Jen Samuel, a photo editor at National Geographic, and NatGeo photographer Kiliii Yuyan talk about the process of making photographs, researching and pitching stories, the editor-photographer relationship, and more. Filmed at the Museum of Art Fort Collins, CO, in conjunction with Yuyan’s exhibition “People of the Whale”, and National Geographic’s 50 Greatest Photographs, made possible by the Center for Fine Art Photography.
A big thank you to Jen Samuel for flying out to Colorado to talk with me at the opening of my exhibition, People of the Whale, at theMuseum of Art Fort Collins. Additional thanks to Hamidah Glasgow of the Center for Fine Art Photography and Lisa Palmatier of the Museum.
My work serves as a counterpoint to the other half of the museum, which has an exhibition titled, “50 Greatest Photographs of National Geographic.” Curator Hamidah Glasgow thought it would be a great way to show, in a sense, the fading mainstream world of photojournalism juxtaposed against the new breed of photographer that is seeking to de-colonize journalism. In this case, it also serves to highlight that National Geographic itself has made big changes to how it tells stories and who is telling them.
Opening & Talks, Friday Nov 8th
The opening reception is Friday, November 8th. I’ll be doing an artist talk about my work with Arctic indigenous peoples, then leading up to something quite amazing: Jen Samuel, a photo editor from National Geographic, and I, asking each other questions and talking about photography and journalism!
Many thanks to Hamidah Glasgow and Jen Samuel for making it all come together!
The Guardian has long been a bastion of news about global indigenous issues. I’m pleased to say I worked with editor Jehan Jillani on a story on modern Iñupiaq culture and traditional whaling. It’s not easy to do a story on something as ostensibly controversial as whaling, but the Guardian understands the big difference between commercial and indigenous whaling. I hope it’s an opportunity for their readers to see the history of systematic oppression of the indigenous perspective.
By 2011, the Iñupiaq had quadrupled the population of the bowhead, while hunting them for subsistence. The story of the Iñupiaq is a vision of successful conservation using indigenous knowledge.
I’m excited to announce my first story in National Geographic Magazine (in print) is out! A great big quyanaq to all of my Utqiagvik friends that made it possible, and for inviting me into your lives. This issue focuses on stories from all around Native America and it’s a great moment for it. Thanks to my fabulous editors Julie Hau and Jennifer Samuel.
There are interviewers and there are great interviewers. Lou Noble of The Photographic Journal not only has a distinctive vision in fine art photography, but he’s also a terrific interviewer.
We spoke at length about growing up as mixed-ethnicity child, about the struggles of Native peoples, and of course, about how photography has the power to illuminate and bring hope to those who are the most in need of it.
I would say most of the time, almost all of the work happens before I put my eye up to the viewfinder. I tend to be looking at light, I tend to be looking at gesture, at what people are doing, and of course the meaning of things. Meaning is always in the background, for me, so I’m always thinking about why is this important?
It’s a long interview. But if you have the patience to read it, it’s a great capture of how I think about storytelling and how our current storytellers will need to work to make the world hopeful for coming generations.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.