Kyle Obermann is one of the first Western photographers to gain access to the Anzihe Nature Reserve on a mission for Conservation International.
The result is a beautiful series of images alongside the photographer’s eye-witness account, all captured in Path of the Panda.
The full account of this journey is published in full via the Discover Interesting website, but to gain further context in Obermann and his work, we’ve published an in-depth Q&A with the man:
You were one of the first Western photographers invited to photograph in the Anzihe Nature Reserve. How did that opportunity first come about?
At the time I was working as a contract photographer and consultant for Conservation International (CI) China program. CI was and still is very involved with funding environmental preservation and research at Anzihe, so it was one of the sites I spent the most time at while shooting for them. CI supported my application to the local government to enter what they call the “main core” of the nature reserve which is where the whole expedition took place. As far as I know, I was the first western photographer to photograph the core of the reserve.
You spent the last four days of the expedition deep into terrain in the reserve that you say even rangers who’d spent 20 years there hadn’t explored. How did it feel walking into the unknown? Could you enjoy something like that?
From a journalistic perspective, it was a massive honor to have the opportunity to enter this part of the reserve with them. The first two days when we were still above the tree line were very enjoyable. Every step was a new one, and it is really a special feeling to know you are documenting places that have actually never been documented before. On the last two days it got much worse, however, as we descended below the tree line and had to hack our campsites out of the soaking undergrowth and go through a repetitive process of finding and losing the animals trails we were trying to track. But that’s all part of the price you pay for going to someplace completely unknown – one moment it’s marvellous; the next all you want to do is go home.
How did you get into photography and what inspires you to keep on shooting?
I was lucky to grow up with a big backyard. So I think the first time I picked up my mother’s camera to try shooting was one lazy day during high school summer break. I was bored, and went outside to start shooting the woods in my backyard. After that I never stopped. These days I keep shooting because I still see so many stories and places around me that have not been shared, particularly in China. And photography is such a great medium for that.
What equipment do you use when shooting? How have your working methods changed?
I mainly shoot with a Nikon D750, 16-35mmf/4 and 70-200mm f/4 lens. I also have a 24-70mm f/2.8 and 50mm f/1.8. Six months ago I bought a drone, which I think is the biggest game changer for photography these days – that with 360 technology. They open up so many new potential paths for immersive storytelling, so I’m really beginning to consider how to use these tools to more effectively document the places I go.
Your work frequently highlights the positive impact people can have upon nature. How difficult is that to achieve in this day and age?
Not difficult at all. There are incredible people doing very positive things for nature all around, but media tends to focus on the negative stories – which yes, there are plenty of too. In an era where there is so much pessimism about China or about global environmental conditions I think we also need stories of hope and positivity to show that, yes there is hope, or, even if you feel like you can’t do anything concrete in your current place, you can support these people who are.
How do you decide on a project? Can you share with us any upcoming projects you’re excited about?
I’m a stubborn photographer, and so I often only choose projects which deeply resonate with me personally. Still, that’s a wide scope – stories about mountains, wildlife, nature, and how humans fit themselves into that. This year I’m very excited to document grassroots conservation stories in China’s southwestern Yunnan Province. It’s an incredible region, it has everything from elephants and rainforest to holy Himalayan peaks and snow leopards.
Can you tell us about any projects you’ve seen recently that you’ve enjoyed/given you inspiration?
This is probably an unexpected answer, but what often inspires me the most is looking at choreography videos from my favourite dancers at 1Million Dance Studio in Seoul, South Korea. I actually love dance, I think it’s the most beautiful sport, and seeing them dance and knowing the effort they put into it really inspires me in my own career. I also went viral last year doing one of their choreographies on top of a 5,400m peak in eastern Tibet… the video was conservation themed and maybe the highest dance video out there, it ended up getting near 300,000 views in 24hrs in China… anyways, I am constantly thinking how to combine all my passions and get more people interested in conservation. Dance may be an avenue for that. There’s no end to where creativity can take you.
Which of your own photography projects are you most proud of?
Last year I covered a story of Tibetan conservationists protecting water tributaries to the Mekong and Yellow Rivers on the Tibetan Plateau. The area is also home to an incredibly prominent mountain massif which the conservationists live around but is virtually unknown to anyone outside the area. The story combined some of the most intense exploration into new territories I’ve ever done, where we were often times the only Westerns locals had ever seen, alongside a look at the role of Tibetan Buddhism and indigenous culture in conservation.
How has exploring the unknown and the desire to find your own path influenced your photography?
I think whenever we explore that thing which is unknown to us, or attempt to find our path in it all, we begin to feel humbled by nature. We also realize that us and nature are not separate, but rather we are an intimate part of nature. So I try to use photography to reflect this state, and I think we only come to this state when we challenge ourselves to leave modern comforts behind and go back into the wild. How we do that will of course be different for everyone, but I hope some of my work inspires a similar desire in others.
How did you end up living and working in China, and what is it about the country that keeps you there?
I studied Chinese language in undergrad alongside environmental studies and politics. After that, it made sense for me to go to China and see what I had gotten myself into. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing when I arrived, but I slowly began to see how diverse the country was and how misrepresented it has been to the world. Which is to say, while the world fascinates itself with Chinese smog and pollution, there’s a whole other side to the story – and that’s the fact that much of china is wild, magnificent, and worth exploring. So, not to mention the wonderful Chinese friends I’ve made along the way, it’s definitely the exploration and storytelling opportunities that keep me here. And, well, the food here is five star too.
What challenges come with living and working in China? What do you like and dislike most about it?
It’s definitely also true that about once a month I have a breakdown where I swear I will quit my work here and leave. It usually comes from a really nightmarish transportation experience somewhere in the mountains. In general, working and living here, especially in the remote areas, takes an incredible amount of patience, forgiveness (for yourself and others), and letting go of all control. The ability to laugh things off cannot be underrated. That’s the only way to thrive here. So of course I’m still around, because after every breakdown there are 100 reasons that keep me around, and the hospitality, generousity, and joy of the people are a big part of that.
How has working in China shaped you as a person and as a photographer?
I frequently tell people that one of my favorite things about this country is how much it challenges you to grow. Experiences hit you twice as fast and you’re forced to grow up. That’s just part of working in a culture that is incomprehensibly different than the one you’re from, and in a economy that is growing twice as fast with nearly five times as many people. I’m much more patient, easy-going, and empathetic than I ever was. And of course getting there wasn’t all positive experiences, but the end result has been. As a photographer, working here has given me opportunities and experiences that would have been hardly conceivable at my age elsewhere. I’m very thankful.
What are the main challenges facing panda and wider wildlife conservation in China?
Panda and wildlife conservation has come a long way in China, but there is still a long way to go. The wild panda population in China is steadily increasing and they have cracked the code to captive breeding, but habitat fragmentation is one of the greatest threats to pandas today. Similarly, human disturbance and an expanding footprint is the greatest threat to other species like snow leopards, Tibetan gazelle, etc. In the past, poaching brought some of these species to the edge of extinction, but thankfully has been largely stopped. Still, the expansion of herding, roads, and dams remains a major threat.
How has your work positively impacted conservation efforts in China?
I’m not a conservation scientist, but I see myself and my photography as PR for conservation efforts and backcountry in China. Storytelling and photography is an attractive way to draw people’s attention to issues that matter and make conservation sexy. So, that’s what I do. I try to use my work as a constructive way to support local conservation groups and show people the value of protecting these lands.
How would you recommend budding travellers go about making a positive impact on the land that they explore, particularly in such a challenging country like China?
This is something I think about constantly. There are things that we should already be doing in order to leave no impact, like LNT, but to actually make positive impact is much harder. One thing I would suggest is try to make the narrative less about yourself and really dig deep into the story of the land and the people. A lot of the places we go are areas that could really stand to benefit from our support and have no ability to reach the audience that we can. So, if nothing else, promote the people who have protected and conserved the land which you are enjoying, share and support their stories alongside your own. This can be true in China and anywhere you visit.
What is it about heading into the unknown that motivates you?
Being in a place that has never been documented before is thrilling, but it also adds a ton of pressure to photograph it well in order to represent it accurately to others. When you know that you are having the privilege to document something that no one has done before, that really motivates you to pull out your camera and shoot even when every cell in your body is resisting. And that’s the still the hardest part of photography for me: in the most challenging moments, where all you want to do is retreat, still forcing yourself to take out the camera and shoot. Because if not you, then who else will, and why did you even come? That’s the burden and addiction of storytelling.
Had you envisioned so many of your projects requiring you to venture off the beaten track?
Absolutely. For me, this is really the kind of work that I enjoy! I enjoy the physical and mental challenge just as much as I enjoy the photography. For me, it’s kind of a combination of athletics and photography, and I love it.
What advice would you give to people looking to follow a similar path to you, be it as a photographer or traveller?
Passion and grit. These are the things you need the most when the going gets rough, and it will more often than not. If you want to follow this path then you need a fire or what you do and constantly remind yourself why you do it. Be ready to get lost, tighten your belt, jump into the unknown, and there will be northing more rewarding. I am a firm believer that hard work and passion pays off eventually, you just have to stick with it. Follow your gut, and go straight in the opposite direction of everyone else. You will have no regrets!