We are still here: Photography as Colonization

Today Survival International published a roundup of indigenous criticism of photographer Jimmy Nelson, and his book, Before They Pass Away. I get asked how I feel about Jimmy Nelson’s book all the time, and this is a deep conversation that often makes my day feel darker. Let me be clear– while I believe that Jimmy Nelson has good intentions, his work is classic colonization.

As indigenous peoples we are tired of being seen as having existed only in the past. We are still here, and suffering great traumas at the hands of settlers and colonial governments at this current moment. Jimmy’s work casts indigenous peoples as A) only beautiful in the past and B) nearly extinct. We are clearly nowhere near extinct (there are over 600,000 Maori living in New Zealand, and 150,000 Iñuit across the Arctic), and in the modernization of our traditional clothing and outward appearances there are the obvious signs of globalization’s effects on our communities.

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Anaiyyun: Prayer for the Whale premieres at the Seattle International Film Festival

I’m excited to announce that my debut as a film director will be premiering at the Seattle International Film Festival on Monday, May 28th. This for my short film Anaiyyun: Prayer for the Whale. It will be screening alongside several other short films in a series called Legends of the PNW.


Anaiyyun: Prayer for the Whale is the story of an Iñupiaq whaling crew, living where the vast plain of ice meets the waters of the Arctic Ocean. During whaling, their lives are interminable periods of silent observation, punctuated by moments of terror. The ice hides its dangers—desperately hungry polar bears hunting humans, massive icequakes when sheets of ice collide.

Here on the sea ice, the Iñupiaq wait for the whale. When the whale does offer itself, it will take the courage and skill of the whaling crew, riding on the icy waters of the Arctic by a skinboat, to catch it. But in the long moments standing on the ice, protected from the wind inside a fur-lined parka, a timeless gratitude develops. In those moments, the patient act of waiting transforms into a prayer for the whale.


You can buy tickets for the screening here:
Seattle Film Festival: Anaiyyun: Prayer for the Whale

Launch of Natives Photograph Collective

I am proud and honored to be a part of a new Indigenous collective of photographers, Natives Photograph. The New York Times Lens Blog has featured one of my images and has a writeup on our collective as well.

We still don’t tell accurate histories of our country and we still don’t frame the United States as a country built on stolen land,” she said. “So as we try to repair these narratives, they can’t just be told from outside perspectives. They have to be told from an inside viewpoint as well.

There are few indigenous peoples in media, and few opportunities for indigenous artists. Today we seek to change that with this Database of Native photographers. Special thanks to Josué Rivas and Daniella Zalcman for their dedication and hard work in creating this.

Interview with Light Atlas Creative on Photojournalism

Light Atlas Creative is a mentorship program with Laura Valenti to help photographers transform their vision and lead vibrant, skillful, wholehearted creative lives.

She teaches teaches richly interactive online courses, works with emerging photographers, present lectures to photo groups, and curates exhibitions for galleries and festivals around the world.

I believe a documentary photographer is a journalist first, and an artist second.

I spoke to her after being introduced through Critical Mass, where she was a juror, and we connected well. Laura is a terrific interviewer and asks questions that draw out a lot about photography underneath the surface. I spoke to her about finding one’s unique vision of the world, and what makes photojournalism work for me.

  • Why framing a shot and clicking the shutter is least important part of taking a photograph.
  • Why photojournalism is not being a fly-on-the-wall
  • How to fund your long-term photography projects
  • Avoiding preconceived notions in your work
  • Why your personal identity is crucial for your photographic vision
  • Why publication alone should not be the final goal
Listen to the entire interview below:

Voices for Biodiversity: Indigenous Peoples as Guardians of the Land

As I work on indigenous issues a photojournalist, I find myself increasingly working as both a writer and a photographer. The issues surrounding indigenous rights and ecology are rich and complex– it is the combination of images and words that tell the most powerful stories.

I’ve just published a story on how indigenous peoples are the de-facto guardians of biodiversity. We must challenge our current models of conservation by identifying Indigenous peoples as Ecosystem peoples – the original keystone species and cultivators of the wild places we love.

Today the world’s 300 million Indigenous people live in every inhabitable biome on earth, some of whom inhabit territories with the highest levels of biodiversity. Remarkably, the regions of greatest biological richness are often strongly correlated through their high diversity of human cultures, and many of those are often Indigenous cultures.

Many thanks to the inestimable Nejma Bellarbi of Voices for Biodiversity for entreating me to tackle this story and for great conversations as an editor.

Gift of the Whale: Feature on Topic.com

People of the Whale, my series on the Iñupiaq culture of the Alaskan Arctic, has been published in print internationally but hasn’t been accessible in an online form. I’m excited that it’s now published on Topic.com, an online magazine with innovative storytelling. The story comes to life with animated gifs and an excellent layout thanks to editor Caroline Smith.

This version of the story gets into more depth on the the cultural importance of whaling but also how climate change is affecting the lives and traditions of the Iñupiaq.

Living Wild: Helping the French understand America

Increasingly, the behavior of Americans seems bizarre to the people of other countries. Following on the heels of the election of Trump is the publication of a shiny new art magazine called ‘America’, but in French. It’s helping the French, and indeed Europe, to understand America.

I’m more than happy to contribute to that understanding, especially to help people understand the attitude Americans have toward the land. You can see more of Living Wild, but if you want to pickup the America magazine, you’ll have to get it in print.

Six Questions to End 2017 for a Photographer

As 2017 draws to a close, I find myself asking myself personal questions about the past year. New Year’s resolutions are full of generic wishes, and in answering the six questions below I discovered more to inform 2018 by looking back at 2017.

What was one of the moments I was most proud of this year? What does that tell me about what I want to spend my energy/time/money on next year?

For those that don’t know, I am an indigenous kayak-builder as well as a photographer. I was both proud and awed by the launching ceremony for Dan Kwanje A-naan, the Indigenous Boatbuilding Project brought together by the Yukon First Nations Arts Council.  It was a beautiful moment to see our kayak with three other indigenous boats, and to hear elders speak about them with tears in their eyes. Several elders said they had only heard their parents speak of the boats, and had never expected to see one in their lives. That was a beautiful moment for me, and reminded me that being a part of the indigenous cultural renaissance is something that remains deeply important for so many people who have gone through so much.

Who really enriched my life this year in a big way? Who is someone I am wanting to get to know better in the year ahead?

It might be a cop-out to say my partner Addie, but she has certainly enriched my life greatly this year. Aside from being a supportive partner and a great friend, she also has helped me with the big ideas that I’ve been writing about and helped me to clarify my own thinking on issues of indigenous perspectives, rights, and identity. She’s always there to edit my initial grand notions into sensitive and cohesive understandings of the world.

There’s not a single person that I am looking forward to getting to know—I spend too little time with my friends and family with all the traveling I do in a year. Nevertheless, I look forward to spending the next few years sharing experiences with my brother again, who has now finished his medical residency and has time to be a human being again.

It was a year of resistance for many people. What did I resist most effectively? What did I surrender to?

This year I spent the most energy resisting the polarized platforms that Americans seem to be coming from. I champion the viewpoint that humans can solve their problems most effectively by looking at the way indigenous people have solved them for millennia.

Who did I feel most jealous of this year? What is that person up to that I want to bring more of into my own life?

I think I was probably most envious of my friend, photographer Patrick Wack, who I met this year at the Review Santa Fe. His body of work on the ongoing colonization of Western China brought me to tears and struck such a deep chord in me that I certainly wish that I had shot it.

One thing that Patrick does that I love is that he grants himself 3-week sessions to explore and find documentary stories through photography. He approaches those projects less conservatively than I do as well, bringing along film cameras and wandering more than I do. I like that he can do excellent projects in a shorter period of time than I can, yet still come out with excellent work. Also, he speaks German, English, French and Mandarin. Me, on the other hand, I’m learning Russian, but slowly and poorly.

When was I most physically joyful in 2017? How can I get there more in 2018?

I was certainly the most physically joyful while paddling the kayak we built for Dan Kwanje A-naan with the other boats on our initial voyage. I got to listen to the Maori Waka canoe chant and beat the gunwales with their paddles, and it got me fired up to feel it in my body. Aside from that, I have to admit my favorite thing has been bouldering at my home rock gym. I miss climbing since I’m away so much, and it feels terrific to use my body to its fullest.

This year I am forcing myself to stay home more and to plot out my climbing adventures even when out on the road. That should help keep me in shape.

What is one question that you found yourself asking over and over again this year? What version of an answer are you living your way into?

I think the biggest question for me this year is what my next major project is and how to approach it. The hurdles are to find stories that are both photogenic and tell the story of indigenous peoples living close to the land. It’s hard to find ones that don’t require mastery of new languages or expensive logistics in foreign countries.

My current solution is to just go with the stories I feel really drawn to, and try to learn the skills I need to accomplish them, or perhaps hire people to help me in my endeavors to fill in the gaps. This requires money, so I part of the answer is more grant-writing, more institutional support, and diverting money from my equipment budget to making stories happen.

What makes me despair and what gives me hope right now?

It gives me despair to see the idiots of the world running the show based on ignorance, greed and prejudice. Nonetheless, I see lots of hope in the bigger picture—for indigenous peoples everywhere there is a resurgence in traditional practices, and there’s a renewal of interest in good journalism, though I think it is mainly in podcasting at the moment.

I also despair that humans seem to be so disconnecting from the natural world as they keep urbanizing. I can’t see a light at the end of this particular tunnel, but I think that might be a lack of imagination—I have faith that people will start to come to the realization that without nature, life isn’t much worth living. The hope comes from the amazing beauty I see left in the world.

2017 in Review: NatGeo China, PDN, LensCulture

Cover stories about Living Wild in the Stone Age, with National Geographic Traveler China and Coast Mountain Culture (Canada).

2017 In Review:

NatGeo China, PDN, LensCulture

As I reflect on a tumultuous 2017, I try to remember that the stories I’ve worked on will outlast this one moment in time. It has been a breakout year for this emerging photographer, with awards and cover stories, yet my favorite memories have all been when I’ve stood in the middle of nowhere, far from any internet connection, surrounded by timeless human community. –Kiliii Yüyan

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