November is International ‘Check Your Camera Strap’ Month

Photography Spotlight: Karine Aigner

Credit: Karine Aigner 
Hamid Amirani - 5.23.19

A regular series profiling a few of the esteemed photographers whose work is showcased here on the Cecilia website, asking what they carry on a photo shoot, their approach to their craft, and what advice they can offer to anyone wishing to pursue photography.

Credit: Ken Geiger 

Right from the start, travel and adventure were part of Karine Aigner's life. Born in New York, she was raised in Saudi Arabia, went to high school in Boston, motorbiked through Vietnam, and taught English in Taiwan. 

The award-winning wildlife conservation photographer was Senior Picture Editor of National Geographic Kids magazine for nine years. Since 2011, she's been freelance and her photos have been featured in Nature Conservancy magazine and National Geographic magazine among others.

CHANNELLING PAIN

However, her career is not about the glamour of jetting all over the world. As her website states, Karine's "passion became stories of animals, their relationships to humans, and their own world." Sometimes this is about the pain she feels when she sees what humans do to animals who belong in the wild.

Karine won the top prize in the inaugural Por el Planeta conservation photography contest in 2015, beating almost 3,000 entrants, for her photo of a chimp being teased by children at an animal sanctuary in Indiana.

Translating her empathy for animals into images is what Karine does, as can be seen in this stunning but also heartbreaking photo of a majestic lion behind the frame of a cage in a San Francisco zoo.

Credit: Karine Aigner 

"I gave myself a self-assignment to remind me of how captive lives exist," says Karine. "I wanted to see the situation to see what we do to animals who belong in the wild."

And what Karine saw was a lion in a cold concrete enclosure. "I walked around with pain in my heart." Capturing the image was about "channeling the part of it that hurts me - this animal and I are separated by bars."

When it comes to her work, Karine is adamant about making sure she’s open to something she might not have initially envisioned.  Otherwise, "you can miss what's in front of you." And what she found in front of her was seeing the reflection of the bars in the lion's eye. For her, the reflection is an "illustration of what we do to wildlife. They're exploited by humans for our benefit."

Karine has witnessed first-hand a lack of awareness among the general public about what goes on in their own communities. "People are shocked there are tigers in backyards in Texas. They don't know that people keep lions and tigers in their backyards." Funding is needed for sanctuaries to protect these animals, but also more education about the exotic animal trade to stop the problem, she says. "Through no fault of their own, these animals are captive born and bred with no say in their own existence."

Karine acknowledges there's a school of thought that says one has to have a positive message to maintain an audience, that there must be a positive call to action and give people the incentive to create change, but after everything she's observed, she admits that she sometimes has difficulty finding the positive.

THE GEAR

Until recently, Karine exclusively used Canon cameras, but she now also utilizes Sony with the smaller Alpha a7R III.

The precise setup depends on the nature of her shoot. For a recent street photography assignment, she used the Sony because she wanted to pare down her equipment and not "look like a photographer. I wanted an understated air about me."

Karine travels with two camera bodies, which is handy in case one of them dies on her, but it also provides the added advantage of having a specific lens on each body, saving her from having to switch lenses on one camera. She has a few Canon cameras, but primarily uses the 5D Mark III, the 7D, and 1D X.

Her lenses are 100-400mm, 70-200mm, and a wide angle - 16-35mm or 24-70mm. If she's photographing a small creature like a lizard, she'll use a macro or wide angle lens. If it's birding, she uses a long lens like a 600mm. For street photos, it’s something shorter, such as a 35mm or 50mm. And if she's aiming for a particular artistic composition, Karine will opt for a lens that has a wider aperture, such as f/2.8, which "allows you to blur out the background."

Her lens choices might sound unconventional, which is something Karine happily acknowledges. “Why would any photographer use an orthodox method to photograph? Why would you not create your own style?”

In terms of the wide angle lenses, she says, “How else would you get a small subject in situ? You have to move in close to the subject if you can and get the background. How would you show a salamander in a forest or a lizard on a tree in a forest? In order to get the background, you have to come in tight and wide.”

As for the brand of lenses, they’re all Canon and Sony. “I stay brand true,” Karine says. “I know there are other lenses that are good that might be cheaper, but I like to stick with a brand. I don’t want to create other problems just by going off-brand. It’s just my own little superstition.”

PURPOSE DEFINES PATH

For aspiring photographers, Karine says, "they need to know their voice matters." Knowing what you want to do with your voice is essential: "Purpose helps define path." If your purpose is telling stories, "you don't need to go abroad. Work in your own community."

Commitment to a subject helps one learn how to understand a subject. "Give yourself a project you can revisit time and time again. If you go to Africa once, you don't get enough time to understand [your subject or its behavior]."

When Karine visited Africa, she took photos of everything she could. By her third trip, she felt her images were boring. "I was ‘happy snapping’ instead of making pictures."

Being able to explore on a continuous basis therefore helps develop your style. "Challenge yourself on how many different ways you can present your subject."

And if you don't yet know what interests you, the "most important thing is to pick up a camera and use it. The camera is your vision. It is your voice."

Karine advises young photographers to do their homework and look at the work of other photographers, and she stresses to not be afraid of failure. "Failure is in not trying." She also encourages breaking photographic rules.

Feedback from peers is vital, but "talk to a variety of people." If there's a common theme, such as photos being out of focus, then take that to heart, but don't be disappointed if only one person doesn't like your work. Ultimately, photography is about impact. "If someone looks at your work and cries or says 'wow,’ you've created an effect."

THE FUTURE

Karine still has a lot of goals she'd like to achieve, but chief among them is the work she does with young people and taking it to another level.

"I teach kids and it's a pleasure connecting them to the natural environment with cameras. My bigger goal is to create an army of young people who care about the environment. If they choose nature, they will make decisions based on the planet."

"Kids are the change," says Karine. "I've seen the power of what a camera can do."

To learn more about Karine and her work, including her photographic tours, visit her official website: https://www.karineaigner.com

When not traveling, Karine resides in Washington DC and is represented by National Geographic Creative and Tandem Stills & Motion.

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