As a native Russian descendent of “the salmon people who live along the Amur river in Siberia”, yet raised in America, Kiliii Yuyan, says the traditions of his grandmother’s people, the Nanai, interested him long before he was a photographer.
“I would say that this is partly because I found myself divorced of my culture, growing up in the United States far away from my ancestral lands,” he says. “There in my imagination the heroes of my grandmother’s stories lived. I found myself drawn to traditional ways of subsistence, particularly with fishing and boats. When I finished my first traditional skin-on-frame qayaq, I was hooked. I wanted to paddle, camp, fish and build boats forever.”
He is now one of the last kayak builders and as such, Yuyan says he finds himself in a position of responsibility— to help keep this important part of Native culture alive, and to be a keeper of what little knowledge remains of qayaq-building.
“People of the Whale began because I knew that the Iñupiat of North Alaska still paddled umiaqs, the big brother of the kayak, and hunted from them. That was my entry point, my interest, in learning not just about the craft of the skinboat, but about the last culture that has used skinboats in an unbroken lineage for several thousand years.”
Yuyan pitched the story to National Geographic, and thus began his three-year immersion in Iñupiaq culture.
“Since then, the Iñupiaq village of Utqiagviq has become a second home, and my Iñupiaq friends a second family.”
In fact, though he is from Seattle, Washington USA, he only spends about two months each year there these days and considers Utqiagviq home.
Reconnecting with his culture dovetails with his other “self” as a photographer, Yuyan says.
“It came right at a time when I had removed myself from the world of commercial photography and was pursuing documentary. In a sense, People of the Whale forced me to step up as a photographer because suddenly I found myself with a subject I cared about deeply, and understood more than an outside journalist could. The real challenges came from learning how to craft the beautiful images I was already known for, from the real-life situations of an Arctic subsistence culture. It is at once far more difficult and infinitely rewarding.”
Yet, Yuyan cautions, there remains a sad but important truth.
“Indigenous cultures have little to no voice, yet are affected by the outside world in dramatic ways. It’s my job as a photographer to bring an accurate and empathetic portrayal of the communities I work with to the people whose minor decisions impact them so much.”
He is currently working on a film short of People of the Whale, and is planning his next project with the Nenet community.
“The Nenet are a nomadic reindeer-herding culture, and their environment is quite similar to North Alaska,” he says. “I am hoping to eventually work with the Native cultures across the Arctic to see how they are changing during this critical time of climate change, globalization and oil exploration.”