From Superlatives to Simple Pleasuers

How Alaskan photographer Emily Sullivan is slowing down & listening to the land

We recently explored Alaska’s Knik Glacier with Emily Sullivan and other local artists who let the landscape inspire their creativity and bring awareness to critical local issues. We asked Emily to guest write an article sharing about her experience as an Alaskan photographer, athlete and community activist.


Over the last decade and a half, I’ve been privileged to navigate incredible landscapes on foot, packraft and skis in Alaska–from the lush canyons of Copper River valley (Ahtna and Eyak lands) to the high arctic desert of the Brooks Range (Gwich’in and Iñupiat lands). Like many outdoor enthusiasts, I evolved from a beginner backpacker into a light-and-fast athlete during this time, eventually favoring hard-won objectives over the simple, low-stakes camping trips that once filled my cup. But in recent years, I’ve chosen to trade mountain running and speedy glacier traverses for slower, intentional time spent on the land, returning to my roots as an artist and my values as an advocate.

The outdoor industry loves to celebrate superlatives–the first, the longest, the fastest and the highest. If we get caught up in this rat race, it can be easy to lose sight of the simple pleasures and small beauties afforded by moving through a landscape slowly and with intention. While not always bad, chasing superlatives can encourage a conqueror’s mindset–the human desire to dominate a landscape to tick off an objective. Such narratives are increasingly common in outdoor media today.

Alaska itself is full of superlatives. We have the tallest mountains, the most landmass, the largest national parks, the most glaciers and the longest shoreline of the 50 U.S. states. As such, our state is seen as a perfect destination for “exploration.” But Alaska is also home to one of the highest populations of Indigenous peoples in the U.S., which explains our large swaths of protected, in-tact ecosystems; 80% of the world’s biodiversity is protected by Indigenous populations, according to the U.N. Plus, the peoples who have protected Alaskan lands since time immemorial have not done so with conquering mindsets, but with reciprocity and care.

In 2021, I camped in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Gwich’in and Iñupiat lands) with The Wilderness Society’s Imago Initiative, an Indigenous-led endeavor that unites Native people and conservation partners in the Arctic with a goal of reimagining the landscape’s future through an Indigenous worldview. On this trip, I learned to ask permission of the land. I learned the Indigenous names for familiar medicinal plants, and I practiced offering gifts before harvesting them. I learned to lie down on the Earth and let go of negative energy and to refill my cup by napping in the tundra as easily as I could have by running up the surrounding peaks.

As an artist, shooting film has always reminded me to slow down, to spend time composing the frame and to make each image with intention; Having only 36 exposures per roll means each shot is precious. Carrying my camera though the mountains is a reminder to enjoy slow sunsets, to appreciate the minutiae of beds of moss and delicate flowers and to ask what the land wants to say to me. Incorporating gratitude and purpose into my outdoor photography practice melds my artistic vision with the act of documentation. It allows me to act in collaboration with my surroundings.

Emily Sullivan holding a camera

Camping and hiking with other artists–especially those with a profound relationship to the land–is a deeply meaningful way to encourage creativity and explore connection to place. All the artists involved in our campaign with Public Lands have worked on climate and land-based advocacy in Alaska, and each of us has a unique vision and voice that we use to communicate what we observe on the landscape. I got to document Danielle, a Dena’ina artist, connecting delicate beads in centripetal patterns to represent the Dena’ina lands we slept on. I got to shoot over Max’s shoulder as he splashed watercolors across a page, painting not only the glacier and the mountains, but our friends as they moved around on the ice.

Seeing these surroundings through my lens, but also through the eyes of the other artists, invited me to appreciate new elements of each view–from the jagged, compressed aqua ice of the glacier’s face at our campsite to the raging gray river below and from the evergreen brush on the neighboring mountains to the new tinges of yellow in the nearby forests. It reminded me that careful observation and creative documentation of our dynamic environment can communicate important messages to the world about the changes we are seeing on the ground.

Alaska faces some of the most drastic impacts of the climate crisis in North America. Its glaciers are among the fastest melting on the planet. Its permafrost is beginning to disappear. Its coastline is eroding and villages are being threatened by the ever-encroaching sea. I hope that the art that we make collectively about the lands we call home can invite us all to view these places with deeper respect. I hope it can remind us that what we do to the Earth we do to ourselves. And I hope it can urge us to slow down when we can, taking time to listen to what the land is telling us.


About the Author: Emily Sullivan (she/they) is a writer and photographer focused on outdoor recreation, community and environmental wellness and the human experience. She is a backcountry ski athlete and a community organizer for climate justice, Arctic sustainability and land issues in Alaska. Emily approaches their work with an intersectional lens on climate, justice and reciprocity.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.