Chasing the Dream – St. Olaf College
“When I was in Saint-Olaf, if you had asked me at that time what my dream job was, I would have said National Geographic photographer or environmental photographer. I never thought that five years later this is what I would do, but here I am, ”says Kyle Obermann.
Obermann is the author and photographer of a breathtaking series recently published in National Geographic. In his article, he talks about China’s inaugural plan for the national park and the difficulty of balancing conservation with the tourism industry.
“Experts all agree that while there are some bright spots in China’s new park system, it is too early to predict how parks will affect long-term conservation and local livelihoods,” he points out in the article.
Obermann majored in political science at St. Olaf, with concentrations in environmental studies and Chinese. His interest in photography began in high school as a hobby.
“I took my mom’s camera after I finished my homework and went out to our garden,” he says. “I started taking pictures of random things, and I remember my goal at the time was to make my garden semi-boring cool or looking like the Amazon.”
Today, he is a full-time conservation photographer and influencer, connecting “traditional Chinese society and big business to environmental issues”. His writing and photography have appeared in more than National Geographic: Obermann has also been published by the BBC, the Nature Conservancy, and more. He is also a member of the popular Chinese TV talk show Informal interviews, where he discusses individual carbon footprints and China’s many mountains.
He travels often and only spends about seven days a month at his home in Chengdu, China. There is no such thing as a “typical day” in the world of conservation photography. It will be in a national park or nature reserve or in the wild. He may live in a ranger station or focus on documenting the work of field scientists. He also gives lectures in various institutions in Asia, such as the Chinese Ministry of the Environment, Kyoto University, TEDx or the American Consulate in Chengdu. When he’s home, you’ll find him editing sequences, running ultramarathons, or going to hip-hop dance lessons. Every day is different and full of surprises.
“The main objective of my work is to support the conservation of critical and endangered species in China’s wild areas,” he says. “Bringing awareness to these issues through pictures can help tell an effective story. And with greater awareness, everyone benefits.
Obermann says he never took a photography course, but the opportunities at St. Olaf gave him a solid foundation for his current job. As a student photographer in the college’s marketing and communications and admissions offices, as well as the sports department, he was given a variety of assignments that helped him hone his photography skills. “In a sense, [it was] photojournalism of campus life.
Having the chance to learn from his mistakes as a student photographer and improve himself with the “forgiving staff” at St. Olaf gave Obermann the opportunity to develop technically and creatively. While working as a sports photographer in track and field, he once broke an expensive camera by wrongly attaching it to a tripod during a football game, and he says his first portraits of teachers for the website “were pretty dismal”. But he enjoyed telling stories with his camera and filming different competitions and sporting events while enjoying his own sporting experiences as a member of the men’s track and cross country teams.
In addition to his love for photography, St. Olaf also sparked a passion for the Chinese language, which Obermann fell in love with after just one class. “I remember coming out of that first class and all we learned was how to say ‘hello’, which is ni-hao, and I told myself smiling. I probably sounded like an idiot, but it made me happy because it was so cool and different and it spoke to me.
The main objective of my work is to support the conservation of critical and endangered species in China’s wild areas. Raising awareness of these issues through photography can help tell an effective story.
The early support of his language teacher as well as his roommate, Duy Ha ’14, an international student from Vietnam, gave him confidence. Later, his teacher’s ability to make language learning enjoyable encouraged Obermann to continue taking Chinese.
“Professor Pin Pin Wan made the lessons so fun, and for the first time, I felt like a teacher really believed in me and trusted me,” he explains.
His fundamental experiences continued when he participated in the first Ole Cup, organized by the Piper Center for Vocation and Career, and introduced the idea of doing adventure photography in China to a panel of alumni. of Ole. “I failed to secure funding,” he says, “but the push by the Piper Center to develop this land and eye-opening experiences like the Quo Vadis retreat has helped me believe and visualize my goal for the first time. “
As a senior, Obermann spent six weeks in Beijing and also traveled to other parts of China. After this experience, his career path was clear to him. “I went from talking about my dream job to doing it,” he says. After a summer of anxious waiting and door-to-door fundraising for an environmental group in Texas, he finally received a full scholarship to do a year of language studies at one of the top universities in the country, then began working as a photographer while staying in China, taking photos of ultramarathon races and of The North Face athletes competing in China and Europe.
“It’s pretty amazing how St. Olaf has put China in my life,” says Obermann, who also marvels at the convergence of his undergraduate interests in Chinese language, political science and environmental studies. in his professional life. “At one point, US-China relations were such a big problem. Chinese environmentalism and carbon emissions were major issues for the world. Suddenly, all these concentrations and majors – which I had not planned to make fit together – fit together perfectly. This discovery helped him reflect on the one important thing he learned at St. Olaf: “I learned the value of using the opportunities with such a flexible education to pursue what really spoke to me. “
He is happy that he can do what he does every day and he encourages other Oles to follow their passions.
“The benefits of my interdisciplinary training at St. Olaf may not have been immediately clear, but to this day they are still paying off! If you are true to yourself and follow your passion, and it’s something that really kindles a fire in you, then you will be successful. Be true to these passions, no matter the cost.