Kathy Karn, PHOTOGRAPHER, Canada
Canadian Photographer and Storyteller, Kathy Karn, shares how her love of African wildlife and indigenous culture grew into a commitment to conservation and girls’ education. A percentage of the sales of her photographs and online products are donated to humanitarian and conservation organizations in Kenya such as “The Sarara Foundation” and “Save Giraffes Now”. www.kathykarn.com
“The camera allows me to capture moments that touch and inspire me. My intent is to tell a story or document a moment in time. I find beauty in the ordinary and simple things in life."
After 30+ years as a Registered Psychotherapist with a background in Fine Art, Education, and Counseling Psychology, Kathy retired from clinical practice to devote her time to photography, writing, and conservation. She shares her appreciation of people, culture and wildlife through her images and stories. Kathy hopes her work touches and inspires people to care about each other and our planet. “I see that nature and people are inextricably linked. Like David Attenborough I believe, “If we take care of nature, nature will take care of us. When we save wild places, we save ourselves.”
Kathy, a very warm welcome to WOMEN FOR HUMANITY. I’m very excited to share your story about your love for Kenya and the good work you're doing for this country and its inhabitants.
Please tell us a little about you as a young girl growing up in Canada. Did you already dream of making a difference at that time?
I grew up in Montreal, one of Canada’s largest cities. As a child I was completely absorbed by stories about animals and adventure. I spent my summers at a girls’ summer camp as a youth and led wilderness canoe trips as part of my psychotherapy practice as an adult. Nature and wild places restore my spirit. I can’t say I had dreams of philanthropy as a child but, I did have dreams of travel and adventure. When I finally got to Kenya in 2010 and kissed a giraffe at the Giraffe Centre in Nairobi, I felt the child in me dancing with delight. Africa was under my skin - I was hooked.
You are married and have 4 children and have had a busy career for many years. Please tell us a little about your life and how both your family and your choice of career have influenced the woman you are today?
I began my first career as an art teacher – more by default than design. I had no idea what to study at university. I enjoyed art so I took Fine Art. I followed that degree with a degree in education. At that time women were expected to go into teaching, nursing or secretarial school. I was on an unconscious path of least resistance; I became a high school art teacher. I married young and had two children. It was the 70’s, many in my generation were heading back to the land, environmental awareness was becoming mainstream. My husband and I bought a small farm in the country. I refer to this time in my life as my Earth Mother stage. I woke up to what had heart and meaning for me. I loved being a mother, gardening, raising animals, being close to the land and nature. Everything was great except for my marriage which didn’t last. That personal crisis sent me in a new direction – one of personal growth and healing. I returned to graduate school for a master’s degree in counselling psychology. In my search for meaning, I found my calling. I went into private practice as a psychotherapist and worked with adults and trauma for over 30 years.
I met my second husband 35 years ago. Together we raised our blended family of 4 children and now we have 10 grandchildren! It gives me great delight to see how the love of nature and environmental awareness is a common thread that runs through all generations of our family. When my first marriage fell apart, I took a month off and traveled alone to the Southwest of USA. I agree with Pico Iyer who said, “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next to find ourselves.” I prefer to travel off the beaten path. Nature has always been a healer for me. Wild places took care of me and in turn I committed to caring for wild places.
You take stunning photos. I want to congratulate you on your award-winning photo for Greenpeace. It shows a lioness and her two cubs. Where did the interest in photography come from? And please tell us about the circumstances for taking this photo?
I’ve always enjoyed photography; my images are a reflection of what captures my heart and my imagination. My first DSLR in 2004 plus more international travel, increased my interest in photography significantly. Full time work kept me from diving into photography as deeply as I wanted to. When I closed my training and clinical practice at the end of 2018, I finally had the freedom I needed to devote more time to photography. I enjoy photographing people and wildlife. Of course, with wildlife I don’t need to worry about model releases! I aim to capture story and emotion in my images.
The image that won the Greenpeace 2020 calendar award shows the enthusiasm of a lion cub welcoming his mother’s approach. My guides Dominic Maitai and Joseph Mutemi and I spent an hour with 3 lionesses and their cubs at the end of the day on the Maasai Mara. Watching lions at play is so entertaining, they behave just like domestic kittens. I saw this little cub crouch down in the grass when his mother got up to check out the shenanigans of the youngsters. I had a hunch he would try to ambush his mother when she got close. Much of wildlife photography is understanding animal behaviour and being ready for the shot. Dominic, Joseph and I laughed out loud when the cub pounced. I think the picture won because of the humour and the story – anyone who spends time with rambunctious toddlers can relate to this picture.
When did you travel to Kenya for the first time and how did you get in touch with the organizations you support?
My first trip to Kenya was in 2010. I co-led volunteer trips to Kenya for four consecutive years. The trips were organized by a Canadian NGO known then as Free the Children, now WE Charity. Part of the programme was spent interacting with local people near the Maasai Mara, learning about their culture and helping to build classrooms and a health clinic. Each volunteer week concluded with a 3-day safari. While education in Kenya is free, educational resources are often lacking in rural areas. Children, particularly girls, may not attend school because of duties at home, poor health, poverty, or food insecurity. These issues are all connected. Good sanitation practices, clean water, schools and better agricultural practices increase community health, food security and economic freedom.
Free the Children, built Kisaruni Girls High School in the belief that educating girls transforms communities. My husband and I sponsored two Kisaruni students over the past decade. In Dec. 2017 I returned to attend a Kisaruni graduation, I couldn’t stay away from Kenya any longer. I was interested in exploring more of the country. I added a solo trip to Laikipia and Samburu country followed by a week-long photo safari on the Maasai Mara led by my photography mentor. The combination of these experiences deepened my connection to Kenya. I’ve returned every year since.
You have a weekly blog, “Heartfelt Stories”, on your website. One of your stories talks about meeting two Samburu girls who did not attend school. Please tell us about “Educate a Girl and you Educate a Village”?
The girls at Kisaruni showed me how education was transforming their lives and the lives of their communities. Attending secondary school meant they were not married as child brides, now new options and opportunities were available for them. Education empowered the girls to dare to dream of becoming teachers, entrepreneurs, healthcare providers. Their enthusiasm for learning was palpable. Women have been the backbone of the family forever - compassion, hard work, ingenuity, courage, resilience, creativity are a woman’s domain. Education opens doors for girls – they have what it takes to incorporate their natural strengths into new avenues. Girls and women instinctively want to help their families and communities prosper.
When I stayed at Sarara Camp in Samburu Country I was invited to bead with a couple of Samburu girls. The Samburu women are extraordinary bead workers. I was grateful for the opportunity to sit with the girls and learn about their life over bowls of colourful beads. It didn’t take long for our mutual curiosity about each other to open the door to conversation about education, doweries, marriage and the cultural practice of female genital mutilation. The woman who was our translator was a wise and gentle teacher. After our story telling hour, the youngest girl, who was not yet married, whispered that she would ask her parents if she could go to school. I recognized what a significant request this would be. Her generation could mark a monumental transformation in her culture and open the doors to female leadership in her community. It is exciting to know that The Sarara Foundation recently set up nomadic schools for the Samburu and this girl now has a real chance for an education.
You’re also interested in “The Reteti Elephant Sanctuary” in Samburu County of Northern Kenya, co-founded by Katie Rowe. It’s an incredible story about the first community-owned elephant orphanage in Africa. Please tell us about your relationship with Reteti.
I love elephants. The idea that the largest mammal on earth, an animal that is closely aligned with us in its social structure, might go extinct in my lifetime horrifies me. I learned about Katie Rowe and Reteti in 2017 shortly after the sanctuary opened. Reteti is special on many fronts. It represents a partnership between the local Samburu people, government and conservation-based organizations with the sole focus of improving the lives of the people, the wildlife and the natural resources of the region. While stories about the horrors of poaching and habitat destruction dominate the news, Reteti is a story of recovery and sustainability. The sanctuary rescues orphaned elephants, giving them a chance for survival and reintroduction into the wild. But Reteti is also much more than a rescue center.
Katie Rowe’s vision of empowering the local women and building on their strengths meant Reteti was the first elephant sanctuary in Africa to hire women as elephant keepers. Of course women make good caregivers! With employment local women now have some economic freedom and girls see new opportunities for their future. The Samburu have co-existed with wildlife for generations. Reteti represents a rekindling of the significance of this relationship after most of the wildlife had been eradicated from the landscape due to rampant poaching. There is a grassroots movement of community driven conservation across northern Kenya that is growing new economies, transforming lives and conserving natural resources. The Samburu recognize the value of conservation. By protecting wildlife, elephants have returned to the region. Elephants are keystone species, with their return other populations of animals native to the region have also increased. It is an exciting story worthy of replication.
Image: lineup of giraffes in bushes
On a personal level my experience in Northern Kenya at Sarara Camp and Reteti was restorative. The land, the people, the wildlife nurtured me too. I hope sharing my stories about my experience there can support the work of the people on the ground. It is a small gift in comparison to what I received.
You also support “Save Giraffes Now”, founded by another passionate woman, Susan G. R. Myers. How did you get in touch with this organization and tell us a little about their work and how you support them?
I met Susan Myers, founder of Save Giraffes Now, the same way I met you Lisbeth – women networking! I’m doing some mentoring sessions with photographer Ami Vitale. When Ami learned about my connection with Kenya and my Heartfelt Stories, she introduced me to Susan and SGN’s President David O’Connor. Susan, David and I met over zoom and hit it off immediately, after all it was a giraffe that first sealed my love of Kenya. SGN and I established a collaborative arrangement. I’m delighted to be able to spread the news of SGN and have my images and stories support their mission with our respective audiences with the aim of raising awareness about the silent extinction of giraffes.
What would be the happiest moments you have experienced during your time in Africa?
Gosh there are so many. Truth is I wake up with a smile on my face when I am in Africa. To be in the proximity of iconic African wildlife gives me a thrill I find hard to describe. I can’t sit still when the Maasai or Samburu are singing and dancing, I have to join in. To crawl into bed at night and listen to the sounds of the bush soothes my spirit. One of my happiest moments occurred last January when I went to Amboseli in Southern Kenya. My secret hope was to see Tim, Kenya’s famous bull elephant. Amboseli is 3,200 square kilometers, even though Tim and his friends are 6 tons and the largest mammals on the planet, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, they could be anywhere in the region.
I was the only passenger on the plane from Nairobi. When I met my guide Pilipili at the airstrip he said, “I understand you are a keen photographer, would you like to meet Tim?” Tim and his buddies were 10 minutes away, they practically met my plane! The next three days were life changing for me and set the stage for this chapter in my life and the launch of Heartfelt Stories and Heartfelt Endeavours. I’m currently making a photography book about my experience.
How do you see the future for these organizations in Africa and how can we spread the word about them?
Organizations like The Sarara Foundation and Save Giraffes Now represent an essential approach to conservation where local communities are directly involved in the protection of their wildlife and natural spaces. If people are starving or climate change is destroying their environment, the protection of wildlife falls to the bottom of the priority list. The conservation economy generates employment, uses local materials and local entrepreneurs, promotes eco-tourism, restores wildlife populations and protects the landscape – win/win/win. It is also true that the protection of wild spaces is key to fighting climate change. We can all be part of the solution by making mindful choices in the marketplace, raising awareness through networking, donating money to support causes that make a difference now and for future generations. Lisbeth, your idea of Women for Humanity plugs into something women have done forever – sharing ideas to help one another and make the world a better place. We all know someone who knows someone who is interested in the issues of the women you interview. I say, “Pass it on!” Together women are changing the world.
Where will your next photography trip take you?
I had two trips that were postponed in 2020 due to COVID; a barge trip to the South of France rebooked for next Sept. and a photography safari to Tanzania rebooked for November 2021. I hope the vaccine allows travel to open up soon. The safari industry has been devastated by the pandemic. Without eco-tourism the local people are suffering due to unemployment and wildlife is threatened by poaching again.I’m also planning a group safari for early 2022 that will include cross cultural conversations and game drives.I believe meeting the people who coexist with the wildlife is the best way to raise awareness about conservation and promote cross cultural dialogue.
Do you have a motto or a saying that guides you in life?
My mentor, Angeles Arrien, wrote Four Rules for a Simple Life that I use as guiding principles:
Tell the truth without blame or judgment
Listen to what has heart and meaning
Be open to outcome not attached to outcome
Kathy, you’re doing a lot for other people as well as for the wildlife in Africa. How can we do something for you?
You are kind Lisbeth, I appreciate your questions and this interview. Every effort to spread the word about conservation helps – whether it is in Kenya or readers’ home locations. I appreciate anyone sharing my stories and supporting conservation organizations. One by one we can make a difference.
Thank you so much Kathy for taking the time to share your passion for Africa and its culture. We wish you all the best for your future photographic projects and for life in itself.
I invite you all to visit Kathy’s website. Enjoy the wonderful photos and take the time to read her beautiful and captivating blog. You can also purchase throw pillows, prints, photo cards, books etc. A portion of every sale in the store supports carefully selected conservation causes helping to protect elephants and other wildlife.
YouTube: Kathy Karn Photography