Natives in America, an indigenous publication dedicated to indigenous issues, interviewed me about photography and the issues I face as a photojournalist.
Behind the Scenes
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
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
As a long-form documentary photographer, I often don’t see my work come into publication for many years. This December though, it seems that it has all landed at once– My work with the Living Wild project is on the cover of November issue of National Geographic Traveller China, and I have two additional features in the December issue.
December’s issue covers the Iñupiaq relationship to the Arctic Ocean, and includes a feature on my work in the collection of “Greatest Photographs of 2017”.
It is my hope that the indigenous perspective opens eyes in China, where it is generally unknown. Nonetheless, millions of indigenous peoples live in China, and their stories are the stories of Native peoples everywhere: Land is life.
His documentary work reveals the interdependent nature required of those who want to live,not just survive, in the wild. The frankness of the portraits, against black backgrounds, offer an up-close look at the serious, often weathered, faces of those trying to dedicate themselves to the land.
Writer Loren Talbot of The Week interviews me and takes a deep dive into my project, Living Wild. She lifts the curtain off what it takes to live with people in the wilderness without modern conveniences, and looks into what brought me there in the first place.
In the farthest reaches of northern Alaska, aboriginal hunters carry on ancient traditions of kayak-building, fishing, and subsistence hunting, all of which are under threat from rapid changes to our climate.
Author Gina Williams delves into my photography and recent story ‘People of the Whale’ to find out more about what made it happen and what it’s all about.
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.
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.
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.
Last month, DPReview.com, the camera review site teamed up with me and Canon to shoot an extreme camera test. The crew followed me as I worked on the story of Barrow, Alaska, an Inupiat village on the North Slope of Alaska. There I spent time covering the story of indigenous whaling and the tragedy of climate change in the Arctic.