Kyle Obermann is an adventure and travel photographer whose background in environmental sustainability has given him a unique opportunity to travel the world.
His passion for conservation and outdoor adventure has most recently drawn him to reside in China, and it is here where he embarked on a once in a life time expedition courtesy of Conservation International.
The nine-day trek made Kyle one of a specially selected group of people allowed to travel to the core of the Anzihe Nature Reserve, one of the seven Giant Panda Sanctuaries in Sichuan, China. Their aim was to promote conservation and sustainable exploration in the world-renowned reserve, known for having the densest population of Pandas in the country.
We spoke with Kyle to get a little more insight into how it felt to literally travel, the path of the panda.
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.
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.
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’s (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 twenty years there hadn’t explored. How did it feel walking into the unknown?
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 marvelous; the next all you want to do is go home.
What advice would you give to people looking to follow a similar path to you, be it as a photographer or adventurer?
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 nothing 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!
Click here to read more about Kyle’s journey into the Anzihe Nature Reserve.