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Connect to the Land

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Connect to the Land with Kiliii Yüyan

Kiliii Yüyan, Kenna Klosterman

Connect to the Land

Kiliii Yüyan, Kenna Klosterman


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1. Connect to the Land with Kiliii Yüyan


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Connect to the Land with Kiliii Yüyan

Mhm. Mhm. Mhm. Yeah, yeah. Hello everyone and welcome back to Creative Live. I am your host, ken Klosterman and we are here for another episode of our podcast. We are photographers and today's guest is kelly union and kelly is a documentary photographer, contributor to National Geographic magazine and other publications. He is, his work is informed by his ancestry which is both deny and chinese american. Um He just worked truly explores the relationship of humans to the land and very much through different cultural perspectives and not just his own. Uh he has been named one of PDM is 30 UNDER 30. Uh He is a National Geographic Explorer and a member of indigenous photograph as well as diversify photo and in addition to his photography skills, I'm excited to dr Keeley about his mad primitive survival skills as well as his building traditional kayaks. Um and of course most of the year he can be found up north in the Circumpolar arctic sochi leon. Thank you so much for joining us today, Pa...

trick Guapo, it's nice to see you kenna and thanks so much. I was quite an intro, well you have quite a past and quite a future and just are doing some really incredible work. Um I have listened to some of your nat geo talks and um, some other podcast episodes of you and first of all you're just such a joyous person do listen to. So that was sort of one of the things that I um that I took away and, and I think it's um I know I've heard you talk about sort of the, the, that someone's personality and the way that you can kind of dive in and start to interact with the people that you're working with um is a very valuable thing to have. So we'll, we'll get to that. But again, just an honor to have you on the show. Um as we were scheduling this, you talked about how it is, it is not, well we're now in april 2021 as we're recording and that it is getting into assignment season for you. So what does assignment season look like for you? Oh man. Well assignments season definitely has gotten to be um you know, in recent years it's just nonstop assignment season is essentially nine months of the year. Um And uh yeah, it's being aboard ships in the arctic. Um It's a you know, basically from spring through fall is the sort of prime times to be in the in the north just because that's when it's not well what, it's not definitely cold, but also it was a photographer. The far north doesn't have any light. There's no light for all that for three months of the year. So uh that's why I'm restricted to the other times as a photographer. No light. I mean, I know that some of these cameras are getting really good with low light, but uh, at the cold in there and that makes a lot of sense of what who what are the types of publications that you get assignments for now? And is it something that you already have a story that you're going to um, that you are pitching to, uh, to publications? Is it the continuation of your long term, one of your long term stories? Or we'll we'll talk about. But how is that at this point in your career, what does that look like? You know, there's a there's a combination of all kinds of different things that happens. And a lot of times I get these um, random inquiries from just like, I'm very surprised when it happens. So vogue got in touch with me and they wanted to do a story on women who run that I did A Rod. Uh and I was like, oh, vogue, that doesn't seem like that is not my first thought for an amazing fit, but it turned out to be actually a really good fit. It worked out really well. So with something like that, usually, you know, the editors have some idea of what that story is before, um and to give them credit, they really worked hard to make everything come together. Like, it was the least production it ever had to do on any shoot, which was very, very nice. But, you know, there's other times to where editors will just show up that I've never worked with before, and they'll say, well, we we love your work and your outlook, your perspective, we want to do a story that's vaguely in this category, you know, in the subject, What do you have? What ideas do you have? And I think that's becoming more bigger and bigger now in an editorial photography, which is that it's a good thing. I think it's a good thing because it means that editors recognize that photographers since we're on the ground and we're poking about in everybody's business, that we have a better idea, you know, kind of what's really happening. So we have a better idea of what kinds of things we can pitch. And I think it's especially important when it comes to things in terms of representation for people of color and other minorities. You know, because we are we are we exist in worlds that a lot of times the editors don't, you know, that's not true across the board. Um, there are lots of pretty diverse editors and it gets more diverse every single day, But especially for someone like me who I wouldn't say I'm super specialized, but there's just not many, they're not not very many indigenous photographers and not a lot of people that work in the far North also. So, yeah, it gets to be um so anyone who's interested in any of those things, especially if the intersect, they are knocking on my door um including vogue, right, according to which again, just goes to show you, you never know, you just never know. Um you know, what's going to come your way. And I've I've, you know, to that point, I've heard you talk a lot about the importance of those relationships with your editors um with editors, you know, in different publications and such, and then, you know, they it's, you know, can turn from this like hoping somebody is going to um you know, to to see me to like they truly know you and I have interacted with you. Um how did you come about sort of developing these relationships? And I do want to talk about obviously some of that work up north as well, but uh take us back to to getting started. Yeah. Gosh, that's a good question. I mean, you know, I think I think I just have like my personality wise, um I am an extrovert, but I would say that I'm very extremely extroverted or anything like that. I'm kind of like reading between, but I just have a very strong sort of relationship orientation. You know, like when I meet someone, I want to be the friend, you know, I want to hang on, I'm very friendly and anyone who I'm going to spend talking to if I'm going to talk to you at all, I find you interesting and I want to talk to you a lot when I hang out with you and really get involved in your world. And so I sort of see all of those anytime I run into someone and and hang out with them as an opportunity to get to know someone better and find out about what's going on in their world. That's how I learned about things. Uh And so um when I got started, gosh, I was an assistant for a while uh and commercial photography, I thought that commercial photography was going to the weight forward for me. Um And I was doing work at R. E. I. At the sorry, I studio eventually moved up to actually doing shooting for our Ai but at some point um you know our yeah, I actually went in house after I started working there, or after I started shooting there and I just, it was like a moment in time where I realized, oh gosh, well they're doing this thing and I'm no longer going to be shooting at our Ai because I want to be a freelancer, I don't I don't want to work there. And it was a moment I realized, well gosh, what are we, what do I really want to do as a photographer? And I recognized that I needed to move into documentary. So thus begun my path to really becoming a photographer because it was suddenly way harder. But it also made me um only work on the stuff that I actually wanted to do. Um and right around the same time, another sort of thing happened. That was very lucky, I got to be an assistant for national Geographic photographer, robert Clark who was you know, been a long time Geographic photographer. And we hit it off. Of course we had a great time hanging out. And he was really interested in the boats and he was interested in my photography and he looked at it and you know, he said basically like uh gosh, I want to show this to my editor um here let me uh And so he, you know, he opens up his laptop and his sending off an email to his editor. I was like, no, no, no, hold on. Um And you know, because the thought of working for National Geographic had never even encouraged me, right? Like it's um I don't know why. I don't know why that is because I certainly grew up with nachos in the basement. I spent a lot of time now down there um lurking with the cats and piles and piles of natsios. So, Which is which is interesting. Yeah. It's interesting because so many people um Do you think like if they're into photography and into that you know, style of photography as well? Photojournalist editorial, it's like I want to be a nat geo photographer as like this dream. But is it do you think it's because even though you were looking at a lot of photography, like you weren't like being a photographer, wasn't your thing yet? Or? I don't know. I'm not sure. I think probably because they don't still come from a culture, any of my cultures that I come from. Um And I'm sort of my family's experience in the U. S. Is just they're just so pragmatic. You know, we're not we're um you know, I'm sure if I came from a family full of people in media that I would I would know about it, I would be thinking about all this stuff, but instead it was mostly my, my parents thinking like, gosh, you've got to be a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant or something, you know, something that's safe and um, will make money and you will survive the next depression that comes or whatever. So it never occurred to me. But of course, once robert raised that possibility that I realized that that was a, it was a real thing and that was something that seems very actually doable. I think that? S another weird thing about it too is I think as a, as a minority in the US and it never really thought that that kind of thing was possible. It was possible to get to the place where I could be making photographs for National Geographic, but the actual process of it, you know, you were asking about relationships and um I just kind of do what I normally do which is um just try to be really friendly and think about all of the editors of the Geographic as being I'm people that I want to hang out with, you know, and um I didn't know anything about them, but I showed up in D. C. Sent an email off to the director of photography. Um and um I said, hey I would love to buy your coffee. I'm here in D. C. I'm pretty close to where my parents live and uh just come and hang out. Maybe show my stuff, you know? And and so I went up and I was surprised they were really really happy to see me. And um not only did cerulean bring me in and um look at the work, but she also brought a bunch of other editors and everyone came over to look at it and watch a little video. And I was so uh I would I came away being very impressed not by the natural h key, which is very impressive or, you know, any of that kind of stuff, but I was impressed by how amazing and interesting the actual editors were. As people, you know, they knew so much about the world, were so thoughtful and you could just sort of see that even in the way that people moved around in the world, that the way that kind of carried themselves, that they uh the world was much much larger uh to them, that they knew a lot of stuff about the world and kind of navigated their their way uh in a way that is very different than most people, that I mean. So I immediately was like, oh my God, these are my people. They're good people. So yeah, that was the kind of beginning of that. Well, it's interesting because it is that, I mean, I just, I'm envisioning right now, like sitting in a nat geo, you know, room, actually, I don't even know what that would look like, but, like you said, with all these incredible people who have had such incredible um uh experiences through photography, even if it's not their own, but just through being able to work with all these amazing people and stories and everything. And so, you know, but coming back to, like, it seems like what the through line there is, curiosity is looking into um, you know, story, what makes the world work or not work, or, you know, just how all of it, all of it. And I think with with then we find our, you know, we find that particular stories that um I don't know that that were most attracted to. Um so I guess I I would love to um yeah, just talk a little bit more about this four year, is it now, five year um work that you've done up in the arctic with incredible um stories and you and most especially you're talking about building relationships and kind of almost embedding yourself, becoming one of, you know, being there, not just to fly on the wall um really experiencing how, how have you been able to, to do that? Well, you know, there's a uh it's easy, it's certainly easier now to go back to a community that I've become a part of. Um and that's the that's the goal to be there to be, to go to a place often enough that um that not not only am I a part of the community, people look forward to me coming back as much as I look forward to going there, but also, you know, the cool thing about it is that, well, maybe cool, a cool thing about it is that I'm also accountable if I keep going back to the place I'm accountable because the people know what I've said and printed and done how I've treated people. And that accountability is a really wonderful thing actually, because it makes you a better journalist and a better human being. You know, it's a sure enough, a weird thing that I think when there's a journalism in the past has been so colonial in this sense, like here, let's go over here and do this work here and never come back again. So, um whatever work we do, we don't have no feedback, actually, no idea how we did on that story, as far as the people who are actually in the story. So that's kind of a funny thing. But yeah, I love um when I go to a new place, um, there's all kinds of different entries into it. You know, Nowadays I tend to do a lot of research and I know enough people that know, um have a cousin or brother or um, something like that in the new place that I'm going to. So I try to make some kind of connection before I go. But there's lots of places where you go where I don't know anyone at all, you know, and I have to go in cold. Um and a lot of times I just try to, I think this is a real big cultural difference also in the way that we kind of carry ourselves in the world. Um you know, if you're american or Canadian often, or it's just, you know, generally kind of Western european in general, there's a, there's a real desire to not, I'm to not infringe on other people. You need to not impose on other people. So, you know, you walk around and you don't want to bother people who are walking around on the street, you don't want to go up to people and talk to them. You know, you feel embarrassed about that kind of thing, but from the cultures that I come from, it's not really true. You know, we we obviously don't want to impose on other people, but like one of the things I do, for example, if I show up in town, um in a place where I don't know a lot of people, I often will just walk around and look for landscape photographs. You know, I mean poking around in people's yards and walking around and seeing what's going on. You know, sometimes there will be like a drying polar bear hide or like a boat or something that's interesting and I'll just poke around eventually someone will see me, you know, that they'll walk out and you know, and that's that's the moment, right? That's the moment when most people give up their like, oh God, someone's confronting, you have to run away now, you know, and apologize and I don't, I just start talking to them, you know, start talking to them and um, you know what initially seems, I think especially scary to a lot of non native peoples is having a initially slightly hostile him encounter without an indigenous person. Um I just don't see it that way. Like I start talking to them and start asking them about what's going on and they can see, I'm curious about their world and are interested and and then I might have some knowledge about it, but I'm not just a complete Nubian their worlds, you know, like it might start talking about that polar bear hide and and how it was done or you know make some small talk about like the ceiling season or about the weather or something like that, something is relevant but also lets me know, lets them know that I'm not, I'm not a total outsider that I belong in this world, that this is a world that I'm familiar with, you know, and then invariably I get invited indoors um for dinner, you know, I get invited to have caribou stew or something like that and and this is juncture number two where people, a lot of people go wrong too because this is when people say, oh no, I couldn't possibly and they refused to because they don't want to impose. But this is a really big difference between indigenous communities and a lot of asian communities um and other, you know, just general cultures, which is, you know, if you refuse dinner, what you're basically saying is you're rejecting that person um uh rejecting that relationship, like I don't actually really want to have a relation with you. All I want is what you can offer me, like I want your story, but nothing else, like I don't know why I should get to know you and that's how people take it. You know, they might not say that, but that's certainly um certainly the subtext of that. So I absolutely, even if I have other things going on, I will try my absolute best to make sure that I can go show up for dinner and hang out and I often bring gifts uh if I um I'll bring like small gifts and things like that um to hand over. Or if not, I always just remember that I it's a gift economy. They're inviting me and I'm in their debt now, you know, for for having been fed. So I try to get involved and I try to invite them to do stuff, go out, have some fun, you know, because they're interested in me to, here's the world traveler who showed up at their doorstep. Um and then um I try to make sure to go back and really explore that relationship and go deeper. I think that the cultural nuance of, you know, again, understanding what is insulting versus you know, like we come from, you come from people come from a different background. And so the the time and effort into understanding what that what all those nuances are, um sounds seems to be so important in to get to the level of work that you've been able to do there. Um can you tell us about like, so there's, I have these images in my head of um whales being of, you know, 50 people trying to pull up uh whale out of um you know, after the hunt or um you on, you know, I've heard you talk about, you know, standing there for hours and being present in the moment and um for without talking to each other because that's sort of the zone you have to get in and I know those are kind of two different things, but can you bring people to the arctic and this community and um what um some maybe a couple of stories of what it's like to be in the photographing side of it while you're experiencing there there. Oh sure. Yeah. Well I mean we were working a lot of different indigenous communities um and a lot of them in the far north um the are particularly one of my favorites and I think part of it has to do with the fact that just have just been I just know everyone and have been there for so long um that they're like family to me. You know I'm already just I just put my ticket for the spring for spring whaling season this year and I'm going to head over. Um And it's always a little bit of a challenge because every time I go up there there's a huge housing shortage and um In the hotel that's there is $350 a night. So almost not going to stay there unless I'm on assignment and even then I try not to spend $350 a night, but there's a real housing shortage show the only way to actually stay in a lot of these places is to hang out with local people and and be invited into their homes or you know to ask for a place to stay. So it's always a little bit of a challenge. It's a logistical hurdle I have to overcome every single time, but it's also uh really really pays back, you know, it really pays for itself. So um you know, I absolutely love being up there and the edge of the sea ice in the springtime during the spring whaling season. Um for those that are listening that don't know anything about the whaling season. So um and you are an indigenous Alaskan native group that is a subgroup of the Inuit that span across the entire arctic and uh have been hunting whales for a really long time. And in fact, you know, I think generally westerners really be wailing in a very negative light and but I think people don't really know that that the reason we view veiling in such a negative light is because essentially Europeans, um and early Yankees basically hunted whales to extinction and where so now we have this like kind of attitude about whaling, which is complete blowback from having harvested something to complete annihilation. But there's another way you can in fact hunt whales and have a deep relationship with them and actually care and love for them. And I know I actually make the arguments that when you do, when you look at whales from the indigenous perspective by hunting them by having a relationship with them, that you actually care much more deeply about whales, because you understand them and you depend on them, You and your family's life depends on the that whale. So then you have actually tripled the population of whales in the last 40 years, which is pretty amazing while hunting them. So I just want to kind of throw that contradiction out there because Westerners will see this as a contradiction to how can you hunt and raise the population. It's just not a contradiction um in my world. So that being said, like being up there in the springtime on the arctic sea ice with my whaling crew, you know, it's not most of that time really spent is doing everything except what people imagine whaling really is, which is throwing a harpoon at a whale. The vast majority of 99.9 of the time, what we're doing is we're hanging out with each other. We are pick axing blocks of blocks of ice to create ice trails. Were standing by the edge of the water, watching for whales listening. Um, as the ideas fly by and like a long giant migration that might extend from one side of the sky to the other. Um, it's smelling the ocean. You know, we're standing standing on the ice and you look around, everything is covered in snow and glacial blocks of ice. But there's also the sea, it's a really incredible thing to be in that particular environment is really like, it's like no other place on earth. Uh, it's a bit hard to understand. Um, and then also the community vibe of it too. So, you know, there's like really deep spiritual moment when you're standing watching the whales for hours on end, you know, and your brand kind of shuts off. Then there's the community part, which is when a whale gets caught or when uh, someone needs help everyone shows up and there's laughter and shouting and a lot of people hanging out with each other doing various things. Um, and including when we're pulling a whale that's been harvested up onto the ice and out of the water, it takes 50 200 people to do that. We get these giant police like pulleys that are bigger than a desk. Um, and then we put a bunch of ropes through them, um, and tied to the whale and haul it up onto the ice. And it's an amazing thing. You know, take Take lots of breaks and it might take, it might take some along eight hours to pull that whale up onto the shore with 50 people. So it's quite a lot, but it's an amazing experience for that to happen. Well, and, and, and looking at your images, um, sort of, or give us the ability to um, at least have a a peek into what what this um such a different lifestyle from um, what, you know, many people live. Um, can you go back to the accountability part in terms of, you know, if your I've heard you say that, you know, your your most the most important thing is to the people that you are telling stories about. Um talk to me about um like coming back to them with the images or what they see as the impact of those images being seen by the rest of the world. Yeah, for sure. You know, I mean, I would say that generally speaking, um, the communities, a lot of the communities that I work in there a little bit less interested in the actual on the actual publication. A lot of times. It depends, it depends, you know, it depends on the community. Um, but a lot of it what really matters is the process, how it's done. You know, and he just didn't really understand this idea of like flying into a place and spending three or four days they're getting not really getting to know anyone and then flying away with the story, because it doesn't make any sense. Because, like, how would you understand us in that amount of time? And invariably the stories that come out of that are our deep, deep cultural biases that have the kind of superficial padding this year official patting of what looks like the place, you know, because the photograph is really nice in that way. Documentary photographs don't lie. But they can also tell that could significantly misrepresent what's going on when you don't understand it. Um, you know, if if every photograph we took was the entire truth and all the truth, and we we wouldn't need editor. Um and probably say we wouldn't need photographers really, anyone just go up. There is not a picture and it would be the truth and the entire truth. So where what we choose to accent and what we choose to choose to select is really, really important. That and that accountability aspect of it is like when I I think this is a tough, tough thing um for Westerners to understand is this idea that that indigenous people own their own stories, they own what's going on. Um and they really want a communal, they like have communal sharing over any kind of that knowledge, um including their own story. And so when someone comes in the Western world believes though, that if you if you take the picture that it belongs to you, if you write the story, it belongs to you and the communities don't see it that way at all, it makes no sense to them. So over time they've started to understand that, you know, they like understand now they've seen it happened so many times where they've been totally misrepresented and they understand now, oh gosh, well, they don't really think this way, they don't get it. So, but they really do value it when someone comes in and believes in that communal idea. So I'm not saying that, I don't think that it's that every single person should go in and do this kind of long form reporting. And I think that's totally I said, and not certainly not every person who reports on indigenous community needs to be indigenous. Like, you know, if your um lakota, you don't have to be or so if you're working in Lakota territory, you don't have to be a lakota report about that. Um, but I do think that it's really important that we have Lakota that reporting on that. Right? So right now, the main thing is that there's just not enough people who are actually reporting on these things and talking about these things that understand them better, more deeply are invested are accountable, you know, so like, you know, for example of the Lakota person, um goes to uh Pine Ridge and tells a story there. If Pine, the Pine Ridge residents look at that story and they're like, wait a minute, this isn't us, that boy that Lakota journalist is going to be in trouble because their aunties and um family, you know, they're going to get in hot water for all of that and you know, they probably won't be allowed to report their again, Everyone knows who they are, right? They know all they know their family, etcetera. And that accountability is really deeply entrenched. But the chances of that thing happening in the first place of that problem happen in the first place are low because you're the Qaeda, so you're born and raised, you don't have the same cultural assumptions that, you know, a non lakota will. Right, right. I mean, coming back to the issue of um, you know, not enough indigenous photographers in out there working, can you talk a little bit about the organizations, um, indigenous photograph and diversify photo for people who aren't familiar with them, whether it's, you know, editors out there or, you know, people in the industry or other photographers themselves and um what those missions are and what their um, what you're seeing happen. Yeah, for sure. Um, indigenous uh photograph and diversify photo are actually quite different um in a lot of ways, even though they ostensibly about helping get more representation of photographers of different kinds of photographers. So indigenous photograph is interesting because it's a collection of indigenous photographers who are working and generally have national bylines. Um There's not that many of us, especially now that it's been expanded to include indigenous photographers from around the globe globally. It's expanded a lot. So we have a lot more members but just working in north America alone. Um there haven't been that many. Well I am so but the cool thing about it is that we're not all, it's not all just a bunch of photojournalists that are working in the same kind of way the members of distance photograph are representing indigenous issues and doing work that really thinks about um indigenous issues in an often very new ways. Like the entire idea, for example, of going into a place and getting a story and coming back with and printing it out is a very colonial thing to do. Um you know, so there's all of these kind of and the mediums of photography. Um uh well, photography in particular is a very colonial medium. This idea that you and you sort of capture someone's uh uh likeness. Um and then print it somewhere else for someone to see that you don't even know where it might go is really strange and unusual to a lot of indigenous communities. So, um what's nice about indigenous photographs is that we found, um although we're all photographers, we found different ways for to use that medium to represent things that we're thinking about. Some of them are constructed narratives. There's like fine art kind of stuff. Um portraiture, we have people who are using tin types, you know, you know what plate kind of stuff to to sort of shine a light back on the way that photographs and the camera have been used to create indigenous stereotypes over the years. Um and then we have other people that are not interested in the past at all, but very interested in indigenous future. Like what does it look like for us, urban natives, for example, who are like making indigenous music? We're talking about indigenous things, you know, like how do we want to be portrayed? What's what's indigenous fashion, you know, uh what is that going to look like? How are we creating uh spaces that we feel comfortable and you know, like basically what is our kind of future leadership going to look like? How are we going? Because a lot of indigenous on culture is kind of leading at the forefront of different issues that we all care about. Um such as conservation and um art and music. And so the indigenous photograph has all these different members that are taking different you know trying different things. Uh so it's a very cool collective in that sense. And then diversify photograph is a lot more straightforward in some ways. You know it's a giant database of giant database of basically um POC. Or minority photographers. Um and it's designed to just sort of get rid of editors, excuses publication, exclusive excuses. Um when they say oh well we covered this issue um you know we're covering the George Floyd protests but we can't send any black photographers because we don't know we don't know any black photographers. You know our deadlines are too busy or too coming too quick. We don't know anybody that we can trust that's going to deliver a great story. Well diversified basically was born of that idea that there should be no excuses and diversified. Not only has a pOC directory, but also has a black photographers database in particular. Um and there's all kinds of work. It's not just photojournalism or editorial as commercial photographers, some of whom whose work just just kind of blows you away. Um Yeah, it's great. Absolutely. And and organizations that have been doing a lot of important, important work, changing the industry um or working, you know, working too. And so I like to, you know, bring those two people's attention who might not know about them um in, you know, in this podcast, um I want to talk a little bit more about you and your history and story and because I'm fascinated by um even like your pre photography career, uh still part of what you do, um, of building traditional kayaks and then also the, the primitive skills. Um, and, and how that kind of has, Yeah, I mean it's just, and it's unusual for most of us as two of, as to how you, you know, got into doing all of this, you know, you know, in my brain and all kind of links up together. It just flows together very well. But yes, it does seem really strange. I think if you, I guess if you're not me, um, yeah, you know, I mean, I think the link to indigenous city is really important here. Like, um, you know, Bill, I build traditional kayaks boat, which we call the night we call them die or, or America. Uh, and they are, what can I say? Gosh, they're, they're just amazing watercraft right there. Often single person watercraft. Um, and the ultra light that the kinds of boats that we built, our basically frames with skin um sewn over the top. And today we mostly use ballistic nylon uh and they end up, those boats end up being stronger than fiberglass and about a third of the weight, which is really incredible. But they, at the current moment in time machines can't make them, They have to be hand built and um, I have to say they have way more soul because we know where the trees come from. You know, we smelled the smell, the wood, um and the sinew I hunted have sown it, put our love into it so that when we build a boat this way, you know, I really think of it as being alive. Um it really comes to life. It is very, very different kind of thing. Um and so for, you know, for me, uh kayaks in the water, it's all about bringing me closer, you know, like when I go kayaking, I can go out for a week, I can go out for two weeks and go for months at a time and put everything I need like and go camp, you know, I can go paddle around Vancouver Island um and have all my camping gear, everything I need in it, and then um just spend all this time either by myself or with friends and that kind of immersion of being on the water side is it's a really incredible way to experience the wilderness because uh you know, the water is often, you know, you can't build manmade structures in the water very easily, it's tough, so as a result, the water is uh it's a special kind of wilderness. It's quiet, it tends not to um it tends not to have all of the visual clutter in all of the garbage that human beings have done to a lot of the land, you know. Um, and so we can go to these places, especially that are somewhat wild places and paddle around and camping them. And then we wake up in the morning and look outside the tent door. Wolves will be darting past, you know, or might walk to fill up your water with fresh water in the morning and, and trudged past the tracks of otters and bears and mink, um, and deer, you know, all in the same morning passing each other. So you kind of, all of that time spending these incredible places that often only kayaks can access. It's just an incredible world. You get to get an idea of what the land um, sounds like, what it sounds like when it's speaking to you, what it's like, what it's like when the animals themselves are still are talking to each other, you know, and they're not lost in the background din of human, of the, I guess modernity of uh, you know, kind of the yeah, it's just the cacophony of all the things that are going on. I don't mean just by sound, but I mean, you know, all of the things that infrastructure, the concrete instead of the instead of the grass, all of that stuff. And so that also I think really relates to the primitive skills to um I've long been interested in all of this stuff and you know, primitive skills for people that know what that what that means. You know, a lot of people also refer to survival skills is not exactly the same. Um survival has got more of this kind of military esque vibe to it, and period of skills is just really about this uh notion of what was it like? What is it like for people to live close to the land in the Stone Age? You know, like without all of these high tech tools that we need to have, and you know, I mean, like now when I go someplace in camp, I got my in reach with me, my GPS with me, So it's not like I don't use technology, I love technology, but also doing primitive skills and going out on survival trips and this kind of stuff really, it gives it clears your head, it makes you realize what's really truly valuable and what's real, um how to like for example, um and you get just build up this whole level of skill and appreciation for the land that you don't get. Like if you're navigating by GPS, it's a bit like what happened with, if you're old enough to remember the time before google maps, which I hope some people are like, we had to actually know what city slightly layouts were like. You should remember what the names of the streets where, what kind of weird turns instead of just letting google navigate um turn by turn. Um And that's just the kind of same with the willingness to, if you have a Gps, you know, there's that sense that, gosh, you know, it doesn't really matter what's what the landscape is like. You can get from point A to point B. With these with this machine um in these thoughts, but without knowing that instead, you learned this plethora of information about what's going on in the world. For example, the sun in the northern hemisphere. Uh The sun doesn't rise. Uh You know, it rises in the east and sets in the west, but what, where is it at noon? Is that exactly? Um Is it exactly above us? Is neither north, south, east and west? Or is it actually in the north a little bit? You know, because if we know that in the middle of the day, in the northern hemisphere, um the sun is a certain location, it helps us to navigate, you know, the idea of moss on the trees uh being uh only being in the north in the northern hemisphere. That's not really true, It's much more complicated than that, but if you know how that works, then you do start to actually get an idea of how to navigate around. When you do see moss on a tree, it's only pointed in one direction and it tells us a lot a lot more because the intricacies are super interesting, right? Like we start to find out more about moss and you're like, oh actually it's not just that the sun is beating down on one side of this tree, drying up the moss on the one side, it's actually that that's not true. What happened here is that there was another tree that lived here and it died. Um and now the moss which was once shielded from the sun is no longer. So, you know, you kind of see like you get to see a sense of history of the land and what's happened here. Um and there's all these little stories that are happening all around embedded in there. If we just if we just learn how to listen to it, you know? And that's a lot of what primitive skills is. Just your your images give us so much to visually see, but your words also can take us there as well. And it's just a beautiful uh way to think about, reminder to think about living and the connection to to the land. Uh and and how like you said like we don't even, I wouldn't be able to find our way around without GPS S now, which is just um creates this sort of distance and and lack of understanding again of what the the land is provide is providing to us and us providing to it, you know, in this in the way that everything works. Um can you talk a little bit more about your personal relationship to um getting into sort of the spirituality of relationship to the land and then how that um inform some of the work that you do as well. And I was seeing, I was looking at um some of you are in this past year in the pandemic some that you were involved in some exhibits and such where kind of uh some non journalistic type of work um that getting into that landscape. But and anyway to talk to us about that aspect of what you do. Yeah I had this really interesting um Also yeah I've been kind of trying to do more projects that are a bit more fine art in nature or just maybe it's not like I'm trying to do fine art. It's more like I'm just letting myself go and following what I'm really interested in. Um You know I think there's a uh you're probably referring to the particular work that I've been doing which is called Thin Places um which is part of an exhibition um with a California Museum of Photography uh in that series. Uh It's a bunch of photographs that are looking at um these places where you might say the veil between the human world and the spirit world is thin, you know, and that's not just an indigenous concept. I think that's a concept that pretty much every society has had at some point. And it makes sense because on a personal level, we all feel this thing, right? Even in the most rational among us, I think, would you walk to a certain place sometimes and the light just hits you? Just so and there's this like feeling of, oh my God, I mean this what a cathedral of trees or something like that among the redwoods. And I'm like, wow, this place, you feel small. You know, you feel um you feel small, but you feel grand. Do you feel part of everything? You know, you're reminded that life is around you, that's beautiful. And those places, they're not just any places. There are places that are very particular to us. You know, they're very personal. We feel them. Um And taking that a step further to like, I'm also interested in all this because my background cultures uh than I and chinese also are animist through where we're animistic, which means that we see the land or have seen the land in the past as a place where there's a bunch of different spirits that existed at any given time. And you know, it's complicated how that particular thing looks. A great representation if you ever watched avatar, the Last Airbender. Um there's a really great representation for what it's like to be an animist and see the world from that point of view, especially in legend of cora. Uh but the, you know, animism is a bit like um a great way to describe it for Western Europeans, is fairies. You know, like where did the fairy idea come from? But you know if you walk into the woods at in the southeast at night and there's fireflies glowing around, you can't help but feel that then there's other times too, you know it's not just like so fireflies are actually living creatures, you know they have D. N. A. And so yes we of course think of them of being alive. But what about those times when you're sitting on a meadow somewhere and a bunch of tiny dandelion fluff blows by um and there's light sparkling off the water and all of these different things are floating in the air around us and we just feel that this place is totally alive. You know, we don't need to know why, you know, we don't need to explain it necessarily. I think it's okay to hold this contradiction of the idea of science um that, you know, with us as well as acknowledging that there's a spiritual element to life and that that place itself is special in that moment is special. And so I've been trying to photograph those places which are really meaningful to me um in terms of like places where I feel the, and I think also will translate this notion of um being animist. Uh and what I love is this, yes, everything is um what we might think of as in the animate objects is still energy. It's everything is energy and and vibration. And so um it's, you know, bringing that to light in um in landscape work in a in a different way or being able to present that um is a really beautiful um thing. So I I love seeing that work as well. Um Yeah, it's hard, I think there's a there's a there's a funny trick to it, which is hard because there's this kind of sort of self deceit that you need to have in a certain way because, you know, as a photographer that you have to capture what you can only capture what your camera can see, not what you see and what you feel. So you have to find a place these places where something in the visual world uh that you can see in record is expressing something that you feel that's normally hidden. Uh so that's the real challenge of it in a in a lot of ways, like me walking around and finding my thin places. That's easy just because, you know, I don't have to do anything, I just have to go and feel them but to actually express it in visual form as the challenging part. And sometimes I think about it, but a lot of times they just stumble on them. You know, walk around in the, in the olympic rainforest and the light spot comes out of nowhere and Cleese this tree in half, you know, perfectly in half. And I'm like, wow, what? I've never seen that before, How is that even happening? You know, I'm sure I could figure it out, I'm sure I could figure it out, but is that important? No. And usually not to the feeling part as well, because I mean, that's the difference. There's in not just in landscape images, but going back to even, you know, the type of documentary work that you do. It's the it's the feeling part. Images can be perfectly exposed or technically perfect. But it's it is in my belief, it's this it's a relationship and the energy between you and what you are creating. Um with this relationship. Yeah. And you're brilliant relationships and therefore I want to make sure that everybody knows where to find you follow you. Um continue to see the incredible stories that you are creating um and the work that you're doing, so where can people find you? I'm definitely on instagram, which I think is what most people find me nowadays, and um I just posted some pictures of musk ox that uh flying back from Alaska that I got frostbite for. So definitely worth checking out those pictures. They're pretty um they're very different than in muscat photographs that I've ever seen before. So I'm very happy to share those. And that is at at Keeley Union dot com um which is hard to spell, but it's K I L I I Y you Y A N. And I'm sure it will be in the show notes. Um And then also you can find all of my past stories, which I tend to ride up as photo essays, including captioning information. And they're fun to browse through at Keeley dot com. So all kinds of different stuff, they're expanding my entire career, awesome and more more to come. Um For sure kelly, thank you so much and um it's just been a pleasure to have you here on Creative Live. Thank you, everyone. You land. Thanks so much, dana.

Class Description


Our weekly audio podcast We Are Photographers brings you true stories from behind the lens and behind the lives of your favorite photographers, filmmakers, and creative industry game-changers. From their struggles to their wins, host Kenna Klosterman discovers the real human stories about why they do what they do.

Listen to this and other audio episodes on our audio Podcast page.


As a creator, working in remote parts of the world often requires building relationships with people who rarely interact with outsiders. Cultural norms you are accustomed to won’t necessarily apply. In this episode, Kiliii shares his experience working in the arctic and offers a number of insights to help you build genuine relationships with collaborators, and ultimately, a better-finished project.


Kiliii Yüyan is an award-winning Documentary Photographer and contributor to National Geographic Magazine and other major publications. Informed by ancestry that is both Nanai/Hèzhé and Chinese-American, much of his work explores the human relationship to the natural world from different cultural perspectives. Kiliii is one of PDN's 30 Under 30 Photographers (2019), a National Geographic Explorer, and a member of Indigenous Photograph and Diversify Photo. In addition to being a photographer, Kiliii builds traditional kayaks professionally, has mad primitive survival skills and most of the year can be found working on stories in the circumpolar Arctic.