KILIII YUYAN IS SOMEONE who, in both life and work, explores human relationships with the natural world. He’s a photographer for National Geographic Magazine and other major publications, capturing images of the wildlife, landscapes, Indigenous communities and traditions of the Arctic. When he’s not on the road for work, he spends time honing his own connection to the land through ancestral survival skills — not just a hobby, but a necessity in a profession that exposes him to the many perils at the edge of the world.
Kiliii’s interests and work as a visual artist are informed by his Nanai/Hèzhé (Siberian Native) and Chinese-American lineage. The son of immigrants, he brings a multicultural perspective to not only his photography, but also to his lifestyle. He lives in Seattle, the largest city in the Pacific Northwest, yet his work takes him to the circumpolar North, and he practices primitive skills and builds traditional kayaks in rural settings, like Washington’s Orcas Island. “As a storyteller, I am basically an ambassador between cultures,” he says. “I'm an ambassador between specific human cultures: Indigenous, Western, Asian. I'm also an ambassador between urban living and rural living, and an ambassador between the natural world and the human [world].”
He grew up listening to his grandmother tell stories steeped in northern Indigenous culture and traditions. “I was personally drawn to primitive skills out of wanting to be closer to the land,” he says. “And I think part of that has to do with my grandmother's stories kind of putting that seed of inspiration in me when I was young.” But practicing skills like building shelter, making fire and finding food in the elements and, usually, in the middle of nowhere, requires more than curiosity — it necessitates grit and perseverance. “A lot of the stuff is really kind of hard,” he adds. “It's uncomfortable. So why do you do it? You do it because you love it.” His skills have proven more than handy on photo assignments in extreme Arctic conditions — from experiences with collapsing sea ice, to botulism from consuming fermented whale blood.
When Kiliii isn’t on the road, he teaches the art of handcrafting traditional kayaks — a passion that’s also rooted in his grandmother’s influence. “My grandmother used to tell me a story about going out with her dad in one of our traditional-sized kayaks. And they caught a fish. And when they pulled it up, it was bigger than the boat,” he says. “It's one of those things that stuck with me as a kid.” To learn ancestral building techniques, he dove into research, talked to Elders, historians and revivalist kayak builders, and he began to build his own sea crafts of cedar wood and seal skin.
“What's cool about the kayak building for me is … taking a chunk of tradition, everything that we can get, and remembering to bring it forward, adopting modern things and putting our own spin on it,” he says of his process.
“And now … it's alive again. It's not exactly the same, but it doesn't need to be exactly the same. I'm actually really glad it's not exactly the same, because it would be a bummer to be sitting on a beach with a rock, trying to hack out a chunk of wood in order to make a boat.” Kiliii immerses himself in both the boat-building process and the finished product with all of his senses: the smell of cedar wood and sea air; the feel of the ocean’s undulations and cold, wet conditions; the sound of water and wildlife teeming below him. He says, “Even the cut on your hand when you mishandle the saw … it makes you feel alive.”
Just as his kayaks becomes an extension of his body on the water, allowing him to engage with the orcas in the Salish Sea, Kiliii also thinks of his camera as a part of himself. “What I try to do is to be around a community, a family, a place, even a landscape, and hang out with my camera for so long that the wild things, the people, whatever it is that I'm photographing, eventually realize that I'm there and I'm part of that landscape with them,” he says. “And that the camera's just an extra appendage that I have.”
Kiliii’s captivating images of the Arctic and its Indigenous communities, as well as his own ancestral-based pursuits, are all a part of his ongoing exploration of our individual and cultural connections to the land. “To be Indigenous is to have knowledge of place. And with knowledge of place basically means that there is a bounty … everywhere that you look; the land provides,” he explains. “That knowledge and understanding and having relationships with the wild things means that the world around you is a banquet."