National Geographic Traveler magazine is celebrating its 30th anniversary this fall. To commemorate this milestone, we asked 12 of our longtime photographers to select their favorite images shot on assignment for Traveler throughout the past three decades. We will be publishing these images, along with stories behind the photographs, throughout the month of November.
Today, we hear from photographer Catherine Karnow about the image above, which she shot for Traveler in 2009.
I was thrilled and delighted when Traveler gave me an assignment to shoot a feature on old Hong Kong. I was born and grew up in Hong Kong in the 1960s, yet had never shot there on assignment. I loved Hong Kong; it had been my home, and leaving was impossibly hard for me as a ten-year-old child. As an adult, I realized that being wrenched away from Hong Kong was what contributed to my becoming a photographer. To shoot is to hold on, to keep forever, to never forget. Interestingly, during my Traveler shoot I discovered that there’s a collective nostalgia for sixties Hong Kong. Maybe it’s because Hong Kong changes so fast. And yet there’s also so much that’s old and unchanged. And I couldn’t wait to see it again.
She Wong Lam is the oldest snake shop in Hong Kong: over a hundred years old. Snakes are considered to have highly potent medicinal qualities that can cure just about any ailment. Someone had told me about this ancient snake shop, so I headed over. On a shoot, I always ask permission ahead of time to photograph, but in this case I was nervous about the snake shop and wanted to scope it out first. The Chinese can be difficult about photography and are especially sensitive when it comes to animals that one eats. For example, in San Francisco’s Chinatown, you’re never allowed to shoot poultry shops. When I peeked inside the snake shop, I could see immediately that it was wildly photogenic. My heart started to race. What if they said no, no photography. As I stood outside wondering how to proceed, a guy came up and asked me in a friendly way if I was a photographer, and did I want to shoot inside.
Now, I’m known for having crazy lucky serendipity in my life. When he told me he was not only the owner, but that he also normally lived in Canada and was in Hong Kong for only two days, I knew that once again the photography angels were by my side. When he found out that I was on assignment for National Geographic Traveler, he practically pushed me inside to shoot.
There were over 3,000 snakes in wooden drawers lining one wall. The snakes needed food only every few months, though they did require water everyday. And I learned that the more poisonous the snake, the more curative it is. One woman came in while I was there and drank a small cup of snake bile mixed with rice wine. She assured me that this cured her of arthritis. The owner introduced me to 84-year-old Mak Tai Kwong, an employee of over 60 years who attributed his excellent health and full head of hair to eating snake soup every day. I watched as customers came in and Mak Tai Kwong searched the drawers for the perfect snake to cure that customer’s ailment. I photographed him pulling snake after snake out of the drawers. I was terrified that one would sink a venomous bite into his arm, or maybe lunge toward me. But he was a true snake whisperer and remained in an almost Zen-like calm. After shooting for about an hour, I felt I probably had several great shots. How could you go wrong with so many great visual elements and cooperative subjects?
That evening I examined my photos. I was unhappy with every single one. The snakes were a mess, a tangle of slippery rubbery tubes falling down out of the frame. In scrutinizing my images I realized that when a snake made an S shape, it looked really great. But in this selection I didn’t have it. I knew I had to call the owner immediately and ask him if I could come back and shoot more. I also knew I needed him there to help me communicate with Mak Tai Kwong. Happily, on the reshoot I got my shot. One snake coiled in a perfect S shape, exactly what I had envisioned. There was really only one frame that worked, but, as we always say, one shot is all it takes.
See more of Catherine Karnow’s work at CatherineKarnowphotoworkshop.com.