Kirsten Alana, alone with her lens in Havana
I was taken with Kirsten from the moment we met, in a long-age age when it was possible to meet heart to heart in a busy NYC cafe. I'm so grateful she took the precious time to put down camera and pick up pen to share this interview. It is rich with self-knowledge, candor, hope, and wisdom from which I gained so much. I hope you're equally inspired by our conversation.
SteamLine Founder, Sara Banks
SB: It is such a pleasure to connect with you again! Remember way back when we could meet in person? When we were able to sit down for an unmasked heart to heart in a busy NYC cafe?
KA: Hi! And yes, I remember that well! You had the stunning palm-imprinted Botanist Mini with you in pink and I couldn’t stop drooling over it. I don’t think it was even live on the site yet? Those were the “good ol’ days” before I left NYC in 2018 and before any of us could have envisioned this weird world we now live in with COVID. Lots and lots of changes.
SB: Alas! All our lives are so changed, are you feeling stir crazy being grounded? Is this the longest stint you have been at home? Give us the snapshot of life at the moment: Where is home these days, are you surrounded or have you been able to visit friends and family? Who is on your quaranteam?
KA: LOL, exactly. I’ve had lots of moments of feeling stir crazy while being grounded since the pandemic began but it always comes and goes like a hot flash. This is the longest I have ever been in one place or stayed home. It has not been easy. My years of frequent travel, meeting new people, constantly learning new things—that was all genuinely healthy for my mind and soul.
Home is a shared apartment in Los Angeles. We have a balcony that’s been our saving grace—outdoor space that’s ours!—but it really is a challenge to have two people trying to work from a small apartment, no space that’s only your own or a place you can talk without being heard. His career hasn’t really been impacted by the pandemic—like mine has—so it’s a lot of me having no choice but to listen to his conference calls and finding ways to avoid being in the background of his video calls while still getting in and out of the kitchen or bathroom. I have not seen family since 2019. I’ve only socialized via Zoom. No one has it easy and I won’t go into all of the details of just how difficult my particular situation has been because at the end of the day, I still have a roof over my head and I’ve not gone without food thanks to his job. But I see you if you’ve struggled with depression or how to “pivot” because of all of this. Many make it look a lot easier online, than it is in reality.
Finding space in L.A.
SB: And then if we can, let’s jump to life pre pandemic. Can we just talk about this for a minute?? “My career has taken me to more than 60 countries and all 50 states.” THAT IS INCREDIBLE. When did your love for photography begin? Which love came first in your life, that of travel or that of photography?
KA: Thanks! I’m truly grateful for all the work and experiences I had before the pandemic. If I ever seem like I am not, I assure you that’s not my intention. Grateful isn’t even a big enough word. There were years that challenged me to grow and change in ways I am not personally capable of by staying in any one place.
Photography came first, as an interest, when I was very young. I grew up in a family of artists and it was my way of being creative, I think, since I couldn’t paint or draw. But travel was a pretty early interest as well. I got my first passport when I was 12 for a trip to England with my mum and though it took me a long time to have the confidence to pursue a travel photography career, that absolutely was when the seed of interest was sown.
"We have made some progress in the world in terms of human rights and equality; so we should keep going and keep working, not be scared by how much work there still is to do."
SB: And is there a pivotal point in your career that launched you into all this travel?
KA: Yes, I talk about that in depth for a piece on BBC. It was a divorce when I was in my late twenties.
SB: I think it is really incredible that you started to travel most after a divorce in your late twenties, and after a nomadic burst you had the revelation that “I was accountable for my own story, and the honesty and magic and exploration therein.” It is amazing to me how travel does provide a backdrop for self-discovery and can add context to our lives. Can you talk about this epiphany? How travel helped you through a really difficult time in your life?
KA: Well you summarized it correctly. I was escaping and working through grief but I was also learning and growing. And I wasn’t someone who had done that well in the environment I grew up in. I needed to be in unfamiliar places, with unfamiliar people. And then I also began to understand we don’t escape our problems when we leave a place or a person, we just carry them with us. But I could work through all that when I put some distance between myself and the familiar. It’s like Kate Chopin wrote, “She was becoming herself, casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment.” And I think I am still doing that. Maybe we do it our whole lives, continue to grow and evolve. Life is a probably a journey in which we never fully arrive.
SB: You have mentioned your family has been so influential to your travel. My parents also had the travel bug they passed on to us all. What are stand out memories of your family that inspired you to see the world?
KA: Oh, so many. Seeing photos of my mum in college in Sweden or black and white film photos of vacations on the continent before any of us kids were born. We did very frequent road trips, through Canada, from where I grew up in Vermont to where my mum’s family was in Michigan and back again. There were road trips to Florida where my mum would be working on commercial murals and we’d be at the beach with an au pair. Then the big trip to England and for a time I was able to fly for free on the airline my uncle was a pilot for (before 9/11 changed flight rules) so I did a lot of jetting around the USA. Weekend trips to Colorado to bag 14ers and date architects. I have no idea if I’d still want to work in travel if I never had traveled when I was young. Nor do I understand other people in the USA who don’t have an interest in travel. For me, it’s just always sort of been there via those trips or in some of the very (lol! the book I will one day write!) European ways in which we were raised.
SB: I have been interested in writing about the history of solo female travel. Before I had four back-to-back boys haha, I loved to explore solo, to adventure alone. How do you feel about traveling alone versus with others? Do you feel generally safe when traveling alone or what are your tips for ensuring your safety?
KA: I tend to be a better student of experience when I am alone, without the distraction of friends, family, or other travelers. But I also feel a benefit from traveling in a group. I’ve been assaulted, raped and robbed (multiple times) while traveling alone. So…I’m very much a realist that it’s not always safe— and not all places are 100% safe for female, solo travelers—and yet, those things haven’t stopped me from wanting to travel alone. Nor would I ever tell another woman she can’t or shouldn’t travel solo. I will still do it. I just hope I am now a bit smarter with regards to where I go and how I go, when I’m alone.
SB: Firstly, I am so sorry to hear what you have been through and appreciate your openness in sharing with me and our readers. It strikes me as remarkably brave that you have never stopped traveling where and how you want to. I think that what happened to you opens up so many of women's worst fears, and would stop many from traveling again. It would be so encouraging to hear how you overcame any fears after this happened, if you would be willing to share any personal safety measures and advice you adopted that have made you feel more secure when traveling alone.
KA: Thank you. I think we all handle trauma differently. In short, I’ve moved on from things because I had to. But I try to make it clear in personal interactions that I am always here for women who need to talk privately and need someone who understands. As far as being comfortable traveling alone, I found therapy to be helpful in addition to the resources shared by Joyful Heart Foundation. And I recommend these posts from Be My Travel Muse and Solo Traveler.
SB: Thank you so much, Kirsten. In addition I would love to share this very thoughtful piece by the New York Times from before the pandemic, as well as Travel.State.Gov as a basic resource to always review for up-to-date information before traveling alone. Should anyone reading this have any additional advice or resources you would like to share, please email me at email@example.com.
“We have evidence that shows that women face risks that men don’t face in public spaces, at home, wherever they may be,” said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, an organization that promotes female equality. Increasingly, “wherever they may be” includes alone in foreign countries."
KA: I’d echo the above!
SB: As we speak of how you want to be here for others, I want to say I love all the initiatives you are part of. You actively give back in so many ways. What initiative has been particularly close to your heart these days?
KA: Thank you! That’s really kind of you. I mean I’d fix any problem I could if I was a billionaire. I’m a bleeding heart. I’d listen to communities and try to give away every cent of my wealth to help others. The reality is I have very little personal means, so I give back a portion of every paycheck that does come in—to causes like racial or social justice, food security, human rights and the environment. I also have photos in my print store that specifically raise money for causes. And in 2020 I founded Raising for Change. It’s also a print store, with plans for more products down the line that relate to photography or travel. All of the proceeds funnel toward a cause chosen by the photographer whose image sells and we won’t keep any profit, it will all go toward running the business or back into the causes if there is any surplus at the end of the year.
In Kenya with Amarula to help save the African elephant from poaching.
SB: In terms of staying grounded, my team and I have been talking and thinking about journal therapy a lot lately. This is in conjunction with a Travel Journal we came out with but also the ongoing mental-health quest that is especially true of these extraordinary times. Do you journal in handwriting for private purposes when traveling or stick to social media to document your travels and record your feelings while sharing them? Are you relatively curated or uncensored in your commentary?
KA: A combination. I was much better at physically writing in a journal when I was first traveling. And then when iPhones kept getting better and better and I was using my iPhone so much for social video and some photos, I just started typing up thoughts in the Notes app and I still do that.
With regards to social media and what I share on my blog, I want the story to be about the place and the local people (see this piece of mine on women in Maine). Not me. The goal is always helping other people learn alongside me and I don’t know if that’s as possible if every photo is of me and curated or edited to be in any way unreal or not completely honest. I went to college for TV journalism and I think I approach travel photography more from a journalistic ideology than a virality perspective.
"I want the story to be about the place and the local people. Not me. The goal is always helping other people learn alongside me and I don’t know if that’s as possible if every photo is of me and curated or edited to be in any way unreal or not completely honest."
SB: We have all written and rewritten our plans (yes resilience is the word of the 2020, and adaptability continues to be key in 2021!). Tell us about where is first on your list when things reopen. Or when you have a vaccine stamp in your passport and can go anywhere. Anywhere you are just craving to go? People to see? Food to eat?
KA: I miss Scotland and France, my two favorite countries, so much—I would probably go to one or both of those as my first international trip. But it’s more likely that visiting my family will be my first actual flight. I don’t want to watch my niece and nephew grow up in photos only. And a brother got engaged at Christmas, so I’ll have a wedding to attend.
After that, I want to get back to learning in places that are new to me. It would be nice to make it to Antarctica. I’d love to explore more of the African continent, Eastern Europe, New Zealand for the first time or try a dish that’s new to me in some part of rural Japan. Which I’ve also still not yet been to! Quelle horreur!
Kirsten in Paris with her Black Diplomat Stowaway case.
SB: I love this: “And that’s what I look forward to getting back to most when we are past this pandemic: meeting people and truly getting to know them.” Do you feel this is even more of a priority now? Have your travel priorities changed since the pandemic?
KA: Yes, without a doubt. I think you took that from one of my Instagram posts?
I don’t think my travel priorities have changed so much as cemented themselves. I spent the early years working in travel often—not always— taking any opportunity that came my way without being super intentional in my choices.
Now I want to return to my original goal of being a traveler that learns and grows with every choice I make and every day I am out there exploring. I also want to travel in a way that doesn’t further harm the planet. So less flights and more time in destinations. Less trips, generally, but deeper experiences when I do leave home.
I want to do work that really matters in travel photography. I want my images to bring attention to important issues and aid people that want to learn about the world they won’t, or don’t, get to see for themselves.
SB: Hilariously, one of the Maasai tribes you photographed in Amboseli, featured a friend of ours we met in Lamu—Jonathan! A very small/large world it is!
Small World: Sara and Kirsten share friends among the Maasai in Kenya!
KA: Wow! That’s from my trip to Kenya with Amarula to draw attention to their initiative with Dr. Paula Kahumbu that seeks to help save the African elephant from poaching. That project had such a profound effect on me.
And this is also the real sort of irony of travel if that’s the right word. It teaches you the world is much bigger and deeper than you could possibly imagine. But also, it’s a small small world and we are truly more connected than we could fathom. It’s the Six Degrees Kevin Bacon thing but make it travel.
Also, we have a lot more in common than we think. When you realize that, it helps you break down barriers and approach meeting new people with more…grace? That might not be the right word, again. But let’s go with that.
SB: I know you have soft spots for France. Anywhere else that really captures your heart. Or perhaps there are several for different reasons, if you care to share?
KA: I talk about Scotland and France as being the two halves of my soul. Ironically, I can claim heritage for neither. Yet they both feel like home in a way the USA never has for me. They don’t really challenge me or shape me to the same degree other places can and or have. But I return to them over and over because I never feel like I have learned or experienced enough in either country. And while I don’t think either are perfect, they’re nearly perfect for me each in their own way. I’d like to spend some part of my life having been a resident in both countries.
Scotland by Kirsten.
SB: Professionally, do you have any career highlights? Any clients you have especially liked working with? Any particularly wonderful travel memories from being on-the-job, on-the-road?
KA: It’s like being asked to choose a favorite child as a mum. I’m so grateful for all the experiences I’ve had and all the places I have been.
But my first visit to Scotland to experience their NYE with a bunch of colleagues who are also friends is pretty hard to beat to this day. We wore kilts, talked with locals for hours in ancient pubs, walked through Edinburgh’s Old Town with flaming torches and sipped whisky from our own private hot tub inside a huge home up Perthshire. They call New Year’s "Hogmanay" and it’s a crackin’ celebration. We really made the most of it and we met so many amazing locals that I still talk to on the regular now.
I also loved being the staff photographer on the Four Seasons and then the TCS private jet. They had a new plane the first time I was staff in 2015, which was fun as an AV geek, but they also do such a dynamite job with their experiences on the ground. I may never have gone to Albania, Oman, or Kazakhstan unless I was staff for those trips. I don’t know if I ever would have met the Mayor of Tirana, gotten to swim with manta rays off the Kona Coast, toured Hagia Sophia on a day it’s not open to the public or flown over Oman in ultralight if I’d never had those jobs. They helped me look at countries I hadn’t considered before with more inquisitive eyes and opened doors I may never have been able to go through otherwise.
And then my early trips to Spain were, well, incredible to say the least. I had a meal at El Celler de Can Roca with all the brothers that lasted for an obscene amount of hours, met Ferran (because of course!), foraged for mushrooms in the Pyrenees, learned to make aioli from scratch (it is not easy!), went sailing, lived like a local in an apartment in Barcelona and met so many fantastic people. The structure and length of those trips was such that I felt we really dug deep into Catalan culture—which is so passionate and endearing—and that’s not something that’s happened on a work trip quite the same way, since.
In Tanzania as staff photographer for the Four Seasons.
SB: The travel community is really supportive and close and it seems the photography community is the same way. Is there anyone you lean on to share learnings from? Any photographer who really inspires you?
KA: Oh gosh the photography industry in reality is so white + male-dominated. There are lots of things that need fixing!! But I do always want to highlight fellow female photographers and be part of trying to work to make the industry more equitable for women and BIPOC photographers in ways it hasn’t been for me. I share a lot with my friend Sarah Sloboda. She’s an outstanding children’s portrait photographer. I recommend following Lola Akinmade Åkerström, who is just an extraordinary travel photographer and human being. And Jamie Beck, who basically has my dream life in a small town in France, is also a collector of SteamLine. I’m following—and trying to support—the work of Black Women Photographers and I love discovering new talent on Exposure.
SB: Over the past year we’ve focused on life as a daily adventure and, to quote Pavia from Fathom, “We firmly believe that travel should be one of life's fundamentals, with "travel" defined not only by long-haul flights and well-stamped passports, but by any experience that lifts us from our usual routine into a new world.” How do you plan to stay “lifted” from your usual routine until the world is fully open again?
KA: Fathom is great! And I couldn’t agree more. During this time at home, that’s been a lot of trying out recipes which remind us of favorite meals in beloved places or that help us experience new places. I’ve done Zoom classes to better understand rum and ordered whisky kits to try out new distilleries from Away from the Ordinary. I hope that my choices in terms of what I read, watch, or listen to help with this as well. I’m listening to, and trying to learn from, BIPOC thought leaders and writers. And I escape into historical fiction or fantasy when I need to decompress. It’s engaging since it’s different from the now. But much of what’s set in the past, even if it’s a bit fantastical, also reminds me that we have made some progress in the world in terms of human rights and equality; so we should keep going and keep working, not be scared by how much work there still is to do. Travel helped expose me to the importance of those issues and I can keep it going even if I am not jumping on a plane tomorrow.
SB: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. I would love to be able to work with you directly one day. Maybe on some wonderful sunny island beach we can get together for a photoshoot—and explore a new community together.
KA: Oui. S'il vous plaît. I would love that too! Any chance to work with SteamLine. And I have not had enough sunny, island beaches in my life. Let’s make it happen once it’s safe to do so!
At home in Sonoma, making an adventure of daily life.
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