Finnmark – Kang-Chun Cheng

I grew up in rural New Hampshire in the US, to which I attribute my lifelong love for nature. I am currently based in Nairobi, Kenya, where I work as a freelance photojournalist.

My background is in ecology with a focus on community-based natural resource management and traditional ecological knowledge. I started doing photography about halfway through university and it developed concurrently with my passion and interest for understanding environmental science from the ground perspective.

For me, photography is a tool for storytelling. I am interested in examining the shifting relationships between human culture, technology, and the natural world, and photography has helped me become more observant and hone my innate curiosity. It has made me become more attentive to the world around me, from changes in light and colour, even anticipating things to come. It’s helped me slow down and reconsider memories in ways I otherwise wouldn’t.

What’s your story? Is it your work as an ecologist that informs projects you work on?

Part of what I’m interested in portraying includes the grisly or disdainful. I want to do so in a way that is somehow visually appealing and encourages people to take a second look at topics or issues they may otherwise pass over.

For example, the latest piece I am working on is centred on the problem of Kenyan importation of rubbish from predominantly white countries, due to issues with capacity and manufacturers’ responsibility, not to mention the undeniable neo-colonialist undertones of shipping trash to developing countries for them to take care of.

The dumps are depressing in obvious ways, but there is something almost mesmerising about how the trash is organised in sections and how, even in such conditions, there are very clear connections between people and these artificial landscapes.

However, I am also interested in depicting the immense beauty in normal life. I like doing so because it reminds me to be grateful for my life, to be grateful that I have blood pulsing through my veins even when preoccupied by stresses and sorrows. This interests me due to the fact that almost everything is delicately interconnected.

Besides my present work for social enterprises – solar, water-filter, e-waste companies – these days I am also leaning more into environmental writing. I have been exploring the relationships between humans and the natural world since my post-graduate fellowship project in the Arctic in 2017, and hope to continuously expand on examining people’s shifting and intimate relationships with their geographical homes as well as the varying definitions of “home”.

Did you grow up spending a lot of time outdoors and in nature? Is it a passion you found for yourself?

I grew up amongst the forests, rivers, and mountains. In many ways, it was an idyllic childhood, and wanting to spend time with my older brother encouraged my tomboyishness which developed into a sense of comfort even when I’m deep within the wild. I think this also contributed to cultivating my sense of independence and a desire for self-reliability.

However, only in university did I start thinking about my relationship with nature and realise how I had been taking many of these activities – fishing, outdoor swimming, hiking – for granted. My most recent love is bouldering, which has developed into a mild addiction for rock-climbing. It’s something I hope will become a big part of my life in the future.

Tell us a bit about your project.

My project is about the traditional reindeer herding culture in Norway and Finland and how it has been impacted by climate change and technology. I received a fellowship from Dartmouth College in 2017 which offered my initial portal to the Arctic, where I participated in several home-stays learning about reindeer husbandry and later zoning in on niche migration and conservation conflicts.

I lived with the Smuks, a generational Sami herding family, in Varanger, Norway, for nearly two months to learn about reindeer migrations.

Photography allowed me to not only document my experiences and encouraged me to push the scope of my perspectives, but served as references when looking back. Throughout this project, I had the opportunity to examine the fascinating relationship between physical geography and the feeling of belonging, a theme that persists throughout my work.

My work is about people. It is important to me to understand people’s stories through their own words before anything else.

In the context of my Arctic project, I spent time with the reindeer herders, familiarising myself with their work as we got to know one another. Whether this happens through listening to anecdotes, asking questions to learn about the present as informed by history or personal experiences, sharing food, communicating despite language barriers, or going on adventures together, I’d like to think that knowledge and some familiarity adds a certain level of depth to my work. It’s also critical that I understand the situation, that the people I speak to feel at ease before I make any photographs of them.

Were there any moments, experiences or realisations that stood out to you?

My biggest realisation working on the project was that we all just need someone to take a chance on us.

The director of the World Association of Reindeer Herders answered my cold email and helped facilitate a number of home-stays at her home and those of other herders throughout Finland. Without her attention and kindness, nothing else that followed would have been possible.

I try to keep this in mind as I think about the potential magnitude of our actions. The more I think back on it, the more amazing this seems to be- we have so much power in our hands in terms of decision-making, but ultimately elements of the universe must align in order for things to come together – something which is obviously out of our control.

Share some recommendations for our readers. What are you currently watching, reading, listening to?

I just watched ‘Little Forest’ and ‘Shoplifters’, both of which were wonderful.

I’ve just read ‘Montana 1948’ – gorgeous prose – ‘What You Call Winter’, and ‘Homegoing’, all of which I would recommend. I just started ‘Lacuna’ by Barbara Kingsolver, and I loved ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ and ‘Prodigal Summer’.

‘Shalimar the Clown’ by Salman Rushdie remains one of my favourite books of all time. At once effervescent, devastating, and beautiful, this magical-realism novel entrenched in Kashmir’s history examines the impact of history on personal narratives.

For music, I’ve listened to Tunisian/Italian rapper Ghali non-stop for seven months now, and am rediscovering my love for Novo Amor and Maggie Rogers. Kendrick Lamar is always there for me.

For visual art, I will always gravitate toward the Impressionists – I am in love with the colour, texture, and attention to the quality of light.

kang-chun-cheng.format.com / @takeme.north