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Kyle Obermann: My career in photography and environmental protection

SEP . 26 2019
Peking University, Sept. 25, 2019: Kyle Obermann's contribution to promoting environmental protection in China is well-recognized by Chinese society.

On September 25, Obermann won a second-class prize and the Best Editing Award, in the "@China" Global Short Video Contest presented by People's Daily (《人民日报》). This contest asked candidates to upload videos themed "China and I" to tell their China stories to the world. Over the course of the contest, People's Daily received over 430,000 submissions from more than 60 countries across the globe. Among all submissions, only five were awarded the second-class prize and only one was chosen for the Best Editing Award. 

Obermann at the awarding ceremony

Obermann's video was produced in collaboration with his alma mater Peking University. The American PKUer is a conservation photographer working in China, and he is also the founder of Explore to Conserve, a Chinese social media movement dedicated to connecting China’s outdoor industry and environmental movement. He has been named the Wild China Explorer 2017, a title that comes with a USD$5000 travel grant.

Obermann under the stars
Peking University, where his dreams began

Winning a Confucius Institute scholarship, Obermann, also known as 欧阳凯 or Ouyang Kai in Chinese, came to study at Peking University’s School of International Studies in 2014. During his time at PKU, Obermann had two dreams: mastering the Chinese language and improving Sino-US relations.

While studying at PKU, Obermann’s passion for running led to his involvement in various sporting events and competitions. He says that, most importantly, PKU offered him the opportunities to interact with Chinese students. By joining the track and field team at PKU, he made a large number of like-minded friends, which gave him more opportunities to communicate in Chinese. This has improved his understanding of and appreciation for Chinese culture and also improved his Chinese speaking ability.

Obermann can recall every bit of his study at PKU. He says, “I miss running with my teammates in the Peking University Stadium. It was those people who gave me the confidence and courage to pursue my dream job and future in China. I really miss my time spent at Peking University. It was the happiest years of my life and it laid a great foundation for the work that I am now doing in China.”

Obermann with his friends at PKU

Protecting the environment with exploration

Born in Texas, USA, Obermann loved outdoor activities at an early age and spent time close to nature as a child. Every summer as a child, he would go camping in the National Parks of the US with his family, and was used to sleeping in a tent before he could even walk. During his childhood, he had little exposure to TV or computer games, only spending time outdoors in the green fields and vast forests. Growing up in such close proximity to nature has ignited a passion for the outdoors in Obermann, and this passion has led him to actively devote himself to the protection of the natural environment.

After graduating from PKU, Obermann had a comfortable and well-paid job, but he could not devote himself wholeheartedly. He yearned for a life in the great outdoors. “I knew from the first day that I wasn’t suited to the job and that it wasn’t my ideal long-term career path, so I started blogging, planning and saving money for the future,” he said. A year later, Obermann decided to quit his job and to pursue his dream of working in environmental protection.

During that time, Obermann almost left China and his dream of pursuing a career in environmental photography was threatened many times because of a lack of financial support. After plenty of setbacks, Obermann was able to pick up his camera, go out to the natural world he loved so much, and devote himself to his passion. He has no regrets and encourages people to take risks and be loyal to their dreams. “You never know whether the next person you meet will change your life. Thus, do not give up, go all out!”

Obermann’s travels have so far taken him to the north and center of the Hengduan Mountains, where he has been trekking with local rangers and studying the habitat of giant pandas.

Obermann and local rangers

This April, Obermann also travelled to Dunhuang, a city in northwest China’s Gansu Province, to participate in the spring re-forestation activity organized by Alipay’s Ant Forest. Through this trip, Obermann gained a deeper understanding of the serious desertification affecting the region as well as the environmental measures intended to protect the environment from further desertification.

Obermann in Dunhuang

Next year, Obermann is planning an expedition to the southern mountains in southwest China’s Yunnan Province, where he will continue to record the efforts made by the local people to protect their local environment, in order to encourage more people to take notice of environmental issues.

Obermann has always been a proponent of “exploring for the sake of environmental protection”. From the United States to China, from Beijing to Tibet, his pursuit of environmental protection has never ceased.

A look at China’s “other side” through photography

Obermann said he became interested in photography through an accidental opportunity in middle school, but never thought that photography would become his career direction.

During his time at Peking University, he won an award in the 2015 spring photography contest and participated in the shooting of the “Beautiful China” competition from 2017 to 2018. His work has even found its way onto the cover of the 9th issue of China National Astronomy in 2016, for which he won wide recognition and praise.

Since then, Obermann has developed his photography skills and his themes have become more and more extensive. He has moved from simple snapshots of everyday life to more sophisticated and technically challenging depictions of the natural world. His photography and bilingual writing has been featured in Chinese and English language publications, including BBC, National Geographic, Chinese National Geography, People’s Daily, and more.

Written by: Wu Fei
Edited by: Sam Jones, Huang Weijian, Pu Hairui, Trevor