.

To back up, I was motivated by a conversation I’d had with my mother. In March of 1990, my father, accompanied by my mother, had gone to Vietnam to do a cover story for New York Times Magazine on General Giap. After they returned, my mother said, “I don’t know why you weren’t the photographer on that story. ” And I thought, “Why wasn’t I? I’ve got to get myself in gear.” My father had always said, “Don’t confuse movement with progress.” I’d been shooting, yes, but I wasn’t doing anything particularly interesting, and I certainly wasn’t doing anything from my heart. I was just saying yes to anything that came along. I was busy and successful as a young photographer in Washington, D.C., but my assignments were virtually meaningless.

So when Lewis asked me to go to Vietnam with him, I said yes immediately. On a journalist visa, and with my father’s connections, I had the red carpet treatment in Vietnam. The government gave me access to everything I wanted to cover—military camps, schools, famous people, hospitals, and so on.  I was there for one month. The photos I shot are maybe still my favorite photos I’ve ever taken. For Lewis, it was an extraordinary time as well, and he told me he never thought he would ever have the chance to see his country this way. We are still good friends. Vietnam became a life’s work for me. I present my show From Darkness into Light: 21 Years of Documenting Vietnam for National Geographic Live to audiences of up to 2500.

That fall of 1990, I also shot the Insight Guide to Los Angeles, and so with these two sets of images, Vietnam and Los Angeles, I went to see National Geographic Traveler.  My portfolio was very strong, so I thought it was a sure bet I would get an assignment from them. But in typical Traveler fashion, they said, “These are good. Keep us posted on your travels. And also we’ll call you for stock.” For something like two years, I sent them stock. They’d end up running my stock shots as double page spread openers, but still no assignment. Finally I was asked to shoot a small piece on the Willamette Valley in Oregon, which was just coming onto the scene as a wine destination. They gave me three days for a two-page story. I stayed six, shot non-stop, and it ended up as a cover story. That was the beginning. My career with Traveler is very rich. We are intertwined—they are like family to me.


PPF: You say you would wither and die if you couldn’t take pictures. Describe to me your process—of picture taking. And what is important to you with photography.

CK: Photography for me is a way of experiencing the world, of gaining access to people and cultures I might otherwise not encounter. I am mostly more interested in what is going on in front of me—what I’m seeing, what I’m experiencing, situations I’m coming upon—than I am in the creative aspect of photography. I acknowledge that I’m an artist, and of course I’m intent on creating interesting, beautiful photographs. But my real goal is to show the essence of the person or the place. Something that does justice to the beauty of my experience, what I see in front of me. In my photojournalism, I want to call attention to issues that are deeply important, like my work on Agent Orange victims. Finally, what is essential to me is making people happy with my photography, whether this means shooting a friend’s special birthday or helping an NGO by providing photographs to help them raise awareness and funds.


PPF: You have been teaching workshops on photography. How do you like that?

CK: I really love to teach. I’m getting a lot of requests to teach workshops. The way I teach is completely my own concoction. I don’t read any how-to books. My style appeals to people who are technologically challenged because I use language that they can understand, and relieve them of the anxiety of rules. And my style also appeals to the software nerd types whose images, by their own admission, lack emotion. Again I encourage them to ignore rules and loosen up. At the end of my workshops, people often reveal they have been somehow transformed. Young ones decide to pursue a career in photography. Others fall back in love with photography.


PPF: What has been one of your most interesting shoots?

CK: The Prince Charles story for National Geographic was fascinating, but quite difficult.


PPF: What was that like?

CK: It was very challenging. Not only did I have to shoot him, but I also had to shoot his lands, much of it rambling British countryside, which is not wildly photogenic.  Trying to shoot amazing photos of farms is tough. And our access to him was difficult, too. He liked me very much, and allowed me to get close, but opportunities to shoot him were few and far between. Logistically it was extremely complicated, as he was traveling by private helicopter, and we had to keep up with him using commercial jets, slow-moving ferries, and our rental car.


PPF: What about a most-fun shoot?

CK: Spoiled dogs of San Francisco. That was great fun. They paid me for seven days, and I shot for 31, if that tells you anything. I shot in the Marina district: dog salons, boutiques, dog parks, dog walkers, dog masseurs, dog birthday parties, etc.


PPF: I can only imagine! I’ve seen some dogs in San Francisco that wear more expensive clothes than I do. So if that was the most fun shoot, do you have a shoot that you’re most proud of? 

CK: I was on assignment for French GEO magazine, photographing the Blackfeet Indian Reservation near Glacier National Park in Montana. I very much wanted to photograph the Okan women who make up the highest order of the spiritual hierarchy of the Indians. To be able to get access and permission to photograph them was a challenge that took a delicate dance.  I visited with the counsel of elders and through a gentle discussion, it happened that they suggested to me the importance of including these women in my story. The women of course also had to give their permission.  We shot outside in the late afternoon light.  I was myself with them — open, honest, grateful — and we shared in the process of creating a beautiful portrait. Our deep mutual respect is reflected in their proud expressions, at once strong and comfortable. That we created the photograph equally together is something that makes me proud. The photograph is very powerful to me still.


PPF: What do you think makes a good travel photojournalist?

CK: First, you have to understand the culture of the place, the history, the people, all of it. You shoot from that place where your knowledge and understanding seep into your creativity, and intuitively you create images that have essences of truth, that resonate and work on many levels. I am not shooting just pretty pictures, or picture-postcards.


PPF: I am curious about your thoughts on how the publishing/magazine world has changed since you first started. We all know so many magazines have folded, staffs and budgets have been cut, and times have gotten more difficult for publications that aren’t digital. Do you still believe in print?  Do you think magazines will survive?

CK: Although we see magazine racks full of magazines at the airport or wherever, the problem is that no one wants to pay for content, either print or digital. It is not that whether print will survive; it is whether journalists and photographers can survive.


PPF: How many assignments on average do you cover in a year?

CK: My shooting assignments are about half client-paid and half self-assigned. Some are for a month, some for a day. Altogether I guess I have about twenty a year.


PPF: Do you prefer shooting people or shooting places? Or a combination of the two?

CK: Always people. I am a people photographer, known for being so. But yes, I shoot places too–portraits of places. But my images almost always have people in them, or people are implied.


PPF: You sojourn all over the world for photo shoots. What five things could you never travel without?

CK: Eye mask and earplugs; baby powder; my photo gear, obviously; my laptop and iPhone. Those are the essentials.


PPF: What is the most luxurious place you’ve ever visited?

CK: There have been many. Various Four Seasons, like the one in Chiang Mai I stayed in last year. The Amansara in Siem Reap. Various Mandarin Orientals. Luxury usually comes in the form of hotels. I love a good hotel.


PPF: What is essential to help you do your best work?

CK: Lists, being really organized, a sense of purpose. Often, but not always, a great photo editor. And an assistant. I rarely work without one.


PPF: Describe your perfect day:

CK: This is a perfect non-photography day. Walking around New York, it’s a sunny 75 degrees, seeing a great museum show, browsing in fun shops, eating a bagel and lox from Zabar’s, and various other delicious things from favorite places; and seeing good friends for lunch and for dinner.


PPF: When have you been most daring in your life?

CK: Jumping out of a moving jeep to make sure I didn’t “lose” Vietnamese General Giap, when we went to Dien Bien Phu together. Local officials didn’t understand he had invited me, and they were trying to keep me away from him.


PPF: What has been the highest point in your career?

CK: When a favorite editor at National Geographic magazine, someone very important and special to me, put her two hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eyes, and said I was perfect for National Geographic.


PPF: Who most inspires you and why?

CK: My brother, Michael. He is the smartest, most forward, outside-the-box thinking person I know. He is full of great ideas; he is hilarious, perceptive, observant, kind, super articulate, and has a sharp BS radar. He says it like it is, too. He always reminds me that we can change the way we look at ourselves and the way we look at the world by changing the colored glasses we look through. Perception is everything.


PPF: What job could you never do, no matter how broke you were?

CK: Prostitute.


PPF: What advice would you give to people studying / hoping to be photographers one day? 

CK: Love it or leave it. If you are not really passionate, and self-driven, and you aren’t willing to work insanely hard, then keep it as a hobby. It is a very difficult profession in this day and age. But it is a great hobby and anyone can enjoy photography this way.

PPF: What’s on your bedside table right now?

CK: About 24 books are on the chest next to my bed. I am in different states of reading all of them. There is A Perfect Scent by Chandler Burr; and books by Oliver Sacks, Malcolm Gladwell, Peter Hessler, and so on. I like non-fiction, books about food, and especially profiles of people.


PPF: What’s the trip you keep talking about taking one day?

CK: I would love to go to Morocco, and to India. Both would be to shoot major projects on the food of those places. I also just want to go to the north shore of Kauai to hike, swim, run on the beach, read, and eat poke.


PPF: First concert you ever went to?

CK: Jethro Tull. Or maybe it was Peter Frampton and Foreigner at RFK stadium in Washington, D.C. one sweltering July afternoon. Embarrassing!


PPF: Best concert you ever went to?

CK: Can’t remember, probably a Grateful Dead concert. I am sure the reason I can’t remember is connected to the good time I had.


PPF: Song that would be the title track to the soundtrack of your life?

CK: Fantastic Voyage. And La Vie en Rose.


PPF: Best meal you ever had?

CK: A dozen oysters at 7 in the morning at a tiny outdoor market outside Saint Emilion.


PPF: What are you really good at that would surprise a lot of people?

CK: Cleaning and organizing, cooking, being domestic. I love being home.


PPF: What is the best advice you ever got?

CK: Go to a good school and get a great education. I went to Brown, and loved it.


PPF: If you could interview someone and ask him/her these questions, who would it be?

CK: Michael Jackson. I think he was absolutely brilliant, and such an enigma. I watch This is It,  the documentary of the rehearsals for his last concert-to-be, every couple months. Also, Prince Charles, whom I photographed for National Geographic, but we never had a long, wine-filled conversation, and I am sure we would get along really well. Also, I would love to spend an afternoon in conversation with Picasso. I just love his painting and would love to know how he works, how he thinks, how he creates.











  1. Paige, yet another wonderful and interesting interview. Catherine, I don’t know you but I wish I did. Your family must beam at your accomplishments. You are lucky to have them, their talents and connections – yet you are so grateful. I’m proud of you and I don’t even know you! I will continue to take National Geographic because of you. I’ve written your fathers quote ” Don’t confuse movement with progress. I needed that, it’s in a spot I’ll see it everyday.

    • Thanks so much, Janna. It is really nice to hear your words. Thank you for taking the time to read and feel the article.

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