Documentary

On the Sea Ice with the Iñupiat of the North Slope

Every spring for the last 4000 years, the Iñupiat people have stood on the tuvaq, the edge of the shorefast ice, waiting for the annual migration of bowhead whales. The whaling season has begun.

Bowhead whales were once thought to be a threatened species due to excessive international whaling in the 1800s. However, by the 1980s, Iñupiat whalers had proven that their own understanding of the bowhead whale population was far more accurate than scientists once believed. Today, Iñupiat communities manage hunting quotas of bowhead whales themselves. Unlike whaling in much of the world, the subsistence practices of the Iñupiat people maintain the bowhead whale as an unthreatened species — just as they have done for thousands of years.

Bowhead whaling is a cultural cornerstone of Iñupiat identity and a primary source of food on the Arctic Slope, where the cost of living is nearly three times that of mainland US. In spring of 2016, I spent 5 weeks standing on the sea ice as a guest of a whaling crew. As an indigenous person, I wanted to understand and document their subsistence life in the Arctic, where the danger of cultural death is just as imminent as an attack from a polar bear.

This video is a set of impressions of the stark and beautiful world on the sea ice. My crew stands on the ice next to our skinboat. We wait for the return of the bowhead whales, and give thanks to the gift of the whale for feeding an entire community. We watch, day and night, as starving polar bears try to catch us unawares, and the ice melts under our feet.

 

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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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.

Filming Goshawk Nestlings by Remote Camera

I sure do love my job. I spent the night over in the goshawk woods east of Seattle about 100 miles, woke up, and worked with falconer Aaron Allred to install a remote camera. Aaron did a tree climb about 100-150′ up and placed the camera at a terrific angle and we ran 500′ of cable to our blind to kick back and watch the goshawks get fed and grab some terrific footage. Here’s a quick glimpse.