Kiliii Yüyan: The Myth of Pristine Wilderness

Courtesy Kiliii Yüyan

The Nanai (Siberian Native) and Chinese-American photographer explores the relationship between humans and the natural world from different cultural perspectives

Conjure the quintessential landscape photographer. Chances are it’s Ansel Adams. It’s hard not to have in mind his black-and-white images of the Yosemite Valley, pristine and devoid of people, full of awe and wonder at the natural world. The same qualities dominate nature photography just about everywhere, for in nature, photographers have long seen wilderness as a place protected from people.

But photography itself is just a baby in the timeline of history. Not that long ago, people of all cultures and persuasions saw the land quite differently. They saw it as a home, as a place to manage and use, and they felt a responsibility towards it. In short, people saw themselves as caretakers.

We remain inextricable from the land. Just turn around anywhere, even in the most remote regions on earth, and the footprints of mankind lead into the distance. What’s changed is our perception of the natural world. Civilised peoples have become so disconnected from it that they no longer recognise their influence on the land, and have likewise forgotten their responsibilities towards it.

But that’s not true for everybody. Indigenous peoples worldwide, from the spare Arctic coastlines of Greenland to the inner-city ethnic districts of São Paolo, continue to steward and manage their local places, much as they have for millennia. They still remain attuned to the direct impacts that they have on their lands.

We can have a positive impact as well as a negative one in terms of sustaining land, but we need to stop the collective amnesia and selective perception of nature. The photographs you see here all show a natural world directly impacted by humans in often subtle and unexpected ways.

Landfills, as the only non-developed zones, become the last refuges for wildlife. Climate change causes an increase in mosquitoes, carriers of avian malaria, across the north. But the other side of the story is there too: renewable geothermal pipelines cross forests, endangered condors live on carcasses donated by ranchers, and Alaskan peoples harvest whales, while managing to double their numbers over decades.

Natural systems are incredibly complex, and likewise our interactions with it are complex. But one thing is for certain – the wilderness that you may believe to be pristine has been managed and altered by humans since we arrived on each continent. It’s time to stop free-loading and time to rise as stewards once again.

Mosquitoes and Fledgling Gyrfalcon, 2019.
Talons of a fledgling gyrfalcon assaulted by mosquitoes during a heat wave across Northwest Alaska. This climate-change induced heat brought temperatures up to more than 80°F in the region near Nome, AK in July.
Under the shadow of Acatenango, 2015.
Feral goats run across a landfill, their home in this region of Guatemala near the volcano Acatenango. Habitat is scarce in the Guatemalan Andes and even wildlife that does well living alongside humans congregate in landfills.
Geothermal Meadow, 2015.
A geothermal pipeline carries water heated from deep within the ground across wildlands of northern Iceland. Iceland is the world’s leader in renewable energy.
Flora Aiken, Gift of the Whale, 2016.
Flora Aiken gives a silent blessing to the first bowhead whale of the spring season. The Iñupiaq have a rich spiritual life which centres around the gift of the whale to the community. Iñupiaq elder Foster Simmonds offers a prayer, saying, “Hide something for me. Look at the food, the whales. Look at the sea, the whalers. A blessing for them. Take that and hide it in your heart.” The whale here is tied up after being towed to the ice’s edge and is awaiting the village to come and help haul it onto the ice.
Spread-Winged Condor, 2015.
A California condor spreads its wings as it feeds on a calf carcass near Big Sur, California. Donated stillborn calves are often set out by conservation organisations to provide a source of food free from the contamination of lead bullets. Although condors are one of the conservation world’s great successes, they remain on life support, needing to be purged of toxic lead every few years.

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