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Photographer Kiliii Yüyan documents 'Life on Thin Ice' in the Arctic

Published: Wednesday, March 20, 2024 - 12:15pm
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Stories of melting ice in the Arctic and the effects of climate change on animals like polar bears have been common over the past several years. Kiliii Yüyan has spent a lot of time in that region, documenting both people and animals — and their ways of life.

Yüyan is a photographer for National Geographic magazine. He’s both a Siberian native and Chinese, although he mostly grew up in the United States. He’ll be presenting his show on Wednesday at the Mesa Arts Center, called "Life on Thin Ice," as part of the National Geographic Live series. Yüyan is the series’ first Indigenous speaker. 

The Show talked with him about kinds of scenes he’s typically photographing, since they’re the kinds of images people in the desert may not be familiar with.

Full interview

KILIII YÜYAN: Well, you know, there's actually a lot of similarity between the Arctic and the desert in some ways. I think that you find that in the desert, a lot of the life is near the water, and that's actually true for the Arctic as well. And one of my favorite scenes, maybe scenes isn't the right word, but one of my favorite feelings ever is being up at the edge of the sea ice in the spring when the ice is breaking up and then suddenly all that life that has been stuck underneath the ice or nowhere around because the ice is there suddenly comes back. And so you'll be standing on the sea ice with hunters during the springtime, and it'll just be like out there for like six or eight hours at a time with no one talking to each other.

And then all of a sudden the eiders will come by, these beautiful ducks that are just bright colors, and they'll come by in 100 at a time from one, they stretch from one horizon to the other horizon, and just fly by all at once and just make these beautiful wing lapping sounds. Or then the Beluga whales will come by, and it's really quiet and foggy and all of a sudden it will just appear out of the mist and then 100 of them will pass by all just going [BLOWING SOUNDS] at the same time. It's really amazing.

MARK BRODIE: Yeah. Well, I mean, it sounds like it and, and I think, you know, it sounds like you're right that, you know, there's a lot of life maybe hiding or hiding in plain sight until just the right moment to come out both in the Arctic and in the desert.

YÜYAN: Yeah. Yeah. Humans included. That's us, too.

BRODIE: Yeah, that's, that's true. So, tell me about the lifestyle of the folks that, that you spend your time documenting because just looking at your photographs, it looks like it's a, a very difficult lifestyle but one that people really take up a certain amount of pride in, in doing and continuing to do, you know, in a traditional way.

YÜYAN: Yeah. I wouldn't say that the kind of life that people live in the Arctic, which varies a lot from different country to different country or different region, different culture. But I would say it's necessarily, I wouldn't say that they would call it a difficult life. You know, it's all what you've grown up and are used to. You know, if you, people who live out on the sea ice for most of the hunting season are out there, hunting, would say, well, this is my office, I'm out here and I get to hunt and fish all day long and I eat really well and it's quiet and beautiful out here.

BRODIE: That's fair.

YÜYAN: Yeah. But I would say that the lifestyle is mostly in the Arctic, is a lot of subsistence. And so in the Arctic, there's no very little stuff that grows very little green plants and things. So almost everything comes from hunting and fishing. And there's like just that kind of deep relationship that goes with being up there during that time when hunting and fishing happens, but there's a deep relationship that is there. And you get, as a hunter or a fisherman, you spend a lot of time really just spending time with animals and wildlife. You get to know them, you get to know their individual habits and you get to know individuals and you just spend so much time getting to know the animals that they become like extended family members in a way, you know, but it's not, it's not the sort of Western conception of that there's a separation between people and the natural world. All of it flows together. And so being out there is sort of this continuous basking in, I guess you could say, the oneness of all of life of which human beings are part of it.

BRODIE: Yeah. Well, so what is that relationship then between the hunters, the, you know, other folks in the community who are sort of assisting and, and maybe waiting for, you know, a whale to, to come in, and the animals themselves, you, you say that they, they sort of become one, but at the same time, one is trying to hunt the other.

YÜYAN: Yeah, I would say that, I mean, I will say that one of the things that's really easy for people to understand or easier for people to understand is that there's kind of a pact that happens. And so, you know, from the West to sort of look at it and people say, oh, well, it's one thing, hunting another. It's a sort of the idea that one thing is dominating the other, but actually not true at all. And what we see is that there's a kind of pact that happens between hunters in Arctic regions, Indigenous hunters and the animals themselves. You know, if you take a seal, there's the unspoken long going pact that if you hunt that seal, that your end of the bargain means that you have to keep their habitat safe for all of that seal's grandchildren going on forward into the future. And so that's a really serious pact that Indigenous peoples take very seriously and continues to this day.

BRODIE: Yeah, that is really interesting. I'm curious about the impacts of climate change and how that is impacting both the the people who live in that area of the Arctic, but also the animals that, that they are one with and that they are hunting.

YÜYAN: Well, yeah, climate change is sort of unavoidable in the far north. There's not really anyone who lives in the Artic who says, oh, no, climate change isn't real, because it affects everything all the time. At the same time, I will say that I think that both animals and people are very adaptable in places like this. Indigenous peoples have been adapting to big changes in their existence for forever, right? With the biggest one of all being colonization. But I'd say that, you know, with the, as the sea ice disappear and polar bears have a harder time hunting. That doesn't mean that that's true for all populations.

BRODIE: Yeah. Well, so is it forcing, or maybe causing people to, to rethink some of the, the methods and maybe the traditional methods that they've been going about doing what they do? Or are they able to continue doing things the same way, despite, you know, some of the things that are changing around them?

YÜYAN: Well, you know, I would say that to a large degree, a lot of actually what many communities want to do is to do what their ancestors have done and try to keep things as traditional as possible because it actually offers the best way forward against a lot of what capitalism has created. You know, the other thing though is that yes, we do see that Indigenous peoples have to adapt, right? And are, are, are forced to adapt in many ways. And that's not necessarily a bad thing but that it can be challenging.

Like, for example, in the past, food was stored through almost the entire year in these things called ice cellars, which are basically holes, large, large rooms dug into the ground underneath the permafrost and inside the permafrost. You have like a year round refrigerator that stays frozen. And what's happening now is that most of those ice cellars in at least the the north slope of the Alaskan region are now thawing and falling so quickly that there is a really significant period of time, many months now where not only is it not frozen, where the food in them is actually spoiling. And so people are now doing, there are communities now that are banding together and creating a sort of a one giant community ice cellar that is now powered by electricity.

And you know, that's like almost like an old joke, right? Like what, what do Inuits need freezers for? That's what it's become today because of the level of change that's happening in the Arctic.

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