It was one of the greatest honors and privileges of my life to speak at National Geographic in Washington DC before an audience of my photographic heroes. I used the platform of the 2019 NatGeo Photo Seminar to speak about my story on the Iñupiaq, and about the importance of representation for marginalized peoples in photography.
The world is full of stories. How many of those stories don’t just repeat what we already know? How many stories teach us to see the world from a truly different perspective? Indigenous peoples are cast as tragic victims, of colonization, of climate change. Yet the views from the inside are not ones of despair, but joy. While the dominant cultures continue to gaze at us as they always have, Native storytellers work to offer our own perspectives through modern mediums.
A question I get all the time is “How do you deal with polar bears?” And my response, after talking about how it works with polar bears, is followed by an extra thought. Polar bears are not, by far, the biggest problem I face in the field. The biggest thing I face is failure, and often it takes everything I have to keep pushing through the things I dislike.
Come visit me and the other speakers, come play with cameras at the Glazer’s Photofest. It’s Seattle’s biggest photography event and there will be lots happening both Saturday and Sunday.
Date: Saturday, June 1, 2019
Time: 10:15am -11:15am
Description: Great photographs transport us to the moment the shutter clicked. Yet truthfully, all the work happens in the hours and months before that moment. We rarely hear about the obstacles that stood in the path of great photographs.
National Geographic photographer Kiliii Yuyan takes us behind the process of his favorite images, as he works through circling polar bears, sickness from botulism, and the initial distrust of an Alaska Native community. Kiliii speaks about the invisible things that give a photographer true grit— optimism, focus, and perserverance.
Usually when one hears the news of a community in the 21st century living in rough conditions, it’s far outside of one of the wealthy nations. Yet for, this story on youth suicide, I embarked on a project for Pacific Standard that took me to… the United States. Alaska, to be more precise, where Native Alaskan youth suffer from a rate of suicide 18 times what it is in the lower 48 states.
With indigenous communities, it’s been common practice for outside journalists to parachute in, find a story, and then depart a few days later. Yet for indigenous communities, the understanding of stories and who they belong to is completely different. Indigenous protocol dictates that stories are collaborative- belonging to the community as much as to the journalist.
In planning a story on indigenous suicide in the Arctic, it was my mission to begin by giving something to the community rather than taking something away from it. So I collaborated with the Bering School District to provide a suicide-prevention art therapy program for the community of Gambell, Alaska. This took place within high school as a voluntary program. In art class we provided a safe space for each youth to construct two paper-mache masks– one for their grief and one for their joys. Afterwards, I made environmental portraits of the students with their masks in the places they took me where they felt those emotions.
As indigenous people we want more than portrayal as victims. In Alaska, grief was not the overriding emotion I observed—it was the vitality of youth. Thus this project’s presentation is diptych portraiture—one portrait showing a young person with their grief mask, next to one with their joy mask. It is my hope that together they are moving and humanizing.
It turned out to be a good fit– I relied a great deal upon my experience shooting in the Arctic. I hung off of sleds sideways, rode snow machines while piloting drones, and battled the sleet and snow constantly obscuring my lenses and viewfinders.
The first woman to win the Iditarod was Libby Riddles, in 1985. While other teams waited out bad weather, she left the safety of the checkpoint at Shaktoolik to mush into a blizzard on the frozen Norton Sound. By the time the weather cleared, she had the advantage.
Blair Braverman for Vogue
It was a terrific experience thanks to the art direction and production from Emily Rosser and Nikki Krecciki, as well the hospitality of these talented mushers who invited me into their lives. Thank you Alison, Kristy, Blair, Alison, Magda and Jessica! Additional thanks to double threat Blair Braverman, who is not only a musher, but also an incredible writer.
I’m again honored to be chosen as one of PDN’s 30 New and Emerging Photographers. It’s one of our industry’s most notable achievements for early-career photographers, and I’m amazed to be a part of a group of heavyweight photographers that have been named over the decades. They include: Lynsey Addario, Alec Soth, Taryn Simon, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Norman Jean Roy, Ami Vitale, Aaron Huey, Olivia Bee, Jonas Bendicksen, Wayne Lawrence and Daniella Zalcman.
We published our first PDN’s 30 issue 20 years ago. Despite significant changes in the markets for editorial, commercial and fine-art photography, a lot of things have stayed the same. As we look through hundreds of portfolios of photographers recommended to us by editors, creatives, curators and some of the leading voices in professional photography, we are still drawn to striking images, unique stories, original perspectives and a consistent vision.
One of the favorite people I met in 2018 was Aline Smithson, of Lenscratch. We spoke at the conference PhotoNOLA, about searching for one’s home everywhere you go– and that’s certainly true for me in my artmaking.
Many thanks to Aline for being so curious and lifting the lid on the driving forces in my life.
Aline interviewed me for Lenscratch and we spoke at length about what it means to be a person driven by stories– not stories in the contemporary journalistic sense, but mythology from the culture of my ancestors.
The Guardian has long been a bastion of news about global indigenous issues. I’m pleased to say I worked with editor Jehan Jillani on a story on modern Iñupiaq culture and traditional whaling. It’s not easy to do a story on something as ostensibly controversial as whaling, but the Guardian understands the big difference between commercial and indigenous whaling. I hope it’s an opportunity for their readers to see the history of systematic oppression of the indigenous perspective.
By 2011, the Iñupiaq had quadrupled the population of the bowhead, while hunting them for subsistence. The story of the Iñupiaq is a vision of successful conservation using indigenous knowledge.
One thing I have begun to explore lately within photography is going beyond changing the narrative we tell of indigenous peoples. I’m trying to show the dominant culture what it is like to see the world from a Native point of view, yet even that’s not quite right. In this interview for the Strange Fire Collective, I speak about making photographs as looking at the contemporary world, strange as it is, though indigenous lenses. That’s what Hamidah Glasgow has pulled out of me in my many conversations I’ve had with her over the last several months. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I’ve enjoyed talking to Hamidah.
A great way to illustrate this is the reaction to an image of a butchered seal. From an indigenous viewpoint, that seal meat is a gift from the seal, and it’s nourishing food. From the colonial gaze, it’s either seen as quaint and exotic or as a repulsive tradition.
I had long thought I was in my ‘Indigenous shoes,’ but in order to do photography that is meaningful and deep, you have to really, really own it.
Last year, I spoke with Dzana Tsomondo, a fellow immigrant who grew up in the same county that I went to school in. We connected immediately, in part because we shared so much parallel history– his family swept up in the civil war in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), my family swept up in the cultural revolution and border wars between China, Russia and Japan.
Thus, when Dzana wrote a feature story for CommArts on me and my work, he understood many things that were not easy to speak about. We spoke about the travails of family, my love for traditional boatbuilding and photographing in the dangerous environments of the Arctic for National Geographic. Find out more.
Excited to announce that my series Îslandia has won Best Series in ASMP’s Photo Contest. It’s an honor for these to get past the discerning eyes of the judges, including Gregory Heisler, who is a hero of mine.