Behind the Scenes

Stepping up as a documentary photographer

The World Photo Organisation, which hosts the Sony World Photo Awards, did an interview with me and asked a few questions about what I’ve been up to since being shortlisted for the 2016 awards.

In a sense, my story ‘People of the Whale’ forced me to step up as a photographer because suddenly I found myself with a subject I cared about deeply, and understood more than an outside journalist could. The real challenges came from learning how to craft the beautiful images I was already known for, from the real-life situations of an Arctic subsistence culture. It is at once far more difficult and infinitely rewarding.

You can read the entire interview at the World Photography Organisation Blog.

Spiegel Online: Roasted over a fire, Grasshoppers taste great

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The German Magazine Spiegel has done an interview on my recent project, Living Wild.

A group of Americans want to live in the Stone Age to be a part of the wilderness. Photographer Kiliii Yuyan accompanied them. But it’s not for the average adventurer– the project is really hard.

You can access the original article in German here, or see the translation below: http://www.spiegel.de/panorama/jaeger-und-sammler-leben-wie-die-steinzeitmenschen-a-1116477.html

Translation: Speigel Online

Roasted over a fire, Grasshoppers taste great

 

Kiliii Yueyan is a scion of two worlds. As a child of Russian immigrants, the photographer grew up in the United States. His ancestors belong to the Nanai, a popular Siberian primordial inhabitants. Today Yueyan is part of the “Stone Age Living Project”, a group that brings them back to the woods to live for a few weeks as the people of the Stone Age hunter-gatherers. On the project’s website states: “We do not want the wilderness about life to get back to civilization we want. Inliving the wild.”

Yueyan is already for more than 15 years of the group. In one of the last expeditions, the photographer took his camera. The photo series “Living Wild” are crisp glimpses of a life without the comforts of civilization.

And, yes, they look in their stone-dresses as the wildlings in “Game of Thrones”, Kiliii Yueyan has heard this before.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Once a year, unplug and your colleagues to Stone Age clothes, go into the wilderness and live a few weeks as hunter-gatherers. Why?

Yueyan: When I started 17 years ago, I was looking for my roots. My ancestors are Siberian natives who still live very secluded and in harmony with nature.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How have you been?

Yueyan: What I have learned over the years is, above all, how many things we have forgotten about living together with nature. What is good for you, what is bad? How do you do a piece of forest floor to your sleeping place? I am a long time part of the project and now a pretty good hunter. But compared to someone who would be really grown up in a wild culture, I am perhaps at the level of a ten- or twelve-year-olds.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you still always driven in the woods?

Yueyan: If I go out and try to live by nature, I’m just learning to appreciate how easy things are today; about as simple comforts of water coming from the tap. In the wild, there are things that are hard to get in our world: For example, clean water that had not been clarified previously. Or a fresh salmon. So a salmon, which is fresh, because you caught him up in the river and has prepared a few minutes later on the fire.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: It sounds nice. But judging from the brochure of self-discovery trips for stressed top manager.

Yueyan: If you start with the preparations, there are already some who expect it is a survival adventure, a battle with nature. But it is the opposite. The idea is to find ways to live together with nature and of nature. Who just looking for a great outdoor adventure, leaving the camp after one, at least two weeks. There is just too hard.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What is so hard?

Yueyan: The challenge to survive as hunter-gatherers. Cold, wet, injury, the long distances that one person makes each day – that alone brings a gentle to the absolute limit. But to do the little food that is what makes you ready out there.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What are the meals like?

Yueyan: Mainly there are berries or salads from the herbs that we find. In addition, fish and grilled grasshoppers. Roh is the way disgusting. But roasted over the fire, grasshoppers taste great. But it’s hard to be away sick. After about ten days you can feel the consequences: One can not think as good, one is fast dizzy. It is generally more difficult to understand what is happening around you.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: hunger to know many homeless people who involuntarily outdoor life.

Yueyan: This is an aspect which we are aware. In the beginning when we planned the trip, I offered the story of the “National Geographic”. But one of the editors said, “What I take: There’s this bunch of people who live in the forest, because they have the privilege to which you simply do not see the poor people who live on the road and pull into the forest.. ” Therefore, they have rejected the story. They wanted to kindle no controversy.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And what do you think?

Yueyan: To say we live outside like poor people there, not true. In fact, this life is very rich. Rich in time, full of impressions and experiences.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How did an excursion begins so? Agreed to in a parking lot and then go easily together in the forest?

Yueyan: No, as a beginner it takes months of preparation. You have to establish yourself and the food that you want to take to prepare, your entire clothes. Because with pre-dried food is your life there a lot easier – at least initially.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So you go in advance to the store and stock up with Stone Age food like dried meat and dried fruit?

Yueyan: No, everything has to be collected and dried himself.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: That is checked?

Yueyan: There are very strict rules, which mitdarf and what is not. Basically, you have to restore it from nature, with Stone Age tools and Stone Age techniques.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But have you doing a first aid kit and a cell phone for emergencies.

Yueyan: That’s all not allowed. Part of the idea is to learn to solve problems without the help of modern technology. The last time we had, for example, forest fires on three sides of our warehouse. Therefore, an emergency plan was very important.So we marched twice daily at a nearby mountain and looked to see if the fire had come closer.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And your plan for the real thing?

Yueyan: There was a lake nearby. To which we would have run if the fires had trapped us.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And then?

Yueyan: If we had been waiting in the lake, while the fire everything would have devastated around us.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What are you talking on this trip, anyway? Only about Stone Age theme?

Yueyan: Not quite. In the beginning you have to speak a lot about practical things.Where do we go? Where to find water? Where food? Where is it safe? How do we find traces of animals that we can chase? Another dominant theme are sensory perceptions. It really speaks a lot about the smell of things or how they feel. Also because we run all the time barefoot. That’s as much information that we usually no longer perceive. About the smell of cold water.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Sounds pretty romantic and intense. But you have laughed at the question. Why?

Yueyan: Because you pretty much about excrement speaks: “Have you relieved there Ah, because I really wanted to sleep?” And: Hardly anything makes the other angrier than having done his business too close to the camp.

Outtakes: Losing my waders with the Nature Conservancy

From TNC Magazine: Photographer Kiliii Yuyan almost lost all of his belongings while treading through waist-deep mud to capture the diversity of wildlife at Elkhorn Slough for a story in Nature Conservancy magazine.

The challenging shoot and Yuyan’s positive attitude were ultimately rewarded with incredible photographs of the estuary’s teeming wildlife—including seals, sea otters, and Caspian terns.

Outtakes: Between Land & Sea

Interview with the Candid Frame Podcast

candidframeI just had the pleasure of speaking with Ibarionex Perello, host of the Candid Frame podcast and a well known-street photographer. Ibarionex and I were recently co-presenters at the photo expo PIX2015. I’m excited to be on the show since I’ve been a long time fan of the Candid Frame, which is really the best podcast on photography out there– it focuses on the art and process of photography rather than gear and technique.

We talked primarily about the Living Wild project, my long-term project on modern hunter-gatherer practitioners, as well as bit about my background growing up as a Native/Chinese kid and learning self-reliance. You can play/download it directly here.

Living Wild: Presenting Stone-Age Living at PIX2015

Living Wild documents a group of 21st century hunter-gatherers who are rediscovering the traditional living skills of the Paleolithic. I gave a presentation on this multi-year documentary project for National Geographic at DPreview’s Photo Interactive Expo 2015. It was a fabulous experience and I had the opportunity to share the stage with some of my heroes, including Aaron Huey, Cristina Mittermier and Joe McNally. More if you click through.
*Note, the YouTube link above is the ‘quick’ version and will be replaced by the final edited version. If it doesn’t work, try http://www.pix2015.com/videos.

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Scavenging Guatemala

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Scavenging Guatemala began as an accident. In March 2015, I was working Glen Cooper, Photojournalism Director of the New England School of Photography. He had asked me join and help instruct at a workshop in Guatemala, where American photographers worked on documentary stories for 10 days. Since it was my first time teaching in a workshop, I anticipated that I wouldn’t have any more than a few hours to shoot my own work. But the truth is, in documentary photography, much of the work happens without a camera in your hands…

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Inspiration at the Lifetime Agency

IMG_9392-2It’s been a busy summer jaunting about Europe building kayaks and taking pictures! I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak at the amazing 3e Lifetime Agency. Based in Minneapolis, they are the creative team behind Lifetime Fitness and quite a group of inspiring people themselves.

I gave a presentation on shooting photographs, of course, but when it comes down to it, I think to a large degree what I was talking about was Life. It was really about this quote from photographer Jay Maisel:

If you want to make more interesting photographs, become a more interesting person.

Life is best lived not worrying about the past and future so much as simply going on inspiration and learning to follow the power of saying Yes.

3e posted a blog entry. They were inspired as well and I found it amazing to chat with so many interesting people so dedicated to creativity and fitness together–a few of my favorite things.

http://www.thelifetimeagency.com/play/kiliii-fish-brings-all-the-inspiration/

The day I was almost swallowed by a Humpback Whale

“Sea Lions!”, my friend Tom yelled to me, barely audible over the chaotic roar of thirty lightning quick flippers, surfacing and disappearing in a boil of water to my right. Then one thumped into my kayak hull and I knew I had maybe 10 seconds. I pulled my camera away from my face, laid it sideways on my lap above a pool of saltwater on my skirt. 6 seconds… I nabbed my paddle, flipped it and planted it into the water with the awkwardness of going too fast.

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I could suddenly hear myself breathing as my heart became audible and I pushed backwards with a stroke. 3 seconds… A few more strokes and my kayak gained momentum and slid, frictionless, through the water, away from the sea lions. And then suddenly the sea lions vanished beneath the surface.

A quiet moment passed but I kept paddling, then swiftly raised my camera with one hand. Suddenly, the ocean in front of me burst open as three humpback whales lunged, enormous jaws agape, straight out of the water where I had been moments earlier. Those 50 ft whales with jaws 15 ft long pushed up and footlong anchovies shot everywhere, sparkling silver amidst white foam. That’s the goal. They were here for the anchovies. We were here for the whales.

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In Monterey Bay, California, anchovies school in large numbers and attract humpbacks who feed on them through a technique known as bubble-netting. The whales swim around a school in circles, releasing a steady stream of air bubbles. The fish won’t cross this wall of bubbles and become corralled into a tight ball, at which point the whales dive deep and come up, mouths wide open, swallowing ocean and prey alike.

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Tom and I had paddled out in our handmade traditional kayaks, having noticed the rare coincidence of a small ocean swell and whales not far offshore. We shot out of the marina a few hours before sunset, fully loaded with photo gear. Straight out of the gate we heard them blowing, the smell of a fish market lingering in the air.

Minutes later, a lone humpback surfaced in front of my bow, ten feet away. I stopped paddling and braced, one hand on my paddle, the other on my camera. It snorted and blew a fine mist sky-high, which landed all over my kayak and lens. I was still clicking despite my heart having stopped beating.

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An hour later, we spotted a group of feeding humpbacks and paddled to about 100 yds away, careful to avoid disturbing them. From afar I watched and learned the patterns of their behavior— first the whales would dive, exposing their tail flukes, and then the sea lions and pelicans would start diving in a frenzy. Moments later the humpbacks would come crashing out of the deep blue as they inhaled and strained anchovies through their baleen. The thing about wild creatures, though, is that they don’t stay put very well. The whales moved around us as I watched, and then they were amongst us.

Truthfully, despite having paddled thousands of miles in beautiful waters and having had lots of wildlife encounters, this one tops the list. To be in the gaping maw of wild creatures in their environment is a bit transcendental. As a person, I died that evening, and was born again, like a sudden gust of wind or a wild thing on a wild sea.