Students of Storytelling

Fujifilm Students of Storytelling: Kai Lepley’s Monsoon Photos Offer a Conservation Message

August 26, 2020

By Rangefinder

Kai Lepley

The setting sun on an isolated storm shadowing distance lands. Photographed with a Fujifilm X-T4 with and XF100-400mm f4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR lens.

Kai Lepley is interested in using photography and video to help people understand why conservation is critical to all life on Earth. Lepley won the Fujifilm Students of Storytelling competition for his project chasing and photographing the summer monsoons in the Sonoran Desert. The monsoon photos show “the ways that water, lightning, fire, earth and life itself are intertwined in a timeless dance,” Lepley says.

Fujifilm created the contest to identify the next generation of U.S. storytellers, and to provide them with Fujifilm X Series or GFX System gear to bring their vision to life.

A photo by Kai Lepley of a fallen saguaro decomposing back into the earth.
Only ribs are left after the flesh of a fallen saguaro decomposes back into the earth. A sunset reminder of the harsh reality of the desert environment. 
Photographed with a Fujifilm X-T4 with and XF100-400mm f4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR lens.

Rangefinder: What interests you as a storyteller? Which stories are you drawn to? 

Kai Lepley: I’m attracted to stories that draw connections through space and time, and especially those of the voiceless, the quiet and the lost. I once took a sample of the oldest-known Sequoia tree in the world. It lived well over 3,000 years before loggers uselessly cut it down in the late 1800s. I counted every ring in its wood, assigning an exact calendar year to each. It lived through hundreds of droughts across the millennia while civilizations rose and fell, through the births and deaths of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Every tree is a library of knowledge, and nature is full of these surprises. I find it beautiful to pause and consider ourselves from the perspective of Earth’s other living beings. And then, to look back at the world with refreshed eyes. 

Rf: What stories do you want to share through your work? 

KL: Humans are destroying the planet that I am absolutely in love with, and I want to tell stories that inspire us to strive for positive impacts with every action. I want to show you nature in ways you’ve never considered, to untwist the insights of traditional society and knowledge, and to bridge the gaps between these seemingly disconnected worlds (nature and humanity). I’m especially interested in using photography and video to help people understand why the conservation of nature is critical to life on Earth, including human life.

A Kai Lepley photo of a saguaro and monsoon clouds gathering.
Monsoon storm clouds build up in the distance with a young family of birds living in this south-facing saguaro hotel. 
Photographed with a Fujifilm X-T4 with and XF100-400mm f4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR lens.

Rf: How has your work evolved and why? What has influenced your work, and how?

KL: I entered the world of photography with a passion for street photography, shooting on film. The power of raw moments and the simple beauty of life filled my curiosity. Over time, a passion for the natural world changed the content and purpose of my photography. I saw a threatened world, and I thought if I could share the beauty that inspired my love for it, other people would feel the need to protect it too. As my education in the sciences continued, ideas for specific stories evolved within my head, but the logistics of carrying out these stories always seemed out of reach. I’ve now reached a point where I will not allow logistics or my own [negative] thoughts to prevent me from pursuing the stories I want to tell. And, to be honest, in the short time I’ve spent with the Students of Storytelling project with Fujifilm, I’ve grown more as a photographer then in all my years prior. The boost in confidence, the training and critique, and the support of and immersion in a community of talented peers and mentors has helped expand my boundaries as a photographer, and refine my vision as a storyteller. 

Rf: What is the most helpful piece of advice you’ve received and followed? Who gave it to you? 

KL: I was recently told by my fiancée to focus on the details, and this simple piece of advice has played out successfully in recent shoots of mine. Framing a subject without fear of necessarily including the entire subject has been key to capturing moments. If I could offer a piece of advice, I would simply tell new photographers to not be afraid. Fear will be your greatest hurdle, and moving forward is as simple as letting go of that fear. 

A Kai Lepley image of a prickly pear plant shows the Fujifilm Students of Storytelling winner's photographs.
In the dry heat preceding the monsoon rain, someone took advantage of a juicy prickly pear fruit. 
Photographed with a Fujifilm X-T4 with and XF100-400mm f4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR lens.

Rf: Does your relationship to the environment affect how you photograph?  

KL: I primarily work in natural spaces, and I give the environment my utmost respect both for my own safety (and those with me) and because I believe the nature that supports our existence deserves this respect. When you understand the massive impact of humans trampling the world, it makes you pause, tread lightly and consider each footfall. I commonly shoot deep in the wilderness where the weight of each piece of gear taken is a concern, and due to this, I’ve only ever shot using natural light. All this said, I shoot in a wide variety of environments, and I think that my own style of shooting is carried through despite the environment I’m shooting in. 

Rf: Where has been your favorite place to photograph? Where will you travel to next?  

KL: The subtle beauty of the Mediterranean makes it my favorite place to sling my camera. Specifically, the mixture of rich culture and the diverse natural environment makes this region endlessly intriguing. I cannot wait to return to North Africa and pursue some stories I’ve been planning over the past few years. That said, the trip I look forward to most of all will take me across the entirety of the Americas, and nothing is more exciting to me than this project. 

Rf: How have your studies affected your approach to photography and storytelling? 

KL: I’ve been inspired by my studies in the sciences, while recognizing the importance of visual communication. Science is routinely hard to understand for those not versed in a specific area of study. Science communication aims to bridge this gap and make complex subjects easier to understand for the average person. This has helped me understand the importance of having a target audience and communicating stories in an understandable and relatable way. I look forward to many more opportunities in refining my approach as I begin my doctoral studies.  

A photo of an Ocotillo by Kai Lepley demonstrates the Fujifilm Students of Storytelling winner's photographic work.
Ocotillo – commonly resembling nothing more than a spiny stick – bursts with leaves after the first rain soaks the baked desert ground. 
Photographed with a Fujifilm X-T4 with and XF100-400mm f4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR lens.

Rf: Tell us about your submission to Fujifilm’s Students of Storytelling program? How did you come up with the monsoon photography project? 

KL: I’ve grown up in the Sonoran Desert, and the summer monsoon storms in every aspect have been the delight of my life. They are not only a source of supreme joy and wonder, but they are critical to the existence of this unique environment. The motivation for my Fujifilm Students of Storytelling project stemmed from the passion and obsession with this one-of-a-kind event. I want others to see and experience what I do during this season and help them understand why regions like this are crucial to protect. If the people who see my work are left with a sense of wonderment and desire to learn more, then my mission will be complete. 

Rf: What works have you produced with your new Fujifilm systems?  

KL: Since receiving my Fujifilm system, I’ve taken as many opportunities to take it out shooting as possible. The layout of the Fujifilm X-T4 camera has encouraged me to dig deeper into my photographer skills and get to know the camera in a way that I haven’t with previous systems. As I write this, I’m making final preparations for a 16-day solo trip around the state of Arizona and nearby states in pursuit of my Chasing Monsoon project. The majority of the work for my project will be shot during this trip. So far, I had a great opportunity last weekend to spend a few hours in Saguaro National Park West and capture some relevant shots for the project. These photos begin to show the story of the transition into the monsoon season. 

Bite marks from a javelina on a cactus, photographed by Kai Lepley.
The unmistakable bite marks of the javelina – known to eat almost anything. 
Photographed with a Fujifilm X-T4 with and XF100-400mm f4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR lens.

Rf: Where do you see your work going from here?  

KL: The Chasing Monsoon documentary is going to be at least a two-year project, and next summer I’ll have the opportunity to properly invest time in the project. I plan to make prints of the photo series I’ll be producing during the remainder of this summer for the project, and I hope to exhibit them at a gallery and solicit feedback from the broader photography community and public. I have a mix of work planned for the coming years focusing on the wilderness of the Americas, sustainable agriculture, human land-use change, and the interconnectedness of traditional societies around the world. 

Rf: Which brand, media outlet or agency is your ideal client? And why?

KL:  I’ve aspired to be a photojournalist for National Geographic since I first began shooting with a camera. National Geographic produces the types of stories and content that fascinate me, connecting science, nature and traditional societies. As a scientist, photographer and videographer with a primary goal of helping humanity live positively with nature, I believe my stories fit with National Geographic’s mission. 

Visit the official Fujifilm Students of Storytelling site for more information about the complete program. Follow @saltysaguaro to stay up to date with Kai Lepley.