As an adventure photographer, conservationist, and all-round wildlife enthusiast, it was the honor of a lifetime for Kyle Obermann to be invited to photograph the Anzihe Nature Reserve in China, home to 30% of the world’s population of giant pandas. One of the first Westerners to have been invited to do so, Kyle spent nine days trekking through the most remote corners of the reserve, entering areas that some of the guides had never even explored during their 20-year careers.
We spoke to Kyle to learn more about his trip following the Path of the Panda, and what drives his interest in conservation and wildlife photography.
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.
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 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 do you think 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.
You spent the last four days of the expedition deep in 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 honour 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 animal trails we were trying to track. I learnt, slowly, that the Sichuan men (my guides) were not out to enjoy nature. But neither were they struggling against it. They ascended and descended peaks and trackless jungle in plain clothes as casually as they would a morning commute; all the while I battled through the snags of the jungle. The mountains finally spat me out, complete with gashes in every expensive Gore-Tex outer piece I wore. 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.
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 to partner with nature all around the world, 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 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 think your work positively impacted conservation efforts in China?
I’m not a conservation scientist, but I see my photography and myself as PR for conservation efforts and the backcountry in China. Storytelling and photography is an attractive way to draw people’s attention to issues that matter — to make conservation sexy. So, that’s what I do. My work is a constructive way to support local conservation groups and show people the value of protecting these lands.
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. Knowing that you have the privilege to document something that no one has before 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. 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, traveller, or conservationist? 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, you need a fire for what you do, and you have to constantly remind yourself why you do it. Conservation of the world is so important, but 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 pay 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!
Bio: Kyle Obermann studied Chinese language alongside environmental science and politics at university in the United States of America. After that, he felt it made sense to visit China and experience what the country has to offer first hand. For Kyle, photography is the perfect platform from which to address issues – he believes that storytelling and photography is an attractive way to draw people’s attention to issues that matter, which is exactly how he ended up deep in the Anzihe Nature Reserve.