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Protect Lives

When we are protecting the environment, we are protecting our lives.

Kyle Obermann is a Mandarin and English-speaking environmental photographer based in Chengdu, China. His photography specializes in telling the human story behind conservation,

Kyle Obermann

highlighting the work and lives of forest rangers protecting nature reserves, national parks, and wild lands.

He is the founder of Explore to Conserve, a movement dedicated to connecting China’s outdoor industry and environmental movement, and an environmental KOL working online with Chinese platforms such as Weibo, Bilibili, and Kuaishou, on TV (Informal Talks Season 6) and large companies like Alipay and The North Face.

His photography and bilingual writing has been featured in Chinese and English language publications, including: The BBC, National Geographic, Chinese National Geography, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, People’s Daily, The Explorers Journal, and more.

Kyle and Jack Ma

Talk with Kyle Obermann

Q: Your work requires you have to go out very often. I think the COVID-19 has influenced you a lot. So what are you doing to fill this time?

A: You know that I was usually traveling on the road in China. I don't have a lot of time to edit my work, write articles or videos. I have a lot of backup work from last year. I'm going over my videos, editing, and putting English subtitles on video that was in Chinese. I’m trying to work on my YouTube, Instagram, all the online content. Now at this time, I’m pitching US magazines. They don't have a lot of content about Chinese conservation or the Chinese environment. So I’m pitching them with photo or written stories about other nature reserves in China.

Q: What are those US magazines?

A: For example, bioGraphic and Mongabay are two online magazines or journals. There is a special story right now in 2020 which is about Chinese national parks. 2020 is the year that eleven Chinese national parks (pilot projects) will be completed. It’s a big gear for national parks in China. So I'm trying to do a story about that. It’s not a big news in the US. But it's a very big story over there.

Q: COVID-19 changed the whole world. What can we learn about the environment protection from this year?

A: Human activities have gone down, and the air is cleaner in cities. I hope that people take it as having a warning signal of what is to come because, in many ways, the effects of COVID-19 are like a small example of what the impacts of climate change could be. In a much quicker time, climate change could be devastating. It will abandon industries, people's lives, and the economy. It may not happen in a month, but it's going to happen over time. So I think now we need to pay more attention to the environment. When we are protecting the environment, we are protecting our lives, our economy, and our own family. And hopefully, after this, we will take this kind of warning lesson and will do better in the future. I hope that the governments, individuals, and corporations around the world will take the lessons seriously.

Q: Your life was in danger several times during the adventure. Did you tell your family about those? Are they supportive of your work?

A: Sometimes I don’t tell my parents. But they have been very supportive. I’m very grateful that they know I’m doing what I love; I’m doing my passion. And I’m eating, I have insurance, and I have a roof. I think as long as I can balance those things, I can do what I love. I can stay safe and support myself. They’ve been very supportive. And of course every year I come back for Christmas. I think my parents may feel happy about the virus because now I can spend more time at home. Their support has meant a lot to me. Because without it, it will be tough to feel okay with doing this. I’m very thankful for the sort of freedom that they gave me after college.

Q: When did you find this passion?

A: When I was young, I like playing in the backyard with sticks pretending my swords. I love being in nature, and I lived in Switzerland for almost three years with my family. At that time, my favorite memory around my 16 was hiking in the scenery in the mountains. So for me, I have always been love being outside. It’s just being outside as well as you have seen the landscape, is just all inspiring, relaxing and cleansing.

Q: Have you ever thought of giving up during this process?

A: Yeah, even now, it's very hard. Environment work doesn't make much money, especially being a photographer. You have to support yourself somehow. Freelancers around the world don’t have it easy. There has been times like in 2017, I was relying on a big grant with national geographic. And I have passed through the most difficult phase of the judging around. Then a law change in China made it unable to give grants in that region, so I lost everything.

I remember that time I really want to give up. You could work from morning to midnight every day. And then something come along and it turns its head. Just like now, I have all the plans, work very hard, but everything has been canceled. Nothing I could do.

Sometimes you may think you should get a stable job. But I think what brings you back is just thinking about the purpose and a mission. I'm not trying to do this work to support myself or to have fun or to make money. I’m doing it because of the mission. As long as I live, the mission to me is more important to the world.

I would be happier than doing anything else. No matter how much you paid or where it was. So for me, it's just pushing on. And I think most people in history who have done great things or valuable contributions to the earth, pushed on, too. They said “I’m going to continue.” That’s how people get their goals. Not because of they are the smartest or the richest, etc. It’s literally by being stubborn enough to say: I refuse to quit. And now you'll get there in 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, for the long term.

Q: Where impressed you the most, in China?

A: There are so many landscapes there. There are two of my favorite places. They are very different. One is Gao Li Gong mountains in Yunnan province.

And that's because it's a temperate rain forest. It has the highest percentage of the country's biodiversity in plants and animal species than anywhere else in China.

When you're in this forest, it is really one of the last large old-growth forests in China. You are standing in an incredibly diverse area. It feels like nature is alive.

You have energy, calm, and peace from

these trees and the forests. All you can hear is the birds’ song. It is a cleansing feeling.

Another place which is a favorite of mine is called Nian Bao Yu Ze in Qinghai.

That is a fantastic place because it's like a small mountain range comes out of the plateau. In the mountain range, there are about 200 secret lakes. It’s very crazy. All the lakes and the mountain peaks come out of the rock.

Rock faces coming out of the plateau, sheer granite cliffs.

And the lakes below is absolutely nothing I have seen or imaged on this earth.

It's kind of like Patagonia. That's also one of my hands down favorite places in China.

Q: What’s your recommendation to people who visit China the first time?

A: These places I mentioned just now are hard to get to. I would recommend go to Chengdu and have a hotpot. My personal opinion is spending one day to go to the Great Wall, Tiananmen, and leave Beijing. I will go to Chengdu. We have pandas. We have hot pot with other spicy food. And then, once you go to Chengdu, I will take a bus or car to either Si Gu Niang mountain or Gong Ga snow mountain in Kang Ding. It looks like it has 6000 – 7000-meter peaks. It's only about a 3.5-hour drive from Chengdu. So if you have a week, I recommend go to Beijing, and then go to Chengdu, which is in Si Chuan province.

Q: What does your dream life look like?

A: Something like it is now without the virus. I think my dream life is to be able to do what I love, but make sure that it's having a positive influence or positive effect. I wish that my work now had an even bigger impact. That would be a bigger dream for my work. I love my lifestyle of where I am, and just do my work to make a bigger contribution to help the environmental groups in China and help preserve this land. I am living my dream and hope that I can make it better.

Q: How do you usually manage your time?

A: I’m very motivated and very stressed. The night before every day, I write out what is my plans for the next day. I usually run in the day, get exercise in the day, and maybe hotpot at night. I usually work at night as well. Honestly, if it’s a nice weather, I usually go outside to run, having a coffee with friends. I used to work in the evening. When in the school, you have to put all the best time of the day inside. When you go out, it is evening. I can’t resist it. I don’t want to waste the blue sky.

Q: What was the biggest challenge to you? And how did you solve it?

A: The biggest challenge is making sure the work I’m doing has a measurable outcome effect. I can say I'm a conservation photographer because I take pictures of pretty landscapes. But what are the photos actually doing? To get a thousand “likes”? People often said I'm doing environmental work because I made a video, and 10000 people watched it. But how do you know? Are those 10000 people actually do something? Are those 5000 people actually change their lives? How can I measure? How can I connect a photo or video with an effect? And then sometimes I can actually see my photos were used by the NGO in their sponsor reports to get more funding for next year. That photo helps them tell stories to their funders and get more funding. Or maybe photos in the video about a forest ranger can help he or she win awards will get more funding. My photos actually count, and I could see how they're being paid off. But I think the biggest challenge will always be. How do you go from just having photos to the photos actually matter in and actually you know, making a difference and be able to tell people what the difference is. How can I do that as a photographer, environmentally?

Q: Who has influenced you the most?

A: My Chinese teacher in college, Mr. Huang. When I was 19, I was one of the dumbest kids in the class. I was about to quit because my first year of Chinese teacher was very strict. But during my second year, Mr. Huang made it funny. He said it was okay to make mistakes. And he made the class as fun as it was informative. To me, that changed everything. Honestly, I was having fun. I don't care what my grade was. I was still the worst in the class. He made me love Chinese, and he made me love it beyond the GPA. And then I realized if I love it, I can get good at it. It feels like playing a computer game. I can spend three hours on homework. Without him, I wouldn’t have continued Chinese. I wouldn’t have loved it. I would never be here. There are people that come in your life and change the course of your life. So I'm forever indebted to many teachers, but especially him, because he's probably the first one to really change the course of my life.

Q: Do you think it’s difficult to learn Chinese?

A: Yes, it is. I think the first two years are extremely difficult. But after you get used to the Chinese character system, it becomes easier exponentially. Because as you know, after you learn more radicals or characters,all the other characters are a combination of other characters. It is not random symbols. They actually like combinations of each other, or they have different similar parts on each symbol. Once you start seeing this, it becomes much more manageable. Now I can read Chinese books, and sometimes write in Chinese.

Q: Do you have any suggestions to the new learners?

A: I would say two things. One is flashcards. Make flashcards. Spend time to write the characters by hand on paper. Do not use App. Because that process alone helps you memorize. And the flashcards are physical and help you engage. If it’s on your phone, you might swipe to check Facebook or other social media. Make it with paper, put your phone in the other room, and then take your paper and deal with the flashcards. Be old fashion. I think you're going to have much higher productivity. That's one thing. After a few years. And once you've done that, I would say exposure, exposure, exposure. You know watch different Chinese TV shows or even Chinese children's books. Books that are made for foreigners that are different. They have pinyin or some words that have a definition for foreigners that are great. Then I started reading novels. I thought I just need to get as much Chinese in front of my brain as humanly possible. And also "what are you interested in". If you like history, art or politics, go and try to read articles about the things you love. For example, if you like fish, just go on the Baidu, search for fish in Chinese, and read it out in Chinese. In that way, you’ll learn a lot of vocabulary.

Kyle's flashcards

Q: What’s the plan for your next stop?

A: I'll be back China. I'm waiting for the border to open up again. As soon as I get back there, hopefully in fall, I will be shooting with a group called the Paradise Foundation. And they have an annual award every year goes to the best foreign rangers in China who get recognized for a career of dedication to protect nature reserves. I hope they do a short documentary series on these foreign rangers. I'll also be working with the North Face on some projects with exploration in Western China. And there are possible projects about glacier conservation in China and doing somewhat we call a repeat photography, which is where you are taking repeating pictures every year, to show glaciers retreat every year. And possibly even working with people to crowdsource photos from the past. And then having a platform where people in the future can help out and take photos of these places so that we can track their change. So these are some products that are under wraps. And I'm already starting on as I'm here remotely just lay down the basis for them.


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