Get to Know the Globe-Trotting Photographer Capturing Climate Activism
If the fact that Katie Orlinsky answered her phone for our interview while preparing to head to the Southwest Arctic doesn’t speak to her sense of adventure, I’m not sure what does. Though based out of NYC, the photographer is a globetrotting capturer of all walks of life; from intimate portraits of inmates of a Mexican women’s prison to dog-sled racing in Alaska to tracing the effects of climate change around the Arctic, Orlinsky’s resume is well-rounded to say the least.
We chatted with Orlinsky about the inherent activism to her work, petting cute dogs on the Iditarod, and the best time of day for a cup of tea.
I’ve noticed that the climate and land seem to be the subjects that are really the focus of a lot of your work. Tell me a little about what drew you to that subject.
The last couple of years is when that really started. Before that, I was focused on subjects that had to do with social issues or conflicts, but also looking behind the stories to how it’s affecting people’s daily lives—trying to find beautiful moments of daily life behind these sort of chaotic issues, either to raise awareness or to just tell the story in a meaningful way. Then that sort of segued into focusing on climate change.
By chance, I had an assignment out in the Canadian Yukon and in Alaska, photographing a dogsled race, and I just fell in love with the landscape. I just thought it was such a beautiful, inspiring place. I started learning more about it, and learning about the climate change. The changing weather, the warming weather, was the subject that was just on everyone’s mind, so it felt really natural to focus on that issue with this backdrop of one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Are you worried or hopeful for the future of our planet?
I mean, it’s a combination, you know? I think it’s not quite that simple, and that’s why I think it’s such a fascinating story, because there are so many different elements to it. There’s people, real people, whose lives are being affected by this right now, especially in places like the Alaskan Arctic where there are people who live a subsistence lifestyle, so they hunt and they fish. And animals are changing, and conditions for doing that kind of thing are changing. And there are other places where we’re coming up with amazing innovations that are going to really help the planet.
I’m not a doomsdayer at all, but I do think there are stories in places like Alaska that someone in a city might not quite understand because all they see are images of a polar bear. But I think if you could tell human stories about anything, people will relate to it. People love other people. People love to connect with other people. That’s why being a photographer is so great, because you can help do that.
You’ve clearly been doing a lot of traveling. What do you think some of the most important things you’ve learned in your travels have been?
Oh man. There are lots of small little things, like tips and tricks and stuff. I actually think the most important thing is to just let things go with the flow, because you can plan everything and everything can go wrong. And it often times does, especially when you’re traveling to far-off places. But if you can just keep a positive attitude and work with the situation at hand, sometimes missing that flight and having something cancelled for two days can turn into something really amazing. So being open to possibilities when things don’t go right I think is the number one thing. And just don’t lose your passport.
Tell me a little bit about the work you did for T2. What went into that project?
That was super fun, especially because it was a New York focused thing. I’m from New York City. And before I started traveling this much I was a freelancer, I free-lanced a lot for the New York Times and way before that, when I was first getting my start, I even worked for the New York Post. So running around New York and taking pictures is something I’ll always love to do, and grew up doing. And the tea itself is really beautiful – you can’t capture the smell or anything like that, but it’s really wonderful, it’s a wonderful tea and a wonderful product so it was a fun thing to play around with. So I wanted to overlay it with images of New York that embodied to me something, like, morning. That’s when I’ll drink something like tea.
You’re not an afternoon tea drinker?
I am not an afternoon tea drinker, no. Anything I can do to try to help me fall asleep – I don’t sleep well so it’s just in the morning for me.
Are you pleased that you grew up in NYC?
Yeah, it’s such a point of pride for me. There are a lot of places I love, but I love New York City. I mean I live there still; I’m based there. I don’t think I could ever just leave for good; it’s in my blood. I think growing up there as a photographer can be really great for you because I’m just not afraid to talk to anybody, and I don’t think anyone else from NYC really is. And that’s a really great thing to have as a photographer.
When you’re taking a photo, do you find yourself looking for something in particular?
Sometimes I go in with an idea in mind and try to execute it, but I’m always sort of letting what’s around me dictate it. I think that’s why I’m more of a documentary photographer in that sense. But I like to do things in a natural environment and let things roll. And I understand that my presence is always going to change a picture – you’re never really capturing reality unless you’re using a Google street camera. You’re a part of it, which is an element in it as well.
I think people always forget about that, that you’re staging reality.
Just because you’re there, your presence is causing someone to keeping walking or stop walking. In every picture, you can’t forget that there is a photographer there. And I don’t try to be a complete fly on the wall because I am friendly and I like to talk to people. But I try to capture the feeling of a place and the reality of a place I am experiencing.
What would you say is the most fun thing you’ve photographed?
Oh hands down dog-sled racing. The dogs were so friendly – they’re like professional athlete dogs. So, they’re the star of this sport. They’re beautiful and they’re amazing athletes, and they’re sweet. Very well socialized. They’re just super dogs. It’s really cold but a lot of fun.
Conversely, what do you think has been one of your personal favorites or what do you think might be one of the most important things you’ve photographed?
It’s just hard to say. There are issues that I think are the most important. I’m pretty partial to a project I did about the Mexican women in prison, which was just a really simple portrait project but I felt like it was important to see who these women were. To look at the question of are they criminals or are they victims. Also, it’s really not up to me to decide, but I wanted to get their voices out there and sort of look at that side of what was happening with the Mexican drug war. The imagery coming out was of – they call it Notre Roja – crime scenes and dead bodies, and you were seeing a lot of statistics: how many people were killed, how many people were put in prison. I wanted to put a reality behind all of those numbers.
What do you think is an issue that more people should be paying attention to?
Oh my gosh! There’s so many. I’ll say one, which I just had a story come out about it, maybe because it’s on my mind. The subject right now people are talking a lot about is the refugee crisis, which is a huge issue. So we did a story a week ago, and this is also part of a long-term project I’ve been working on about Central American children migrating through southern Mexico coming into the US.
People are fleeing violence by the tens of thousands in Central America in places like Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador. And it’s children, entire families. They are refugees not migrants, not economic migrants – they are fleeing for their lives and they’re right here on the US Mexico border. This is an issue I want people to pay more attention to – is granting asylum to people fleeing violence, not just from all over the world but also right at our doorstep.
Absolutely. What a sobering thought.
I know! My work is interesting because some of it is really heavy, but I also do fun stories. I basically photograph what I’m fascinated by and a lot of times I’m fascinated by political issues and social issues. But then there’s also things like dog-sled racings and underwater synchronized swimming that I just think are really interesting and unique.
All imagery by Katie Orlinsky.
Be sure to check out Katie’s website here.