Q&A with National Geographic Photographer Erika Larsen and National Geographic Explorer Jennifer Kingsley

National Geographic photographer Erika Larsen focuses on capturing the close connections between indigenous populations and their environments. Erika has shot multiple stories for National Geographic magazine, from a project documenting Sàmi reindeer herders in the Arctic to a portrayal of the significance of the horse in Native American culture. Jennifer Kingsley is a naturalist and journalist, as well as the founder of Meet the North, a project which aims to share the personal stories of people living in the global Arctic. With support from the National Geographic Society, she has documented small communities in Russia’s Far East and French Polynesia. Erika and Jennifer join the June 18, 2019 departure of Across the Bering Sea: From Katmai to Kamchatka.

What, for you, are some of the highlights of the Across the Bering Sea: From Katmai to Kamchatka expedition?

Erika: In my opinion, the entire itinerary is mind-blowing, so it’s hard to choose one highlight. The Aleutian Islands are like another world in terms of their beauty and uniqueness, as well as their profound history. I am personally intrigued by coastal Kamchatka and Chukotka and feel honored that we will have the opportunity to visit and meet the people of this region.

Jennifer: The scope of this voyage is a definite highlight. We’ll cover so much territory, including many places that are nearly impossible to reach without a ship. Some activities are planned in the itinerary, but so much of this voyage will only be revealed once we get out there. I’m looking forward to meeting people in these communities and reconnecting with people I’ve met in the past. Indigenous cultures span the Bering Sea, and the stories from these villages are extraordinary.

What makes these destinations a great subject for photography and storytelling, and how would you encourage travelers to approach this during the trip?

Erika: Photographically, I think the environment will be intense and raw. I would encourage travelers to let the wonderment they will experience in these destinations drive their photography. Don't get caught up in the technical. Use the camera as a tool to explore, experiment, question, and learn.

Jennifer: The landscape will be striking, as will the stories we find here. There’s no telling which themes or details will call out to you, so I would encourage you to start with something that really captivates you—someone you meet, a species of bird, a strand of history—and build your story out from there. Don’t think about what will hook your audience; instead, get hooked on something yourself. It will improve your stories and your trip.

Tell us about a memorable National Geographic assignment in this region.

Erika: I have been working in the Yupik Village of Quinhagak, Alaska, since 2015, learning about the present-day culture as it relates to the past and especially to the Little Ice Age and Bow and Arrow Wars.

Jennifer: As a National Geographic Explorer, I spent the fall of 2017 in Chukotka on a cultural reporting project. I visited whale and walrus hunters and wandered the tundra with reindeer herders. I remember walking over the frosty tundra with a belly full of hot tea and fried bannock, listening to the sandhill cranes overhead and watching elders weave in and out of the herd. I learned about life both outdoors and behind the concrete walls of old apartment buildings. Many people in this region, especially older people, have seen more change than most of us could imagine, but they were still willing to share their stories.

How do you hope the experience of visiting these destinations will change the travelers who do so?

Erika: It is hard to say how this region will change travelers because I believe the way we interact with new landscapes and cultures is so individual. I can only hope that the journey increases our respect and admiration for the natural world as well as our empathy and endearment for the human experience.

Jennifer: This voyage offers us a powerful opportunity to open our minds to people and landscapes that will defy our expectations. We’ll visit two different nations who share an ocean, an ecosystem, and an indigenous culture. In my experience, there is no way to truly prepare for this place, except by being present and learning from everything around you.

What motivates you as a photographer and storyteller?

Erika: I have always been motivated and inspired by visual language as a storytelling component. I strive to understand and challenge myself in the execution of that language and my intentions as a storyteller. The projects I take on tend to come from an innate curiosity. I seek to explore our human connection to the natural world, as it is expressed through culturally unique elements, including ritual, spirituality, language, adornments, customs, family, and worldviews.

Jennifer: People. Everyone has a story, and millions of powerful stories go unnoticed in the world. My work is to connect people through those stories—because stories build understanding, which, in turn, helps us share the planet in peace.

Why is it important to travel?

Erika: I think travel challenges us to think, see, and feel in new ways, as well as inspires and teaches us.

Jennifer: Travel is a great privilege that can shake us out of our routines. It challenges us with new ways of thinking and caring about other people and places, and it’s our job to take up that challenge.

I would never travel without what?

Erika: I would never travel without respect and wonderment.

Jennifer: Notebooks, pencils, extra gloves, a book to read, and a dorky hat.

What is your favorite travel memory?

Jennifer: We spent a day traveling up the coast of the Bering Sea with some hunters. The sky was full of birds when we left camp. We hardly had time to point out the puffins and scoters before we saw one gray whale and then another. Shortly after, we spotted a brown bear on shore. After that, our metal boat hit the waves and the ride became very rough and uncomfortable, but I loved that feeling of discovery as we started off.

Any other insights that you'd like to share with travelers?

Jennifer: Some advice I keep in mind: Remember that you left home for a reason. That reason will be unique to you, but the result will be the same for all of us: life is different out here. What we do with that difference will define our experience.