Kiliii Yüyan: Illuminating the human relationship to the natural world

National Geographic Explorer Kiliii Yüyan is an award-winning photographer capturing the human experience in some of the world’s harshest environments. 

Each time National Geographic Explorer and photographer Kiliii Yüyan returns to the Arctic, he navigates through a “forever landscape.”

“You can hear the sled dogs, you can just smell the wind—it’s really crisp and clean,” he says, speaking while on assignment in Greenland. “Every step you take, the sound goes on forever.” 

He sometimes also sees the Fata Morgana, a mirage common in polar and desert regions that looks like, in Yüyan’s words, “a visual computer glitch,” warping icebergs on the horizon into “a JPEG that didn’t come through all the way.

He might suit up in pants made of polar bear fur, and kamiks—sealskin boots that will shield his feet for a long day exploring the ice on dog sled, stopping as needed at the nearest iceberg to crack off a piece, boil it, and have a drink of water. 

“Polar bear fur is one of the few materials in the world that continues to loft for insulation when compressed and wet, which is pretty amazing,” he explains. And unlike modern boots, kamiks breathe, “so they won’t freeze although your sweat builds up inside.”

He’s highlighting Indigenous knowledge belonging to the northernmost community of Greenland. Yüyan has spent years across Arctic Indigenous communities, cultivating relationships and gaining new perspectives.

As an award-winning photographer and contributor to National Geographic, his craft has taken him well beyond the Arctic, from atop mountains in Patagonia to below the cold seas of the Pacific Northwest, working on topics from the changing climate to Indigenous traditional knowledge.

For Yüyan, whose ancestry is both Chinese-American and Nanai, or Far East Indigenous, photography means exploring the human relationship to the natural world. One gem he's taken away is that conservation would be better thought of as stewardship.

His own Indigenous heritage was buried for most of his globe-trotting childhood, and as a child he went by an Americanized name in school—Anthony. “My parents originally made me choose an English name out of a book because I was getting bullied in grade school,” he recalls. “Coming back to Kiliii, my clan name, felt natural to me as an adult.”

During the communist revolution in mid-twentieth century China, his family downplayed their Indigenous heritage to survive the harsh discrimination of the era. “My parents were just trying to get by, and to be Han Chinese meant that they could give their children a better chance in life,” Yüyan explains. 

“Trying to understand my ancestry led me on a lifelong dive into Indigenous perspectives and ultimately guided me into storytelling.”

The revelation also led Yüyan to become a traditional kayak-builder, learning the styles of his own culture and others across the Arctic. To learn fast-vanishing skills of kayak skin-sewing, he journeyed to North Alaska, to learn from Iñupiaq elders in Utqiaġvik (formerly known as Barrow).  

In 2018, National Geographic published Yüyan’s first magazine story documenting the Inupiat’s millennia-old subsistence whale hunt, and its key importance to their collectivist culture. He recounts his time living on the arctic sea ice, including close calls with polar bears, in an Overhead podcast episode. 

Capturing an intimate perspective of people and their relationship to land and animals takes time, Yüyan insists, as well as a fresh approach to journalism.

“The old-school journalism is to be a fly on the wall, and not interfere. But I think it's important to participate,” he says. “Being a wallflower is culturally foreign to the way that I was raised.”

“People can see if you’re standing around, if you’re holding the camera and not helping them push a heavy sled up a hill. I mean, you have to pick up the camera to do your job, but first and foremost, it’s important to be human,” he stresses. “That’s how you build trust.”

His approach echoes a movement in contemporary journalism to eschew parachute reporting. “My approach is to lose myself enough that I start to disappear. My pre-conceived notions start to vanish, and I lose the distinct edges of all my cultural biases.” 

Particularly when it comes to dealing with sensitive subjects, the camera is secondary to his mission to connect. Yüyan has worked on Native Alaska’s alarming suicide trend. He turns around victimization narratives and instead highlights solutions. “Inuit have worked hard to achieve a sense of belonging in their own land in a post-colonial world”, he explains. Even amidst tragedy, Yüyan is determined to share signs of optimism. ‘’

“When you look around it’s really easy to get mired in a sense of hopelessness. It’s easy to only see terrible things happening, but when you really look around, what’s mostly here is joy and light, family connection, and lots and lots of laughing,” Yüyan describes. "I don’t think anyone would look at it and say this isn’t a great way to live. It's full of all the things we truly cherish.”

 Yüyan’s current Society-funded project will take him from the Greenlandic coastline to the Ecuadorian Amazon and other global locations to paint a picture of successful Indigenous conservation efforts.

 In another altogether different project, he’s also directing his lens under the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest. “It’s brilliant and largely unseen down there. We have amazing biodiversity in the cold seas too,” from kelp forests to giant octopuses, Yüyan says. 

Through his work immortalizing Indigenous practices and the wealth of life beneath the waves, Yüyan’s hope is to inspire a new way of understanding the protection of wildlife and wild places. 

“I’m essentially trying to help conservationists around the world understand that the right way to take care of land is not to put up fences and kick everybody out,” Yüyan explains. “The Western world assumes that humans and nature are fundamentally incompatible, that as soon as you start getting people on-country, you’re going to wreck it. I would say that, for Native peoples, that’s a foreign concept.” 

 “What happens the moment people are removed from the land is that nobody is watching what’s going on there anymore. In a perfect world, that might not matter, but in our world, poachers, loggers, and miners are just waiting for those resources to become undefended.”  

On the other hand, in Indigenous communities, “there’s a vested interest in the land. It supports them, it feeds them,” Yüyan describes. “They’re part of it and as a result they’re going to take care of it for their children.” 

His pursuit to elevate this truth stems from a deeply-ingrained passion, which Yüyan considers vital to his success. “What matters most is the work you do when nobody else cares. I don’t need to leave anything behind but tracks, to have lived well, and to have touched people in the world and in my community,” he says. 

To ambitious storytellers, he encourages, “go after the thing that motivates you the most.”

“You can only do this job if it’s something that you love so much nothing else will do.”

Yüyan will photograph five communities from the Greenland coastline to the coral reefs of Palau to show successful Indigenous conservation efforts as part of a collaboration between the National Geographic Society and The Climate Pledge, launched in May 2022. The partnership supports National Geographic Explorers documenting the global climate crisis as part of the Society’s Global Storytellers Fund.

This Explorer's work is funded by the National Geographic Society
Learn More
In January 2023, Yüyan received the Society's Eliza Scidmore Award for Outstanding Storytelling for his work illuminating human communities and their connection to land and sea. 

For the National Geographic Society: Natalie Hutchison is a Digital Content Producer for the Society. She believes authentic storytelling wields power to connect people over the shared human experience. In her free time she turns to her paintbrush to create visual snapshots she hopes will inspire hope and empathy.