Photo depicting Kiliii Yuyan wearing a white snow jacket and carrying a camera while standing in the Artic tundra.

National Geographic Photographer Kiliii Yuyan Captures Indigenous Stories

by Amanda Ong

“There’s no right way to live. There are wrong ways to live, but there are many, many, many right ways to live, and you can’t find those insights by looking inward — just looking within your own culture for insights. The wheel doesn’t need to be reinvented, it’s [clear] all around us if we’re willing to pay attention.”

Not many people live to have the experiences of Kiliii Yuyan, a documentary photojournalist who has photographed for National Geographic Magazine, Time, and more. This year he received National Geographic’s Eliza Scidmore Award for outstanding storytelling. The CID resident’s work has required diving in coral reefs, riding on dogsleds around Greenland, sailing thousands of miles around Vancouver Island living out of a kayak he built, and spending quiet moments standing on the tundra, covered with snow, the northern lights above. 

“It’s a fantastic life, there’s no getting around that,” Yuyan said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “And I’ve built it that way. There are these deeply beautiful spiritual moments that are pivotal moments in people’s lives.”

There is no question that Yuyan has learned not only how to live close to the land, but how to capture the natural intimacy and the communities that he lives alongside through photography. Yuyan’s ancestry is Nanai/Hèzhé (East Asian Indigenous) and Chinese, and his own Indigeneity and multiculturalism have informed his photography practice and vice versa. Yuyan himself was led to photojournalism by his work building handcrafted kayaks, a practice that he initially did not realize was invented in his ancestral home in Manchuria. As can often be the case as Indigenous peoples have forcibly been estranged from their own practices, Yuyan was reunited with kayak building independently. It was kayak building that brought Yuyan to North Alaska to learn how to sew kayaks with real seal skins from Inuit, and through that to photography.

“I went up there, and then I found out that [Inuit] were whaling still, and I was shocked and surprised. I was not only fascinated, but I was just so moved by it. And then as I integrated into the community and learned more I just started to see the similarities to my own cultures, not only the Nanai, but also the Chinese side too,” Yuyan said.

Photo depicting the stern of a kayak as it rests between patches of ice on the water.
Before he was a photographer, Yuyan endeavored to learn from master kayak builders. He has been able to use kayak building both as a way to express his own heritage, and as a way to have many adventures. (Photo: Kiliii Yuyan)

“So many people worldwide who are part of this modern, globalized world can’t fathom the idea, which is deeply part of Inuit culture, that when they hunt a whale, all of them say, ‘The whale gives itself to us.’ It’s not a metaphor for them. Inuit 100% believe that, and they obey all the traditions to respect that whale for its life,” Yuyan said. 

People from Western cultures often have difficulty grasping how you could love something and yet might hunt it. But under Inuit management, the population of the whales has actually tripled.

For Yuyan, this led to his first multiyear documentary photography project which was later published in National Geographic in 2018. His whaling story remains one of Yuyan’s favorite and most formative projects and led him to continued work with National Geographic. Another favorite story of Yuyan’s was on Native sovereignty and was the July 2022 National Geographic cover.

“About a week after that ran, I got sent a picture [from] one of my Alaska Native friends,” Yuyan said. “It was a T-shirt being sold at a powwow. And it was just a white Hanes T-shirt with a bootleg print of the National Geographic cover. That’s how you know that meant something to the people.”

Photo depicting Quannah Rose Chasinghorse with her fist raised against the backdrop of Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii (Monument Valley).
This photo of model and activist Quannah Rose Chasinghorse was part of a shoot by Yuyan that eventually became the July 2022 cover of “National Geographic.” (Photo: Kiliii Yuyan)

Yuyan was born in Maryland but lived in Taiwan with his grandmother, who was Indigenous Nanai/Hèzhé, in childhood. Once he moved back to the United States, he grew up in a few places, including Texas and Queens, New York. Growing up, he always had a connection to nature — some of his favorite childhood memories were catching fireflies in the parks in Queens and caring for his pet praying mantis. As his parents were still new immigrants, his grandmother largely raised him, visiting for months at a time. 

Yuyan’s grandmother was a keen storyteller. He didn’t realize it at the time, but the stories she was telling were folk tales from the Hèzhé, his Indigenous lineage. These stories were part of what initially lead Yuyan on this path of adventure, hunting, fishing, and learning the skills of the land. “As I found out more about my heritage, I started to understand that the relationship that Indigenous peoples have with the land isn’t purely physical mastery of the environment, or even a physical relationship with the environment,” Yuyan said. “But that it is a far deeper relationship that communities have. Photography really brought me on that journey in a huge way.”

The editors of National Geographic quickly saw that Yuyan’s photographs were different from those taken by most photographers they sent to Indigenous communities. For starters, the vast majority of National Geographic photojournalists have been white men. While many have done remarkable work, the lack of diversity has furthered colonial perspectives and photojournalists have lacked diversity overall. Yuyan says that his multicultural background was almost more important than having Indigenous ancestry in navigating his photography, though both identities have informed it.

“Being born in America, having an American passport, and being shielded from a lot of the things that happen to Indigenous peoples, it [opened my eyes],” Yuyan said. “And so [photography is] just a very different way of going about [identity], but that’s sort of what happened. And as I got deeper I had to untangle the difficult family history around part of the family … But every time I work on a story, I just grow so much as a human being, and my understanding of the world grows, because I’m a photojournalist, not just a photographer.”

Photo depicting an Indigenous man in a blue snow jacket checking on his sled with a sleeping exhausted dog.
An Indigenous man leading a dogsled team. (Photo: Kiliii Yuyan)

Yuyan continues to work with Indigenous communities close to the land, and he is currently working on projects that will be published in National Geographic as well as other imprints. As his stories grow, Yuyan has given many people, especially those from Western countries, an expanded idea of some of the many, many different ways humans can live well. Keep an eye out for his work through National Geographic and through Yuyan’s website.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured Image: Kiliii Yuyan stands pictured in the Arctic tundra. Yuyan’s photojournalism as well as personal interests have led him to spend long bouts of time in the arctic, often with different Indigenous groups. (Photo: Yugu Ningeok)

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