Kang-Chun Cheng is an Taiwanese-American photojournalist reporting on how climate change exacerbates insecurity, Indigenous communities’ response to development, China-Africa relations, and outdoor adventure. She has herded reindeer in the Arctic, roasted lamb with pastoralists in the mountains of Xinjiang, hitchhiked through Tunisia, harvested honey with the Yaaku in Kenya’s Laikipia North, walked the Camino de Santiago, and free-dived on the south Sinai peninsula.

Kang-Chun is a regular contributor to SWARA Magazine, the journal of the East African Wild Life Society (EAWLS).

1) What inspired you to get into photojournalism?

I’m a Taiwanese-American Nairobi-based photojournalist, where I’ve been reporting on stories about climate change, Indigenous communities, adventure, and China-Africa topics over the past 3 years. I have a background in ecology and studio art, and have always been very interested in the intersection between visual arts and science. On foreign study program to southern Africa (Namibia, South Africa, Lesotho), where we traveled through astoundingly beautiful and different landscapes, I felt inspired to document both the group dynamics and what we were seeing. I had two TAs on that trip who have since worked for National Geographic and Smithsonian, who were also great photojournalism role models.

After graduating, I had a post-grad fellowship in Arctic Norway and Finland, where I spent nearly a year and a half documenting how Sami reindeer herders have been adapting to environmental change and technological advances. The Arctic is a very viscerally poignant place, and I loved the stark contrast between the endless blue hours of winter and the midnight sun. this was probably one of the most special things I’ve ever done.

2) Which article that you’ve written for Swara Magazine are you most proud of?

I’m quite fond of the first one I ever did — about the tough conditions that Kenyan fishermen along the Malindi coast face, and issues with pollution, overfishing, and ocean degradation. I had found myself alone in Malindi, and struck up a conversation with some local fishermen on the shore selling fish. The next morning, I went with them on their boat for their daily catch, where we were caught in a rainstorm. How incredibly hard they work for a pittance is something that has never left me.

3) Where has been your favourite place to travel with your job?

Kenya never gets old for me! Baringo county in the central west has a special place in my heart — not only because I’ve invested a lot of time and energy into it to try to understand the cultural context and establish contacts, but because I think it encapsulates some seriously fascinating and underreported and fascinating conservation tensions. Pastoralists from different tribes are facing mounting armed conflicts over dwindling pastures and water, as Lake Baringo concurrently floods and displaces lakeside communities. As a foreigner, it can be tricky navigating tribal and cultural issues that date back many generations, but I feel fortunate that I have great translators and contacts who have invested a lot of time in explaining the situation to me. It’s then my job to make sense of these delicate and intricate issues, and convey them to international audiences.

‘Wildbook for Zebra: A Lifeline for Grevy’s Zebra’ by Kang-Chun Cheng (SWARA Magazine April-June 2021)

4) How do you use photography as a tool for storytelling?

Photography is not only a way for me to convey the story at hand, to try to show my audiences what I’m seeing and sensing firsthand, but also a way for me to process my own emotions — particularly when it comes to complex topics that can make me feel very overwhelmed. I shoot intuitively, meaning that I follow gut feelings that I might have about what makes a good or interesting photo, rather than fixating on the obvious which can lean toward being cliche. Depending on the story, I may think about the emotions, dreams, or other abstract aspects of the story I’m trying to capture and see how it can manifest in a photo.

I like the balance that both reporting on and writing a story, as well as shooting it, provides. It feels engaging how I have to process the story in both visuals and words, which inevitably rounds out the story in a way that only one or the other wouldn’t.

5) And finally, are you currently working on anything that you wish to share with our readers?

I have a story coming out for Christian Science Monitor, about the tensions of a developing adventure tourism industry on Mt Kenya. It illuminates how local porters and guides are undervalued in their work, and explores the topic of accountability — what needs to happen for an industry with the potential to bolster local communities to be realized in an optimal way? I’ve been working on this story for a long time, and is something very important to me given my passion for the mountains and rock climbing. I’m excited to have received funding from the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) for this story, which has been validating. It shows me that there are people who care about such stories set in the developing world, that adventure and the outdoors deserve to be reported with the same gravity here as it is elsewhere in the western world.

SWARA Magazine’s modern archive, dating back to 2019.

Thank you Kang-Chun for being part of the #MeetTheContributor blog series!

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