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.
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.
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.
Dates: 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.
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.
I’m not sure why there’s been so many interviews as of late, but I’m always happy to talk with an Indigenous host. Alexis Sallee is a delightful and super-smart Inuk to hang out with, and we covered a lot of ground about being an Indigenous artist. This one’s a bit shorter too– Alex did a fabulous edit and got it down to the essentials. Check out the Native Artist Podcast.
An excerpt: “So there’s always this sense that whatever [Native community you’re covering], you bring your own bias into it. And so of course, people coming from the outside, who have long have these deep stereotypes about Native cultures are going to bring in their like romantic or a dystopian idea of what subsistence looks like. But you know that I think the thing about it is, I get to spend a lot of time. My process is a very sort of slow, laborious, Indigenous process, which is spending a lot of time with the people doing stuff, and getting to know what’s really going on.”
There are certain moments when we are caught off-guard, looking at ourselves from another time, another place. Finding myself in FotoNostrum, a Spanish fine-art magazine feature, with a retrospective of Steve McCurry’s work is one of those.
It’s a perfect juxtaposition of the times. McCurry’s work, which remains powerful and iconic to this day, is no longer the paragon of photographic virtue. Instead, magazines like National Geographic (whose cover was graced by McCurry’s work) and the journalism industry have come to recognize the inherent colonialism in having a white photographer be the primary visual painter of India and the Middle East for America. As an industry, and as a society, we are reckoning with the notion of who tells the stories of the marginalized, particularly in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests against the brutal murder of George Floyd.
And yet I find it strange to be in the same magazine as a photographic giant like McCurry. Part of this is probably the feeling of someone who’s been taught to keep their head down and follow mainstream culture rather than rise above with one’s own vision. It’s the impostor syndrome, the self shrinking at the magnitude of inhabiting an influential role. I am sure legendary Black photographer Gordon Parks felt this on the daily when he was working at Life Magazine in the 1960s. I certainly don’t feel like a trailblazer.
But I suppose that also brings me to other feelings, which is to wonder why, in the light of 2020, we are featuring Steve McCurry on the cover of a cutting-edge art magazine! The current mood across the world is one of upheaval, one of social change as marginalized peoples in every country are rising up to demand their place at the table. Is it tokenizing to have my work featured here, as if to check the boxes of ‘Indigenous’ and ‘Asian-Pacific Islander’?
Personally I don’t believe the choice to have the portrait Sharbat Gula, the famous ‘Afghan Girl’, on the cover, was one done with a particular agenda in mind. But it does speak to the notion that decisions like this are accompanied by unconscious assumptions. I for one am in a place where I am reckoning with my own hidden biases– I hope that many across journalism and art are doing the same, and embedding revised practices into their organizations.
In any case, I thought FotoNostrum put together the feature well, editing my words to achieve something applicable to a wide photographic audience. I’m not even sure that I said it in a single sentence, “Words reach peoples’ minds– photographs reach people’s hearts,” but I am keeping that quote now. Regardless of the era, the power of photography remains the same– to move people.
Just before the pandemic broke out, I was at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, where I met Josh Hyde, the man behind the American Filmmaker Podcast. We talked and had some laughs and a lot of excellent tea (that’s one of Josh’s specialities).
The resulting podcast is my favorite interview. We got into favorite animals (spoiler: polar bears and geckos), building kayaks, and the nature of creativity. You can listen to our banter below.
I am excited to announce the imminent release of my first fine-art photography book, Chukotka, on the Russian Arctic!
It’s produced by Kris Graves Projects, in a format (7”x8.5”) that makes it affordable ($28) while retaining beautiful print quality on textured matte paper. Pre-orders are available here.
At the edges of the Bering Sea and Russia’s Arctic coastline lies one of the wildest regions on earth. In winter, the land is indistinguishable from the ocean, a vast white ice sheet extending into infinity. In summer, the tundra unveils itself in shades of moss and the coastlines are packed with polar bears and walrus.
Chukotka. The place where human destiny is carved by the cold.
The British Museum has opened a new exhibition in London, Arctic: Culture and Climate. I’m excited to be a part of this new exhibition in a significant way, having contributed the primary exhibition photographs and my short film Anaiyyun: Prayer for the Whale.
Much of the public perception of the Arctic is based on outdated and colonial ideas of an unexplored and desolate land. That’s certainly not the case, as the Arctic is full of life and community. I spoke with curator Peter Loovers of the exhibition at length and was impressed by his team’s deep understanding of the complex issues involved in the modern Arctic. The exhibition itself is an introduction to the Arctic, and they have done a great article with the basics.
If you find yourself in between April and August, I recommend stopping in to take it in! There’s a lot to see, ranging from the usual museum artifacts to all kinds of multimedia and experiences that will take you closer to this amazing region that is so dear to my heart.
I had a long and extensive interview with expert interviewer Martin Bauman in his podcast Story Untold. We covered a lot of ground, so much, in fact, that it is actually two episodes (epic Hollywood blockbuster-style). We cover a lot of pretty deep ground from shamanism to journalism. Check it out in the embedded player below, or in your own podcast player.
In photographer Kiliii Yüyan’s work, he has drawn on both wilderness survival skills and empathy — qualities he deems “critical” for the projects he embarks on in extreme environments and cultures outside his own.
“Human cultures are the most complicated things to understand,” he says. “Human culture is so rich. There’s so much to it.”
He talks about animism, searching for meaning in his late teens and early twenties, and the importance of representation in journalism.
“In the past, journalists have been known to do a lot of things where they just kind of parachute into a place. There’s a lot of this sort of old-school journalism … like, ‘If I’m a good journalist, I should be able to drop into any place in the world and make a story out of it,’” says Yüyan. “[I think] a good journalist goes in with an openness and an understanding that you don’t know everything — far from it.”