Issue 130 – December 2018 (on the stand October 1, 2018) – Article by David Best
California photographer Oliver Klink lives a life of adventure and exploration, and, of course, photography. His camera acts as a sort of passport to some of the more exotic and remote regions of the planet, and his photographs show a world that most people will never see outside of the pages of National Geographic. Of the 112 countries he has visited, we will focus for now on just one; China, and in particular on a remote and mostly inaccessible ethnic group of people that most have probably never heard of and fewer still visited: the Yi of Southwest China.
Galen Rowell once said that his legs got him into photography and they also got him to places where there were stunning photographs to be made. The same is true for Klink. As an avid skier growing up in Switzerland (he was on the national Swiss ski team), Klink’s physical aptitude and stamina got him to places in the Swiss Alps that were breathtaking, and it soon became apparent that he needed to chronicle these moments.
“When you are raised as a competitor,” Klink says, “You like to push the boundaries and find new frontiers. Photography also offers me these feelings. When out shooting pictures you are alone with your equipment and your subject, and you push the boundaries of what is possible. Skiing competition is also a long-term investment in terms of training and keeping focused on a goal. I find the same is true with photography. I’m never worried about how long it takes to successfully complete a long-term photographic project I am excited about.”
One project that has occupied Klink for the past seventeen years is his exploration of the Asian cultures. He first visited China in 2001 and has since made numerous visits. “Photographing the Yi, one of the 55 ethnic minority cultures, was full of surprises.” He says. “I was so remote in the Chinese countryside that I knew if anything should happen, nobody would ever find me. The roads were muddy, the visibility was awful and we often had to traverse heart-stopping cliffhanger roads, and then switch to horses to complete our journey”
The regions Klink explored in the Sichuan Mountains are very remote, and the Yi people are mostly unfriendly to outside visitors, especially photographers. Klink had three failed attempts to make contact with these people when one night he was kicked out of his hotel room to make room for visiting government dignitaries. With no place to stay, he met a local farmer who took him under his wing. “He enabled me to make impromptu stops along our way,” says Klink, “To take side roads, visit his village, and gain insights and access into the Yi culture. I was transported to a world that I could hardly believe still existed, and had flashbacks to images made in the 1930’s.”
On each subsequent trip, Klink’s explorations became even more rustic and further off the beaten path. It was only by visiting the region over and over that he started to lose his ‘tourist goggles’ as he calls them. He established trust, and began to focus on the true essence of the people; their daily joys, struggles, hopes, and fears of an uncertain future. China is developing at such an astonishing rate that even the most remote corners of China are subject to rapid modernization. “When you venture all the way down the road, says Klink, “Not just halfway, you can witness the histories and traditions of the people that are quickly disappearing from view, and from our planet.
“When I photograph, I like to operate like a movie director. I like to plan ahead, and I always have an idea of what I am looking for. But like most good movies, the best scenes often come from improvisation, when the elements come together at random before your camera lens. Some of my favorite mottos include: Be true to yourself. Never rest on your laurels. Read a lot. Be out there rain or shine. Don’t reinvent the wheel, but reinvent yourself constantly.”
Klink’s approach to photography is very therapeutic for him. He tries to become one with the people he meets and then hopes his viewers will also connect with his subjects through his photographs. He tries to observe a lot and shoot little. It is not uncommon that he comes back with just a few ‘keepers” from three weeks of strenuous wandering in a foreign country.
“A photograph is a kind of time travel,’ he says. “It transcends geography and culture to share a moment, however brief, of true connection. I hope this collection, which I’m including in my book to be titled, “Cultures In Transition,” can transport my viewers as well. The lives I capture are diverse. I believe the photographs I make are attempting to tell the same story: illuminating the spirit, heart, and soul of us all.” — David Best
Images are part of a monograph, published by True North Editions, titled Cultures in Transition: Spirit, Heart, Soul.
The book is available for purchase at https://www.culturesintransition.com/OrderForm