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From Outsider to Insider: Talk at the George Eastman Museum

The George Eastman Museum is the world’s oldest museum dedicated to photography. In June I unexpectedly found a message in my inbox inviting me to speak there in October, which I gladly accepted. But then the agony begins– what projects do I want to speak about and how do I frame them for a photographic audience?

Keep it Personal

I had this discussion with my partner Addie and we both agreed that the best talk I could do about photography would always be personal, and would address my own individual journey into the medium and into subsistence communities. But here’s the rub: 

If I want to speak about embedding within Native communities to a primarily non-Native audience, then I will have to address the complex issues of outsider photography.

On some level, unless the work is deeply personal and of one’s self or family, you can refer to all photographic endeavors as outsider photography. I think the bigger question is how do you develop true empathy when you are photographing another person, another community, and especially a different culture?

What is outsider photography then?

I think it has a lot to do with time and space. There must be time to overcome one’s personal cultural beliefs. There must time to experience things when they naturally occur. There must be time to listen and observe and experience without the camera. And finally, when you begin to shed your own cultural skin, I believe you must participate.

It’s like learning language. At first you are translating words in your head, and then the one day, one fine day, you begin to think in this new language. Concepts only understood in this new language begin to make sense. And even when you switch back to your native tongue, you are different, you are changed. That’s cultural immersion, and that is the bar I would like to set for documentary photographers.

Polar Bears, of course

I will of course, be showing and speaking about my specific projects, from whaling with the Iñupiaq and enduring polar bear attacks, to supporting suicide-prone teenagers on remote outposts in the Arctic. We’ll also the responsibility of remaking the narrative of indigenous communities. I hope that talking about my process will engage and deepen the audience to the cultures of the Arctic.

Information

Kiliii Yuyan: On the Sea Ice, We Wear White
Thursday Oct 11, 6-7pm, Dryden Theatre
George Eastman Museum, 900 East Ave, Rochester, NY
Free to members, $6 (general), $3 (students)

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.