The Noun Project’s Top Photographers

The Noun Project has put together a list of the top photographers working in 2024, and they did an insightful interview and writeup that collects my thoughts on the why and how of good documentary photography.

“My greatest lesson is to trust in the process. You build a good process, a way of working, and you have faith that it will pull you through.

You cannot cut corners, get impatient or try to get away without asking permission to do things. You just have to be there when the right time happens and be ready. That takes time, and the greatest gift to myself as a photographer is to give myself enough time.”

From the Noun Project’s interview with Kiliii Yuyan

‘Life On Thin Ice’ with NatGeo Live!

Hello friends! I’m on a speaking tour for National Geographic Live in 2024, across the US and Canada! The show is called Life on Thin Ice. And the opening of the entire series was in Seattle at Benaroya Hall! Then it goes to Los Angeles, Phoenix/Mesa, Buffalo, West Palm Beach, Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver.

In the Arctic, sea ice is synonymous with the sand in the desert. The ice is vital for transportation, for food, for living. And while the temperatures seem inhumane, the Arctic is teeming with life. Indigenous peoples call this frosty land home, but they’re not alone. Polar bears, musk ox, whales and caribou are some of the Arctic animals co-existing with more than 40 different ethnic groups in the north. Through beautiful images and awe-inspiring moments, National Geographic Live takes you on a journey with Kiliii Yüyan, our first speaker of Indigenous descent, to understand the Native peoples and their relationship to a frigid land and its animals.

The Seattle show went amazingly well, with three days of packed houses, and people leaving saying that their worldviews were changed. That’s the dream!

I am thankful for this and I hope it gives the wider US and Canada audience the opportunity to learn more about the reality behind life in the Arctic and especially the important role Indigenous peoples play through cultural stewardship of their place and communities.

I hope to see you there. Tickets for all the shows can be found here.

Show Dates:

  • Jan 22-24: Seattle, WA
  • Feb 1: Santa Monica, CA
  • March 20: Mesa, AZ
  • March 27: West Palm Beach, FL
  • April 2: Buffalo, NY
  • May 26-28: Calgary, AB
  • June 2-4, Toronto, ON

Impostor Syndrome- Who we are is what we spend our life doing

An oropendula bird at its unique hanging nest on a palm in the Cofan village of Chandia Nae, in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

I remember standing in the bright midday, hiding between a giant tin roof and an open concrete slab, sweating profusely into the humid air. My assistant Citlali and I were taking a moment of downtime on assignment for National Geographic, in a Cofan village in the Amazon basin, where we were on the barest edge of reception to the world outside the rainforest.

As I paced, swiping on my phone to the metallic slinky sounds of oropendula birds, an email came in from the Director of Storytelling at National Geographic. I was surprised to read I was to receive the Eliza Scidmore award, a gargantuan honor from National Geographic, whose past winners include Lynsey Addario, Erika Larsen, and Lynn Johnson. They are all heroines of mine, whose works I have spent my entire photographic life drawing divine influence from. Thus I was immediately struck by strange despair- why on earth would I deserve an award like this?

My gut reaction was a self-denial of sorts. I had only just published my first feature story for National Geographic, while my inspirations had been known for their lifetimes of achievement.

I stewed under that hot tin roof for some time, then finally thought perhaps I would confide in Citlali and get out of my own head.

Citlali was a brilliant therapist. A few days earlier I had been talking with her about impostor syndrome, the idea that we don’t see ourselves the way we see our heroes. It’s an unconscious bias that we can only get away from through acknowledgement and healthy belief in our own value.

She turned that idea back on me, obviously, and I had to admit, given my long interest in cognitive psychology, that there was some possibility she was right. I was feeling like an impostor.

So I did a second, more detailed mental review of my creative life. It made me remember that while I’ve shot just a single magazine feature story, I’ve done six other stories for National Geographic. Making those stories required working for months in extreme environments from the Arctic to the Amazon, and I returning with stories that laid bare the lives of people in remote communities; I’ve been telling stories from a different perspective than the historical norm in journalism. Even so, there’s a battle in my moral consciousness that reminds me this is just routine work for a committed photojournalist.

Thinking on it now I can see that my discomfort with receiving the Eliza Scidmore award is to some extent thinking that awards are for the awarded. But awards are also as much for the community doing the awarding. It’s a community function, part of the system that keeps people striving for the things that the community values.

An award is an acknowledgement of trust– that someone trusts you enough to keep doing work that they value.

People say work is just a living, but it’s more personal for me. My work heals me, connects me with my ancestry and with the land. Like many artists, I don’t just choose to do my work. I am compelled to it. Documentary photography has made me broader and deeper as a human being, and what a gift that is.

At last, I hope that, if you’re reading this, you might come away just one idea that I’ve paraphrased from writer Annie Dillard.

Who we are, is what we spend our life doing.

Annie Dillard

If you’re a creative, then the greatest gift is to be able to do creative work and have it leave behind a greater good.

Indigenous Fire wins Zeke Award for Systemic Change

Excited and honored to announce that my story Indigenous Fire, on cultural burning as used by the Yurok and Karuk Nations of Northern California, has taken 1st place in the Zeke Award for Systemic Change. This year’s theme is Climate Change, and I really appreciate the prize was focused on solutions rather than just highlighting problems.

Each summer, headlines around the world shout about the seemingly apocalyptic wildfires raging across the American West. Despite the intense focus on the problem itself, scant attention is paid to solutions- including one particularly pragmatic solution to climate-change exacerbated wildfire. It’s at first non-intuitive– fire-lighting rather than fire-fighting– but it has proven to be an exceptional weapon against a seemingly impossible opponent on a landscape-level scale.

It’s known as cultural fire. People like Margo Robbins and Elizabeth Azzuz of the Indigenous Peoples’ Burn Network are training others in an ancient technique of ecological restoration, which is to safely light low-intensity fires in wet seasons that remove the small fuels on the forest floor. Not only does it effectively prevent wildfires from spreading, but it also performs a 13,000 year old function- the restoration of health of the forests of Northern California, the most diverse coniferous forests on earth.

from Indigenous Fire

The other awardees had terrific stories highlighting different solutions to climate, from underwater agriculture to sea turtle rescue. You can find the full list here.

Frequently asked Questions

How do I become a photographer for National Geographic?

This is the most common question that any photographer for National Geographic gets, and I think it’s because the myriad paths to becoming a successful documentary photographer are rarely spoken about. Every single photographer making photos for the Geographic goes through a complicated journey in their life and career, and it’s unique to every person. What is certain is that there is no straightforward way to get there. Most photographers at NatGeo began having expertise in other fields, such as in marine biology, environmental justice, or medicine. Many are accomplished with specialized technical skills, such as cave diving, fluency in languages like Arabic, or macro studio lighting. Other have unique abilities to deeply access worlds that the rest of us do not, such as inside the military, Arctic Indigenous communities, or the homeless. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that every photographer at the Geographic can do something that no-one else in the world can do, and present it from a unique perspective that noone else can offer.

My best advice to an aspiring National Geographic photographer is this:

  • Become an expert in something that truly speaks to you, and do not just focus on photography.
  • Create photographic stories/projects, not just single images, that noone else has ever seen before. That does not mean it has never been covered, but that the images show us something we have never seen.
  • Expect to be a working photographer for at least several years before working for National Geographic.
  • Master less common technical skills, such as strobe lighting, astrophotography, or aerial work.
  • Do work that you love, and build entire photographic stories even if you have to do it on your dime. It’s very difficult to get hired to do work that you haven’t done before.

What is it like working for National Geographic?

Being a photographer for National Geographic is a dream job for many. But that doesn’t mean it is nearly as glamorous in reality as it seems, and it is not a life that suits everyone. Here are some of the less amazing things that are part of the lifestyle.

  • I often have so little time on assignment or am in such remote places to eat that I end up eating terrible food. I often have to live on fast food, Spam and crackers, or on the opposite end, on whale blubber and frozen whitefish (which I love but is not for everyone).
  • It is hard to stay in shape. I often do not get a chance to workout at all during assignments, and staying in shape is critical for the job. At the same time I often have to do physically demanding tasks when I’m in less good shape, such as steep hiking in 100 degree heat carrying 40# of gear, or freediving in freezing glacial lakes when I don’t have the proper wetsuit for the temperature. We also don’t get enough sleep.
  • The pressure to create excellent work can be exhausting. Our editors care deeply about us, but ultimately we have to come home with amazing work every single time, regardless of the excuses.
  • We rarely see home or have much of a personal life. In many years I am only home about 90 combined days in a year, and this is common among NatGeo photographers, especially early career. This can make it difficult or impossible to have a family, to keep relationships healthy, and keep your mental health in good shape.
  • I don’t make that much money. The days of enormous budgets and sponsorships by Rolex are long gone. Today top working photojournalists make enough money to survive, but here in Seattle, my income is in just the 50th percentile. A big part of our payment is the enjoyment of the work we do.
  • We are all freelancers. Every photographer for the Geographic is a contract freelancer. That means each assignment is potentially our last, so there’s not the sense of stability that salaried jobs can give. We buy our own health insurance and have to manage our businesses and do our own taxes. It’s not for everyone.

Here’s some of the wonderful parts of being of the job.

  • I experience and see things that I never would have without being a photographer. For example, I never would have started diving, and now I routinely spend time in the kelp forest and occasionally get to play with seals underwater.
  • I meet amazing people that give me deep insights into culture and life that I never would have otherwise.
  • I get to educate people about issues that I care deeply about. In my case, the issues and stories of Indigenous communities, Asian American communities, the Arctic and wildlife are things that I feel a level of responsibility for, and am so happy when I can tell the stories properly. Sometimes our stories even result in policy change, and that is deeply satisfying.
  • I get to go on adventures and travel regularly. This is, of course, the main thing that most people think of when they think of photography for National Geographic, and it’s true. But if it’s your only goal, there are much easier and simpler ways to go about doing it.

I love my work, and in many ways, it is what makes me who I am. But the sacrifices are real, and although we can mitigate them to some degree, they will always be there. Would I change it given the opportunity? Not a chance.

Shortlist for Leica Oskar Barnard Award

I am excited to announce my fine-art documentary series, Rumors of Arctic Belonging, has been shortlisted for the Leica Oskar Barnard Award!

The Arctic is changing radically. In his impressive series, the American photographer Kiliii Yüyan (born 1979) offers insight into the fascinating imagery of the North. Both the icebergs and the local population are disappearing; within a couple of decades a future Arctic awaits – not cold and unchanging, but living, dying and being reborn.

Leica Oskar Barnard Award, 2021

The award has been around for a long time and is one of the more prestigious awards in photography, covering documentary of all types. Entrants are only nominated by photo editors and curators.

You can see the entire series on my website here. It was on exhibition at Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery, but due to the pandemic, had few visitors, so I’m happy to see that it’s getting some viewers now. The topic of who the Arctic belongs to, and who belongs to it – is seemingly innocuous – but an enormously deep topic that’s worth talking about in this era of reckoning with colonization worldwide.

On polar bears & fireflies with Outside, Creative Live Podcasts

Polar Bear Attack- Excerpt from Outside Podcast

It’s been a busy month for me, revving into 2021 with a bevy of podcast appearances. First up is Outside Magazine’s excellent podcast, where I get into the details of a polar bear attack and what it’s like to experience that as a photographer in a new environment (the sea ice) for the first time. There’s an excerpt above, and you can listen to the entire episode here.

Next up is my talk with Creative Live’s We are Photographers podcast, which is an excellent survey of professional photographers and what they are dealing with in the world. I spoke with Kenna about the importance of bearing around different cultures, and how cultural bias can poison your photography and journalism. I also got into some talk about animism, or how fireflies are actually fairies. The video above has an excerpt about that. You can find the entire podcast here.

Art in the Plague Year

This was a big year for mind-expanding group exhibitions, and I was honored to be included among three exhibitions, 2 virtual and 1 in person (Taiwan, although I couldn’t be there myself).

The current one is Art in the Plague Year, at the California Museum of Art, which just opened. I thought this was such an interesting idea- what new ideas have we been thinking about during the pandemic, that doesn’t literally picture COVID or its impacts?

We are now engaged with history. In a fog of uncertainty, this alone is clear: history tells us pandemics trigger periods of change. They lay bare social inequities, racial rifts, and economic injustices. They contain the seeds of new futures.

Personally, I had a a powerful moment where I understood the need to branch out beyond my regular work and dive further into animism, the spiritual framework behind my Nanai and Chinese ancestries. And since animism is about relationship to land, it’s a perfect candidate for landscape work.

But the big question was: how to turn something so abstract and beyond normal perception into photography? I didn’t want to stage images, and setup lighting or otherwise manipulate the scene, as I find it too difficult to balance different photographic personalities. I am distinctly a documentary photographer and believe in the power of the journalistic still image.

As soon as I asked the question, the answer appeared in front of me, as the forest I was hiking through transformed into a river of floating orange spirit lights, dancing above my head and on the trunks of the fir trees. I had never seen anything like it before, but I knew that the moment and the particular place had given me insight into how I would approach the idea of animism, now my ongoing project titled, Thin Places.

The first bit of it is online with other impressive perspectives at the California Museum of Photography’s online exhibition.

Exhibition: Rumors of Arctic Belonging

I’m so happy to announce that my photographic exhibition, Rumors of Arctic Belonging, is on show at Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, OR. Rumors was in the works for 5 years until finally I understood the through-line that connected all of my work across the circumpolar Arctic, from Alaska to Russia– to see the Arctic as a living and flourishing land. Come for the polar bears, stay for the intimate looks at Arctic life.

Towering icebergs, doomed expeditions in tall ships, desolate landscapes with naught but howling wind– this was the vast Arctic from the paintings of European explorers in the 19th century. That romance carries on in the 21st century, even as the ice vanishes and increasing numbers of people experience the North in person.

When the future has its way with the North, it will leave a radically altered land. The sea ice and its denizens will have vanished.  Contemporary Inuit will be living vastly different lifestyles than that of their ancestors. Future generations will look back to remember a land little understood by outsiders.

September 3-27 at Blue Sky Gallery, Portland, OR. You can visit from 12-5pm, Wed-Sat, with appointments available, or walk-ins. Limited to 10 visitors at once.

You can also check out my recorded Artist Talk with Zemie Barr from Blue Sky Gallery.

Interview with Humble Arts Foundation

Quinn Russell Brown is a friend, fantastic photographer and inquisitive person, so I always love sitting down and chatting with him. Recently, he interviewed me for Humble Arts Foundation, and his questions were illuminating. We had a wonderful conversation, of which I’ve excerpted below.

Brown: Your work is in lockstep with your approach and attitude to life. And when we talk about who should be permitted to shoot a story, I would say it’s bigger than applying a strict equity lens, than simply asking, “Which is the right ethnicity to shoot this story?” 

Yuyan: It’s more complicated than that. There are different reasons to hire for diversity. One of them is for the perspective. Another is to make sure that we’re bringing people in to give them an opportunity. But then there’s one that we don’t talk about much, which is access. Someone like me can walk in and people are like, “You remind us of us.” I understand enough about the culture to know what to do and what not to do. I know how to just hang out with people. I have that slow patience. 

Find the entire interview with Humble Arts Foundation here.