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.
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.
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
Cover stories about Living Wild in the Stone Age, with National Geographic Traveler China and Coast Mountain Culture (Canada).
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
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.
PDN has awarded my series ‘People of the Whale‘ in the 2017 Photo Annual. It’s a small set of images that give you a glimpse into the deep community of Iñupiat village Utqiagviq, Alaska.
My selection of images for PDN focuses on an Iñupiaq concept called ilitqusiat, or that which makes strangers into family. In a sense, I found this idea to be compelling because I was a stranger when I initially arrived in the Arctic villages where I did this work, but more so because the Iñupiat are at their core, about community.
ilitqusiat– (n) that which makes strangers into family.
I think if I’ve come away with any single observation, it is that Western cultures have a difficult time even conceiving how deep and different the indigenous concept of community is. Rather than some kind of single collective mind consuming all individual will, the Iñupiat are just individuals that believe in individualism, but whose highest callings are to serve their communities.
Qunayaq to all the friends who have made me their family there, and to my ilitqusiat experiences on the North Slope.
To start climbing Cyclops, you stick the middle finger of your right hand into a deep sharp hole in a smooth face of limestone. Then you bring your legs and toes up carefully, spreading them out like a spider on a wall, and heave upwards. There’s a moment of weightlessness as your body and left hand rise up above the tiny ledge big enough for just 3 fingers to slide across and jam into.
I watched climber Maria Birukova dancing and delicately stepping across the face of this limestone pillar as I hung weightless in space nearby, suspended by my rope and harness, my camera’s shutter tapping a staccato in the quiet canyons of El Potrero Chico, Mexico. I had met her just the day before, when she had arrived at the disorganized camp of young international climbers. She had been smiling happily at the camaraderie of others who understood her longing for the rock faces of the enormous canyon that loomed above, and dismayed by the apparent chaos created by fifty unkempt climbers that lived also out of their cars and ate in the single open-air kitchen.
My memory of her from a year earlier had faded into more of a general feeling, like a clean white flower on the wallpaper of life. But now her father, Konstantin, wrote me an email and requested photographs of recent memories. She fell in September while climbing Bear Creek Spire in the Sierra Nevadas. Her climbing partner had watched, stricken, as she plummeted a thousand feet to her death.
In browsing through my photographs from El Potrero Chico, I was brought back to that cold morning behind the giant pillar of Cyclops, lost in the shade of the mountain with the smell of the tiny smoky fire we had made to stay warm whilst climbing. And I recalled the feeling of determination that permeated the day—no one had been able to complete the route, which was rated at 5.13a, an expert climb. But Maria did.
I cannot imagine the feelings that my photographs of Maria will bring to her parents. She was a medical student at Stanford University, well loved by her professors, working on groundbreaking research with a mind for great ideas. Yet for me, the photographs of her working on this incredible rock face tell me the stories of the life lived beyond the tragedy of her death and the paragraph of her professional accomplishments. They tell me that her life was full of wonder at watching stars rise above a canyon at night, of focus as her fingers barely held onto textured stones, and release of having ascended climbs so incredibly difficult her celebration was delayed until her adrenaline had given way to elation.
Maria’s photographs are a reminder that documentary images are more than just records. The best photographs are gifts of our humanity.
I 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 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’sPhoto 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.
While on assignment in Iceland last October-November, I took the time to shoot some footage of the bleak yet beautiful landscapes of the arctic. Being here in the autumn is taxing physically– the climate vacillates around freezing but the rain/sleet is constant and the wind whips across this treeless land at 25mph without a break.
Nonetheless, I hope you get a feeling for the starkness of the treeless tundra, a land of arctic foxes and lichens, volcanoes and the dancing of the Aurora.
Remember to click HD on the video to see it in HD!