St. Olaf Magazine | Spring/Summer 2021

Following the Dream

The spectacular Halong glacier, located on Amnye Machen, one of the four holy mountains of Tibet.

“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.

Obermann is the author and photographer of a stunning spread published recently in National Geographic. In his piece, he writes about China’s inaugural national park plan and the difficulty of balancing conservation with 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.

Kyle Obermann’s photography has been published by National Geographic, the Nature Conservancy, and the BBC.

“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.”

Today he’s a full-time conservation photographer and influencer, connecting “mainstream Chinese society and large corporations with environmental issues.” His writing and photography has appeared in more than just National Geographic: Obermann has also been published by the BBC, the Nature Conservancy, and more. He is also a member of the popular Chinese television talk show Informal Talks, where he discusses individual carbon footprints and China’s many mountains.

He travels often and only spends about seven days 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 gives talks at various institutions in Asia, such as the Chinese Ministry of Environment, Kyoto University, TEDx, or the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu. When he’s home, you’ll find him editing footage, running ultramarathons, or going to hip-hop dance classes. Every day is different and full of surprises.

“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.” And with greater awareness, everyone benefits.

The Shennongjia Forestry District in western Hubei, Central China, is known for its rich biodiversity and for the rare and endangered golden monkey.

Obermann says he’s never taken a photography class, but opportunities at St. Olaf gave him a strong foundation for his current work. As a student photographer in the college’s Marketing and Communications and Admissions Offices, as well as the Athletic Department, he was assigned a variety of tasks that helped him hone his photography skills. “In a way, [it was] photojournalism of campus life.”

Having the chance to learn from his mistakes as a student photographer and improve under “forgiving staff” at St. Olaf gave Obermann room to grow technically and creatively. While working as a sports photographer in athletics, he once broke an expensive camera while wrongly attaching it to a tripod at a soccer game, and he says his first portraits of professors for the website “were pretty dismal.” But he enjoyed telling stories with his camera and shooting different athletic competitions and events while enjoying his own athletic experiences as a member of the men’s track and field 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 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.”

Obermann gained valuable photojournalism experience while working as a student photographer at St. Olaf.

The main goal of my work is to support the conservation of critical and endangered species in China’s wilderness areas. Bringing awareness to these issues through photography can help tell an effective story.

Early support from his language professor as well as his roommate, Duy Ha ’14, an international student from Vietnam, gave him confidence. Later, his professor’s ability to make learning the language enjoyable encouraged Obermann to continue taking 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.

His foundational experiences continued when he competed in the inaugural Ole Cup, held by the Piper Center for Vocation and Career, and pitched the idea of doing adventure photography in China to a panel of Ole alumni. “I wasn’t successful in getting any funding,” he says, “but, the push by the Piper Center to develop that pitch and eye-opening experiences like the Quo Vadis retreat 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 that 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 doing 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 country’s best universities and then began working as a photographer while remaining in China, taking photos of ultramarathon races and The North Face athletes competing in China and Europe.

A local conservationist marks the retreat of glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau in northwest China’s Qinghai Province.

“It’s pretty amazing how St. Olaf put China in my life,” says Obermann, who also marvels at how his undergraduate interests in Chinese language, political science, and environmental studies have converged in his professional 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.” 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 spoke to me.”

He’s happy that he gets to do what he does every day, and he encourages other Oles to follow their passions.

“The benefits of my interdisciplinary education at St. Olaf may not have been clear immediately, but to this day they are still paying off big time! If you’re true to yourself and follow your passion, and it’s something that really lights a fire in you, then you will succeed. Be true to those passions no matter the cost.”