A love for photojournalism and the outdoors
“When I was at St. Olaf, if you would’ve asked me at that time what my dream job was, I would’ve said National Geographic photographer or environmental photographer. I never thought that five years down the road that’s what I would be doing — but here I am,” says Kyle Obermann ’14.
The St. Olaf College alumnus is the author and photographer of a stunning spread published recently in National Geographic. In his piece, he speaks about China’s national park plan and the difficulty of balancing conservation and the tourism industry.
“The experts all agree that though there are some bright spots in China’s new park system, it’s too early to predict how the parks will affect conservation and local livelihoods long-term,” 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 started in high school as a hobby.
“I picked up my mom’s camera after I finished my homework and went outside in our backyard,” he says. “I started taking photos of random stuff, and I remember my goal back then was to make my semi-boring backyard look cool or look like the Amazon.”
Now he’s a full-time conservation photographer and influencer. He works to connect “mainstream Chinese society and large corporations with environmental issues.” His work has appeared in more than just National Geographic; Obermann has also been published by the BBC, the Nature Conservancy, and more.
He travels often and only spends about a week a month at home in Chengdu, China. There is no “typical day” in the world of conservation photography. He’ll be in a national park or a nature reserve or in the wild. He may live in a ranger station or focus on documenting the work of field scientists. He also does talks at various institutions in China, such as the Ministry of Environment, Sichuan University, or the U.S. Consulate. When he’s home, you’ll find him editing footage, running ultra marathons, or going to hip-hop dance classes. Every day is different and full of surprises.
Kyle Obermann ’14When I was at St. Olaf, if you would’ve asked me at that time what my dream job was, I would’ve said National Geographic photographer or environmental photographer. I never thought that five years down the road that’s what I would be doing — but here I am.
Obermann says his work as a student photographer in the Marketing and Communications Office at St. Olaf helped him hone his skills; being assigned different tasks helped him learn and grow as a photographer. He also worked as a sports photographer in the Athletic Department. Telling stories by shooting different athletic competitions and events was “photojournalism of campus life in a way, and that’s exactly what I’m doing now, but it’s photojournalism of conservation.”
Now he takes photos of ultramarathon races and North Face athletes in China and Europe, combining his student work and experience as an athlete on the St. Olaf track and field and cross country teams. He’s never even taken a photography class, but these opportunities through student work gave him the foundation to do it. Even through photo competitions, he was able to get feedback and further improve his craft.
Despite his love for photography, Obermann also fell in love with the Chinese language after just one class at St. Olaf. “I remember coming out of that first class and all we had learned was how to say ‘hello,’ which is ni-hao, and I was saying it to myself smiling. I probably looked like a fool but it made me happy because it was so cool and different and it spoke to me.”
He wasn’t the best in the class, but something about Chinese drew him in. Plus, his professor’s ability to make learning language fun is what made Obermann continue to take Chinese. “Professor Pin Pin Wan made class so fun and for the first time I felt like a professor actually believed in me and was confident in me,” he explains.
It was obvious where Obermann wanted to go after his journey at St. Olaf. He spent six weeks in Beijing and traveled in China during his senior year, and eventually his professional path led him to China. He received a full scholarship to do another year of language studies at one of the best universities in China, and he began working after that year.
Kyle Obermann ’14The main goal of my work is to support the conservation of critical and endangered species in China’s wilderness areas.
“The main goal of my work is to support the conservation of critical and endangered species in China’s wilderness areas,” he says. Bringing awareness to these issues through images can help tell an effective story. Utilizing this framework allows him to “bridge the outdoors and the conservation community in China,” Obermann says. They’re more connected in the United States than they are in China, so connecting them supports and protects the outdoors. Building this linkage and more awareness will benefit all those involved.
“It’s pretty amazing how St. Olaf put China in my life,” he says. “At one point in time, U.S-Chinese relations were such a big issue. Chinese environmentalism and carbon emissions were massive issues for the world. Suddenly, all of these concentrations and majors — which I did not plan to 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 opportunity with such a flexible education to pursue what truly speaks to yourself.”
Kyle Obermann ’14It’s pretty amazing how St. Olaf put China in my life. At one point in time, U.S-Chinese relations were such a big issue. Chinese environmentalism and carbon emissions were massive issues for the world. Suddenly, all of these concentrations and majors — which I did not plan to fit together — fit together perfectly.
He’s happy that he gets to do what he does every day, and he encourages other Oles to follow their passions.
“Use the freedom you have at St. Olaf and the diversity of opportunity there to actually follow your love and then trust that the rest will work out, even though you have no idea,” Obermann says.
“If you’re true to yourself and follow your passion and that’s something that really lights a fire in you, then you will succeed. Be true to those passions no matter the cost.”