From A Traditional Kayak Builder To National Geographic Photographer, Kiliii Yüyan Takes Indigenous Narratives to a Global Scale

Jarrette Werk (Aaniiih & Nakoda) interviews his Native American Journalist Fellowship mentor, Kiliii Yüyan to detail his journey as a visual storyteller working for some of the top photography publications in the world and receiving some of photography’s highest honors.

In 2019, I was blessed to have been paired with Yüyan (above) as my mentor for the Native American Journalist Fellowship. It was my third year as a fellow and I was so excited to finally be paired with a photojournalist. But I have to admit, I was intimidated by him and completely awestruck by his incredibly beautiful work. Here was this man with a huge following, working for my dream publication, doing the stuff I want to do and he was going to be my mentor. I was stoked to be working with someone who viewed the world through an Indigenous lens.

“The world is full of stories. But how many of those stories just tell us what we already know? How many of those stories teach us to see the world from a truly different perspective?” writes Yüyan on his website.

A Nanai/Hèzhé (East Asian Indigenous) and Chinese-American, Yüyan is a National Geographic documentary photographer based out of traditional Duwamish lands (or so-called Seattle, Washington). He can be found across the circumpolar Arctic most of the year. According to his website, Yüyan has fled collapsing sea ice, weathered botulism from fermented whale blood, and found kinship at the edges of the world.

So we’ll jump right into it. Can you introduce yourself? Tell me a little bit about your background and what you’re doing?

Yüyan: Well, shoot, where do I start? So I am a photographer, and my ancestry is both Nanai/Hèzhé and Chinese which is Siberian Native and Chinese, and so a lot of my work deals with Native Communities. In some ways, I think I kind of grew up feeling cheated out of this awesome homeland, you know? Where I was when I was a baby and so now I find myself going up to the far north, or going to these kind of out of the way places to hang out with communities where I feel really comfortable and try to tell stories that dig Indigenous peoples out of the misinterpretation, shall we say?

I’m focusing more and more on the human relationship to nature. That is, regardless of whether it’s Indigenous peoples or not, because there’s a lot of really cool stuff going on … that’s not related directly to Indigenous peoples, especially in Asia and Africa, where the word “Indigenous” is more complicated. It’s not quite so simple. So yeah, there it is. And these days, I pretty much do all my work for National Geographic now. So like 90, 95% of it is for them.

You don’t come from a traditional journalism or photographer background, you’re pretty much self taught. Can you talk a little bit about how you were able to make your way into one of the top photography magazines?

Yüyan: Yeah, you know, honestly, I think a lot of people come to the Geographic sideways, kinda like me. I didn’t even pick up a camera until I was in my thirties. So, I was ancient already. I think a lot of what makes a great photographer or photojournalist a lot of times is someone who is really curious about the world and has seen a lot of the world, you know?

It’s hard if you get out of, say, like photo school, or you go to school for journalism or whatever, you’re fresh out of school, you kind of know nothing, you know? Like, you know how it works, the system works a little bit, but you don’t really know anything about the world. You just know the little world that you’ve been living in inside your family’s world. And by time I picked up a camera, I was already a traditional kayak builder at a successful business, I’d roamed around all over the good portion of the planet, like traveled a lot, you know, and seen a lot of stuff and paddled a lot of crazy, crazy waters and lived off the lands doing like we call it bush crafting stuff, you know, like people did back in the day.

So like I already knew a lot of that kind of stuff. And so that in a lot of ways, that’s the stuff that’s really hard to get through education. And that’s what makes you, I think, a particularly powerful storyteller, because you have a unique perspective. You, like everyone has a unique perspective, but like not only to have a unique perspective, coming from an Indigenous background, a Chinese American background, but also having these tools to know how the world works, you know, like, knowing how to build things, how to paddle and understanding the ocean and the forest and those kinds of things. Also, just having traveled a lot, I can build trust and make friends wherever I go, and so I think that’s what they call “the school of hard knocks.”

So you don’t need it, you know, the easy stuff to learn is how to work the camera. You know, I mean, it’s not easy, but you can look it up on YouTube, if you can look it up on YouTube, then it’s not that hard. Right? That can be how you get there.

And then in terms of getting to National Geographic, or even just breaking out into the photo industry and making it at the top level, everyone who gets there gets there because they do a really cool project. So you basically just do something that’s essentially like your life’s work, or something that maybe not be life’s work, but like something you really want to do, that all your passion is into, and you put all everything you got into it, and you make it happen no matter what. Right? Like, we funded ourselves, typically some people that is to fund it through like a piece together to little bits of assignments and stuff. But usually the best work is done like funding it yourself.

Sometimes people are lucky and they’re photographing, like their cousin that’s going through… well, not lucky in that sense, but like, lucky that they can cover like their cousin going through the leukemia treatment or something, you know? And it’s close to home, meaning they’re lucky, they don’t have to travel and then have to spend a lot of money and they can be there and they’re intimate, and they already have trust built. So a lot of things are built in there. And that can be a real landmark piece of work, because … it’s hard to make a story out of it. And to see deeper and to wipe away and put aside all the baggage and get to the point where you can really, like, get down in there and tell that story from this beautiful intimate place.

And then those of us that choose to go to more exotic places, you know, not “exotic” for me. The Arctic is, you know, it’s my homeland, right? So it’s not that exotic to me. But nonetheless, it’s expensive, and a difficult place to get to and travel and everything is far more difficult. So I had to fund it. And funding it for me was basically only possible because I had another business, you know, I had a successful kayak business that I was able to take the money from and then put that into it. But I was also smart, like the entire project cost me about three grand to do, which is a lot, but it’s not really that much. Considering that I made many trips over the years going up there.

I found a place in the Arctic that was relatively cheap and accessible to get to and then found and fell in love with the community there and went out and did cool stuff. And so I had a connection to all of it. You know, I went up there initially not because people were hunting whales, that was what the story was about initially, but I went up there because I as a human being was interested in how they sowed their skin boats together. You know, I’m a skin boat builder, so I went up there and I wanted to learn from one of the last remaining elders who knew how to sew the skins and I went up there and I learned from her, but at the same time, when I was there, I discovered that they were whaling. I was like, what? You’re kidding me. And it, I thought that the stories about whaling, you know, I was like, Oh, this has to be a cool photographic story, I’m gonna go up there and do some more words, the more skin white stuff, and I’ll hang out with the whale and crew. And then I just managed to spend enough time there, like I just understood. I loved it enough up there, loved the people enough, I loved the environment enough, I just wanted to go out there and hang out. And I knew I was making a project out of it. But it didn’t really think anything of it. It was not wasn’t like “oh I’m going to make my breakout project or anything,” you know, it’s more like, “hey, my crew asked me to come up and hang out.” And I get to run around in the sea ice and fetch coffee for the captain for weeks on end, but you know, it’s beautiful, and so I did that.

Almost everyone who works at the geographic now is someone who’s done something like that, you know, put years or maybe months of their life into something, and did something that almost no one else in the world could do, something very specific that they did, almost no one on the world really could do this cool. And everyone, we all have something like that. Just a question, figuring out what it is. And then hopefully getting enough of the distractions off your plate so that you can actually do it. Because all those things climbing at you all the factories, try to pull us back from dedicating the amount of time you need to actually do it. And it’s hard. There it is.

Can you talk to me a little bit about your area of expertise in the Arctic, and how you are going to these interesting and remote places and finding these beautiful stories to share?

Yüyan: Well, my area of expertise didn’t start out that way. I originally started in commercial photography as an adventure photographer, and I was like an assistant at REI. So I was on climbing shoots and hiking shoots and stuff like that, which is the stuff that I do. So I was like, this is cool. And then I took a big gamble and I hired a consultant to just sort of like, guide my career along, you know, and it was like $1,200 bucks, it was like other than a lot of money to pay this person. But she was really helpful. One of the things that she helped me realize, was that when I was showing her all my work, she said “all the venture stuff is cool, but I’ve seen it all before. The thing that makes you truly unique, and that you see and understand in a way that is truly different, that you don’t even know is different is your Indigenous background.” And I was like, “really? It’s just my way, you know, it’s stuff that I’m interested in, that’s cool.”

But I didn’t really realize that as a young person who didn’t really think about it, you’re really thinking, you just, you don’t know what everyone else knows. And so, I was a little bit afraid of it too, you know, like the can of worms of Indigenous issues in my own family is difficult, because half of us are colonizers and the other half have been colonized. Right? So there’s a lot of racism in there.

And I found out as I got into it, that, honestly, my parents don’t really care. Like they actually don’t care enough about what I actually do, that hardly made any waves. They’re just kind of like, “oh, you’re making money? Great.” You know, that was fine.

So that made me realize, though, that in that process, once I did People of The Whale, in particular, that was truly unique. No one had really seen that kind of work before, even though people will work in the area of and covered whaling up in Alaska scale, it’s photogenic kind of thing to do. But I just don’t think that people really seen a project where people looked at Indigenous peoples as humans. As like, you know, from an intimate point of view, like, look, this is a family of people. I think a lot of people went up there to photograph it like as if it was trophy hunting, almost. It didn’t take me very long to be there to understand that the whale is what the community centers around. Everything about the whale is what the community is, is because they hunt whales.

So I think when the project came out, it was really clear that the pictures were unique, because that’s the way that I saw that community. And so that’s the way that it came out. So that’s why it’s my specialization.

I think the real specialization for those of us that are either fine art photographers, photojournalists, or we’re doing something that’s other than just selling stuff to people, or real speciality is the way that we see the world. That’s it, you know, like, now I’m doing underwater work, and a whole bunch of stuff. And I’m diving in cold seas, which is not what I would have ever imagined that I would be doing. But you know, it’s very uniquely, from my point of view, because of my family’s always eaten food from the ocean, you know, I spent a lot of time as a kid running after collecting mussels and putting them in a bag or eating, like fighting my mom over the last bit of crab at the bottom of a bucket, you know, so like, I think from that point of view, like looking at the underwater world isn’t strange for me, and it comes from a unique point of view, all it will always include human beings, right? Like the human influence on the underwater will always be there. And that’s the unique way that I see the world.

So that I think is my specialty, is just being who I am 100% and digging deep into who I am, you know. Honestly, you and I have an advantage because, at least in America, we’re pretty unique human beings. We’re surrounded by a majority of people who think very differently, culturally very different. So as human beings, we’re already quite unique in the way that we see the world, and the way they were raised up, even if it’s not immediately obvious, once we figured out who we are, that makes us incredibly powerful storytellers. Because we can see the world differently. You know, all we really have to do is just figure out who we are.

What’s one piece of advice you can give young reporters who want to make a career out of visual storytelling?

Yüyan: Well, I have two pieces of advice, the ones general and the one specific. The general one is, get the f*** out there and go live your life. You know, like don’t just stay at home and live in the little world that you’ve lived in for forever. Go out and really, like, I don’t mean, leave town necessarily, but like poke your head and get curious. Go round and make photo projects and just like, go and do cool stuff. A lot of people, especially out of school, just haven’t experienced that much of the world, you know, they don’t know when an account does, for example, which is boring. But knowing, like, how the world of accounting and finance, at least having some idea of how the world works, or what goes on there helps you be a better journalist. Right? It’s like the most boring thing in the world. Yet, when you start to understand where money, how money moves, and all that kind of stuff, it helps you so much as a journalist, right? Like, how are people motivated by things? Like how many things are actually just tax write offs that people do crazy shit, tons of stuff like that, right? But I think that just going out there and getting out there and being interested in stuff and reading a lot and all of that is really important. So just be curious, go play.

The second one, the most specific one is work on specific projects. I know you know this, and I say this all the time, but really, people don’t do it very often. It’s really hard for folks to do, like work on a specific story and make it multiyear or multi-month. Work on one thing that you love to do and absolutely want to do. And it’s going to take a lot of effort, you know, you don’t know how you can accomplish it, but you just gotta do it, that’s the one thing that you’re gonna want to do.

It’s really important to do that even years later. Like, after you have all the funding in the world and everyone in the world to try to help you do your thing, it will still be the project where you’re gonna look back, and you’re like, “this is one of the best things I ever did, because I put my passion and heart and soul into it,” you know?

And like, all the rest of it didn’t matter. Really, it was you that made it happen. I think it’s one of those things that people don’t understand. Everyone just kind of thinks like, “gosh, when I work for National Geographic, they’ll be able to send me anywhere, and I’ll be able to do anything.” Not true, you got to be able to do it without them, without Time Magazine without, like, any of the support. If you can do it without them, then they know you definitely can do it with them. Right?

And the stuff that you work on a lot of times, it’s harder, like, whatever you and I choose, we’re kind of going after the stuff that’s already visually really interesting. And we’re super passionate about it a lot of times, and we’re gonna get these things that we’re mostly interested in, but it’s not going to be the same kind of sparkle to it. You know, choose something that’s like a shiny thing to a raven, you know, like a button for a raven. So that’s what we want, something you can’t stay away from doing, work on it as a project.

Q and A by Jarrette Werk for the Reynolds Sandbox

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Showcasing innovative and engaging multimedia storytelling by students with the Reynolds Media Lab in Reno.