It’s been a busy month for me, revving into 2021 with a bevy of podcast appearances. First up is Outside Magazine’s excellent podcast, where I get into the details of a polar bear attack and what it’s like to experience that as a photographer in a new environment (the sea ice) for the first time. There’s an excerpt above, and you can listen to the entire episode here.
Next up is my talk with Creative Live’s We are Photographers podcast, which is an excellent survey of professional photographers and what they are dealing with in the world. I spoke with Kenna about the importance of bearing around different cultures, and how cultural bias can poison your photography and journalism. I also got into some talk about animism, or how fireflies are actually fairies. The video above has an excerpt about that. You can find the entire podcast here.
This was a big year for mind-expanding group exhibitions, and I was honored to be included among three exhibitions, 2 virtual and 1 in person (Taiwan, although I couldn’t be there myself).
The current one is Art in the Plague Year, at the California Museum of Art, which just opened. I thought this was such an interesting idea- what new ideas have we been thinking about during the pandemic, that doesn’t literally picture COVID or its impacts?
We are now engaged with history. In a fog of uncertainty, this alone is clear: history tells us pandemics trigger periods of change. They lay bare social inequities, racial rifts, and economic injustices. They contain the seeds of new futures.
Personally, I had a a powerful moment where I understood the need to branch out beyond my regular work and dive further into animism, the spiritual framework behind my Nanai and Chinese ancestries. And since animism is about relationship to land, it’s a perfect candidate for landscape work.
But the big question was: how to turn something so abstract and beyond normal perception into photography? I didn’t want to stage images, and setup lighting or otherwise manipulate the scene, as I find it too difficult to balance different photographic personalities. I am distinctly a documentary photographer and believe in the power of the journalistic still image.
As soon as I asked the question, the answer appeared in front of me, as the forest I was hiking through transformed into a river of floating orange spirit lights, dancing above my head and on the trunks of the fir trees. I had never seen anything like it before, but I knew that the moment and the particular place had given me insight into how I would approach the idea of animism, now my ongoing project titled, Thin Places.
There are certain moments when we are caught off-guard, looking at ourselves from another time, another place. Finding myself in FotoNostrum, a Spanish fine-art magazine feature, with a retrospective of Steve McCurry’s work is one of those.
It’s a perfect juxtaposition of the times. McCurry’s work, which remains powerful and iconic to this day, is no longer the paragon of photographic virtue. Instead, magazines like National Geographic (whose cover was graced by McCurry’s work) and the journalism industry have come to recognize the inherent colonialism in having a white photographer be the primary visual painter of India and the Middle East for America. As an industry, and as a society, we are reckoning with the notion of who tells the stories of the marginalized, particularly in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests against the brutal murder of George Floyd.
And yet I find it strange to be in the same magazine as a photographic giant like McCurry. Part of this is probably the feeling of someone who’s been taught to keep their head down and follow mainstream culture rather than rise above with one’s own vision. It’s the impostor syndrome, the self shrinking at the magnitude of inhabiting an influential role. I am sure legendary Black photographer Gordon Parks felt this on the daily when he was working at Life Magazine in the 1960s. I certainly don’t feel like a trailblazer.
But I suppose that also brings me to other feelings, which is to wonder why, in the light of 2020, we are featuring Steve McCurry on the cover of a cutting-edge art magazine! The current mood across the world is one of upheaval, one of social change as marginalized peoples in every country are rising up to demand their place at the table. Is it tokenizing to have my work featured here, as if to check the boxes of ‘Indigenous’ and ‘Asian-Pacific Islander’?
Personally I don’t believe the choice to have the portrait Sharbat Gula, the famous ‘Afghan Girl’, on the cover, was one done with a particular agenda in mind. But it does speak to the notion that decisions like this are accompanied by unconscious assumptions. I for one am in a place where I am reckoning with my own hidden biases– I hope that many across journalism and art are doing the same, and embedding revised practices into their organizations.
In any case, I thought FotoNostrum put together the feature well, editing my words to achieve something applicable to a wide photographic audience. I’m not even sure that I said it in a single sentence, “Words reach peoples’ minds– photographs reach people’s hearts,” but I am keeping that quote now. Regardless of the era, the power of photography remains the same– to move people.
Just before the pandemic broke out, I was at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, where I met Josh Hyde, the man behind the American Filmmaker Podcast. We talked and had some laughs and a lot of excellent tea (that’s one of Josh’s specialities).
The resulting podcast is my favorite interview. We got into favorite animals (spoiler: polar bears and geckos), building kayaks, and the nature of creativity. You can listen to our banter below.
The British Museum has opened a new exhibition in London, Arctic: Culture and Climate. I’m excited to be a part of this new exhibition in a significant way, having contributed the primary exhibition photographs and my short film Anaiyyun: Prayer for the Whale.
Much of the public perception of the Arctic is based on outdated and colonial ideas of an unexplored and desolate land. That’s certainly not the case, as the Arctic is full of life and community. I spoke with curator Peter Loovers of the exhibition at length and was impressed by his team’s deep understanding of the complex issues involved in the modern Arctic. The exhibition itself is an introduction to the Arctic, and they have done a great article with the basics.
If you find yourself in between April and August, I recommend stopping in to take it in! There’s a lot to see, ranging from the usual museum artifacts to all kinds of multimedia and experiences that will take you closer to this amazing region that is so dear to my heart.
I had a long and extensive interview with expert interviewer Martin Bauman in his podcast Story Untold. We covered a lot of ground, so much, in fact, that it is actually two episodes (epic Hollywood blockbuster-style). We cover a lot of pretty deep ground from shamanism to journalism. Check it out in the embedded player below, or in your own podcast player.
In photographer Kiliii Yüyan’s work, he has drawn on both wilderness survival skills and empathy — qualities he deems “critical” for the projects he embarks on in extreme environments and cultures outside his own.
“Human cultures are the most complicated things to understand,” he says. “Human culture is so rich. There’s so much to it.”
He talks about animism, searching for meaning in his late teens and early twenties, and the importance of representation in journalism.
“In the past, journalists have been known to do a lot of things where they just kind of parachute into a place. There’s a lot of this sort of old-school journalism … like, ‘If I’m a good journalist, I should be able to drop into any place in the world and make a story out of it,’” says Yüyan. “[I think] a good journalist goes in with an openness and an understanding that you don’t know everything — far from it.”
Last winter, Jason Mark of Sierra Magazine asked me to work on a story on conservation in Chile. This particular story would be on the largest land donation for conservation in history, by the former CEO of Patagonia Inc, Kris Tompkins. I immediately had concerns because I understood that the gauchos inhabiting the land had been removed it became a park. As history has shown, evicting local and Indigenous peoples from their land proves to be a terrible idea in the long run.
There were all these stories about this mysterious project that was going to take possession of the lands and waters of Chile.
-Dago Guzman, superintendent of Patagonia Parque Nacional
But by the time Jason and I had trekked over a hundred miles over the sweltering and mountainous terrain of the new Patagonia Parque Nacional, we had seen a puma, herds of guanacos, countless birds, and I had changed my mind. In that time, I had come to understand the unique dynamics of the situation, the people, and their history. Central Patagonia’s new national parks have become a huge win for conservation.
Before it came to be though, Chileans were suspicious of the Tompkins gringos. How did it come to be? Why was the establishment of these parks nothing like the genocidal establishment of the national parks in the United States and elsewhere? Find out in Sierra Magazine.
When it comes to the wildlife, this is the best that could have happened, the transformation into a park.
-Daniel Velasquez Romero, former sheepherder, known as Patagonia’s “deer whisperer”
No place in the Arctic is less famous yet more important than the wetlands of the politically named National Petroleum Reserve. At the junction of several migratory bird flyways, it’s the densest concentration of birds in the Arctic. I spent a month over two seasons photographing this epic and intensely living landscape, and I am forever changed by it.
For birds, it has been called “Heathrow at the top of the world.”
Unfortunately, the reserve also has sizable oil and gas deposits, in particular around the critical wetland areas of Teshekpuk Lake. And the special protections put into place previously are being dismantled by the Trump administration.
It is more important, there are more birds, of higher density, in the NPR-A than in the Arctic [National Wildlife] Refuge.
Many people know that I’m a staunch supporter of conservation by local Indigenous communities, and that foremost I believe in the importance of people on the land. In a world manipulated by powerful forces, the land and its local guardians can use a helping hand. Legal protections can make a huge difference for a landscape and its wildlife. At Teshekpuk, there is a caribou herd that thousands depend on for subsistence, plus that critical bird habitat for migratory birds.
This last contest season I had many stories that had not yet been completed or published, but I entered anyway, and my story and images for Vogue on Women of the Iditarod won awards through both PDN and IPA. Many thanks to the jurors!
I’ve also been working on more fine art, trying my best to tackle some of the issues about indigenous culture in a colonial world through photography. PDN and the Photographic Center Northwest separately awarded my image ‘Confluence’, from my new series, Myths of the Indigenous Arctic. It will also be shown in my upcoming exhibition People of the Whale at the Center for Fine Art Photography in October.
It’s often difficult to understand why sacred grounds are important to another culture, yet easy to see as a metaphor. Why is Arlington National Cemetery sacred ground? And indeed the bones of Menominee ancestors are buried in the same location as the Back Forty Mine site.
Rebecca Bowe at EarthJustice has written a great piece on the Menominee fight against the Back Forty mine. Earth Justice provides legal help for the Menominee, and I’m proud to wield artistic tools to support the people of fellow First Nations.