Seeing China through a different lens

“There’s never been a more exciting time to be in China for environmental issues,” says Kyle Obermann ’14. He’ll spend nine months traveling through China’s backcountry to document the stories of conservation communities in the remote Hengduan Range.

St. Olaf College alumnus Kyle Obermann ’14 is eager to show the world that there is far more to China than its densely populated urban areas.

As the winner of the WildChina Explorer 2017 grant, Obermann will spend nine months traveling through China’s backcountry to photograph and document the stories of 10 conservation communities in the remote Hengduan Range.

The project, titled “Beyond the Smog: Backcountry Conservation in the Hengduan Mountains,” melds Obermann’s diverse set of interests.

A political science major at St. Olaf with concentrations in Chinese and environmental studies, Obermann worked as a college photographer. He ran cross country and track and developed a passion for fitness. He studied abroad in New Zealand with St. Olaf’s exchange program in Dunedin, where he learned to hike and explore.

“Looking back, it’s pretty incredible to see everything I did at Olaf contributing to my career in meaningful ways so early on,” Obermann says.

He took a few minutes to talk about why there’s never been a more exciting time to be in China for environmental issues, why he was wrong about what he could do with his St. Olaf education, and why turtles on leashes no longer surprise him.

“I hope my photography and writing can give China and the world a pragmatic vision for what China’s future will be like if they protect their environment,” Kyle Obermann ’14 says.

What inspired you to photograph and write about China?
There’s never been a more exciting time to be in China for environmental issues. Smog is on the slow decline, the national government is throwing its weight into solving pollution, and actions are well under way to create a National Park system unique to China’s own circumstances. I don’t want to whitewash problems, but people just don’t understand China. The negative news you see about smog is real, but if that’s where you stop then you’re living in ignorance about a nation that can no longer afford to be misunderstood or ignored. Everyone’s seen the negative side of this country; now I want to show a positive side. I hope my photography and writing can give China and the world a pragmatic vision for what China’s future will be like if they protect their environment, and what they (we all) stand to lose if they don’t.

What interests you about doing this work?
Absolutely everything! I can be outdoors, study a mix of politics, environmental policy, conservation, and geology, all while holding a camera! I once thought that my degree mix at Olaf meant I was either going into international relations or environmental policy — become a diplomat or researcher or something — but I’ve found that I can work for the environment and international relations by being a storyteller between the East and West for environmental issues. Of course, there are really big challenges, but I’ve never been happier with what I do. It combines all of my interests.

“When I first arrived I was as surprised as everyone else to discover how beautiful China is. It blew my mind. Still does,” says Kyle Obermann ’14.

What has been a highlight of your stay in China?
I’ve been here for three years. I moved here soon after graduation in 2014. There are so many highlights, it’s hard to pinpoint one. But having the opportunity to share what I see as real China with the rest of the world through social media and publications has definitely been a privilege and joy. I’m so thankful to have these opportunities every day.  

Has anything been surprising?
There are surprises every day here. Three years isn’t nearly enough time to thoroughly comprehend a nation as large as the U.S. with 1/7 of the world’s people. I’m constantly learning. But when I first arrived I was as surprised as everyone else to discover how beautiful China is. It blew my mind. Still does.

Also: the other day I stumbled upon a group of elderly guys walking turtles on leashes on a patch of grass in the center of Beijing’s business district. That was pretty surprising. But of course, to quote that over-quoted quote, here you really do begin to “expect the unexpected.”

Follow Obermann’s project on Instagram @kyleobermann.