Inspiration

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.

People of the Whale wins PDN 2017 Award

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.

Death of a climber: The power of the photograph

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.

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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.

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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.

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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Arctic Autumn

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!

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.