“I have been in a love affair with photography from day one, back in high school. Everything I know about photography has been from my own personal experience. I live and breathe photography. It is a beautiful way to see the world and connect with people. Discovering how much I love to teach is an extension of that joy. It is my job as a teacher to help my students express what is inside them, to help them express the beauty they see and feel.” – Catherine Karnow, professional photographer

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be in the shoes of a National Geographic photographer on assignment? If you are someone who is passionate about photography and seeing the world, there is no doubt that being an acclaimed photojournalist tops high on your list of dream jobs. Like most children of the early 80s, I grew up reading National Geographic and was mesmerized by the photos of cultures and places so incredibly different from my own. Some of these images have remained forever engrained within my heart such as Steve McCurry’s iconic photograph of the beautiful haunting green-eyed Afghan girl who graced the cover of National Geographic in 1985 and has captivated the world ever since.


Catherine Karnow, Chinatown, San Francisco. ©Gary Draluck

The power of photography is life-changing and transformative. Photographs have a way of touching us in surprisingly emotional ways. Perhaps this is why so many people love photography. It is an art like no other that involves both technical and creative skills, as well as an eye for seeing something magical. An element of photography that is often overlooked is the actual experience of it. A conversation with professional photographer, Catherine Karnow, whose impressive career has spanned over 40 years and whose work has appeared in National Geographic, National Geographic Traveler, Smithsonian and other major international publications, enlightened me on the reasons why the experience of photography is so very special.

Catherine had an enchanting childhood. She was born and raised in Hong Kong by exceptional parents. Her father was the renowned journalist Stanley Karnow; and her mother Annette was a gifted artist who infused creativity into every aspect of her life. Annette’s eye for beauty and her passion for art was a strong influence on Catherine. From her father she learned a strong work ethic and the skill to be a story-teller. Her parents allowed her a great measure of independence and freedom, and as a young child she wandered around alone among the back streets of the Chinese fishing village where she grew up.

Catherine took her first photo class in high school and under the tutelage of an excellent teacher, she fell in love with photography. She graduated with honors from Brown University with degrees in Comparative Literature and Semiotics. After a brief career as a filmmaker, Catherine’s passion for photography drew her to Paris where she landed her first assignment 1986 and has been shooting professionally ever since.

One of the highlights of Catherine’s forty-year career is her special focus on Vietnam. Catherine’s fascination with Vietnam began in 1990, when her father interviewed General Giap for the New York Times. Although Catherine was not the photographer on that assignment, she found an opportunity to go to Vietnam on her own a few months later and had excellent access to not only General Giap, but also to many of Vietnam’s living heroes at that time. Catherine’s friendship with General Giap and his family opened the doors to twenty-six years of photography in Vietnam, a country that Catherine calls her spiritual home.


Catherine Karnow is invited to Dien Bien Phu by General Giap, April, 1994. ©Vo Dien Bien


General Giap: the French called him the “Snow-Covered Volcano,” Hanoi, 1990. Photo by Catherine Karnow.

Catherine first started teaching photography in 1995 at both the Maine and Santa Fe Photo Workshops. Over the years, Catherine has realized that teaching is a calling for her. On assignment after assignment, Catherine had experienced so many transformative moments and met so many fascinating people. By giving workshops, she found that she could share these moving experiences with others. Her long-time dream of offering destination-based photo workshops was hatched in 2011.

In that year, Catherine went on a yoga retreat in Italy and stayed on an extra two weeks to plan out her first boutique photo workshop. Catherine has been offering an annual Umbria photo workshop ever since and recently added a workshop in Vietnam last fall.

A slideshow of some of Catherine’s famous photographs from Vietnam:

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Catherine’s workshops are utterly unique. As a teacher, she is very hands-on, acting as both a mentor and coach. Guests learn not only to sharpen their vision and create dynamic emotional images, but how to connect with the people of that country in deep intimate ways. In Catherine’s workshops, there is also an emphasis on learning the history and culture of the place. Under her close guidance, time is spent both on location in the field and in the classroom. For Catherine, there is no greater joy than watching her guests learn, create and experience photography in a deep and transformational way. Her teaching reflects her love of life, spontaneity, creativity and the real joy of being with people. Her workshops reflect both her expertise in planning a terrific trip, with every detail carefully thought through, as well as her ability to be an excellent hostess to her guests.

A tiled mosaic of some of Catherine’s photographs from her Italian workshop (please click on photos to enlarge and view as a slideshow):

One of Catherine’s recent attendees summed up his workshop experience in Italy:

“Many photographers, if they are going to do candid people shots or street photography, will sit somewhere with a telephoto lens and try to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible. Although you can get a great shot, there is no interaction at all with the subject, and the camera becomes a barrier between the photographer and the person we are trying to photograph. Catherine’s take on photographing people is different. She views the camera as a tool that helps you develop a relationship with people.

Her approach in the workshops is essentially to set up opportunities for a whole variety of really interesting interactions – spending time with a shepherd family, going out with the fishermen for several hours, attending the village festival at Marta, and many others.  These opportunities really invite you to interact directly with people in friendly, comfortable situations that are magical and memorable”.

Catherine Karnow (middle), teaches students during workshop, Chinatown, San Francisco.

Catherine Karnow (middle), teaches students during workshop, Chinatown, San Francisco. Photo credit: Kris Davidson.

Most people have no idea that when they come to her workshops, they will learn so much more than simply photography.  They will learn what creativity means. They will learn how to experience photography by being in the field and creating relationships with strangers. For many guests, this transformational, life-changing experience can sometimes take them by surprise. Catherine’s number one goal in her workshops is that each guest really does have the experience of a life-time. Catherine’s impeccably detail-oriented nature is such that each moment of her workshop is meant to be perfect.

Want to learn more?


Experience an Italy Photo Workshop May 7 – 16, 2017

The lodging for the Italy Photo Workshop is the bucolic and unique La Locanda della Quercia Calante.

Experience a Vietnam
 Photo Workshop September 25-October 9, 2017

To register and for more info, email catherinekarnow@yahoo.com or visit please visit catherinekarnow.com


  1. You should watch ‘Tales by Light’ on Netflix. I love Photography too and this serial (based on professional photographers and their works) is helping me take it to next level.

  2. Catherine sounds like a wonderfully creative and talented woman and I guess it’s no surprise with an upbringing like the one she had. A thoroughly enjoyable read Nicole, thank you so much for sharing.

    1. Thank you Marilyn! I hope to someday be able to go to one of her workshops. I saw her do a brief seminar here in Minneapolis on travel photography and it was fabulous. I would personally like to do the Vietnam workshop.

  3. Your photos truly touch my heart. i cannot believe how amazing it is that you can capture these moments. I love how you think..truly. i think you may like what I talk about in my blog as well, It would mean so much to me if you would take a look and let me know your thoughts 🙂 Sending you so much light

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