Iliana Sun ’18 MFA EDA ’20: When We Say Vaquitas What Are We Talking About

Iliana Sun.

When she was a junior at Duke, Iliana Sun heard National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore speak about his Photo Ark project. Satore takes close-up portraits of endangered and vulnerable species—10,000 so far—“to get people to care while there is still time.” His work deeply impacted her.

“It made me realize that popular images or films are, in a sense, more powerful than science papers,” explained Sun. She was majoring in biology and emphasizing conservation in her coursework, while also earning a Certificate in Documentary Studies and a minor in musical theater. Sun saw that by leaning further into her artistic expression, she could use visual stories to communicate issues in conservation biology and give the general public better access to scientific research. After finishing her undergraduate degree, she went straight into Duke’s MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts program.

Entering a MFA program as a science major was not easy—Sun had the technical skills, but she had to catch up on the history and ethics of the documentary field. She found the program “very surprising and challenging,” but her propensity for logic and scientific reasoning gave her a unique perspective within it. As she says, “I am a biologist artist telling stories using the camera.”

A photo by Sun for Jeremy M. Lange’s “Photographic Portfolio” Fall 2018 course, part of her project “Hear the Wild Call,” which documents the behaviors and status of animals in captivity.
An illustration by Sun in the book she produced for her thesis project.

“My work focuses on advocating a scientific, objective, and behavioral understanding of animals without romanticism.”

Her thesis project, When We Say Vaquitas What Are We Talking About, is an agile blend of conservation concerns and empathetic storytelling. As an undergraduate, Sun studied vaquita conservation with Duke University Marine Lab director Andy Read. Vaquitas are the world’s most endangered marine mammal—and also the smallest. Native only to the northern Gulf of California, these porpoises are most often unintentionally killed by fishermen in pursuit of totoaba fish. (Totoaba bladders are illegally exported to Asia for their supposed medicinal value.)

When Sun was an undergraduate, there were thirty vaquitas left in the wild. Today there are twenty, or less.

San Felipe, Mexico, where Sea Shepherd’s vaquita conservation efforts are based.

“For the first two years of this project, I approached it from a scientific perspective,” said Sun. “For the second two years, I approached it with an artist’s, or documentarian’s, perspective.” Her initial idea was to document a week aboard a Sea Shepherd Conservation Society ship, a non-profit on the frontlines of marine wildlife conservation. (Sun calls Sea Shepherd volunteers “righteous pirates.”)

But in March 2019, when Sun arrived in San Felipe, Mexico, where the Sea Shepherd vaquita mission ship docked, she learned she couldn’t join the crew. Ongoing confrontations with local totoaba fishermen were growing more serious.

“My plan of making a film basically fell apart,” she shared. “But I started to talk to people in town. I realized that when we talk about conservation, or saving vaquitas, it’s not just the animal we are talking about. There is a whole ecosystem of community. I decided to not only show the work of Sea Shepherd, but to show how a big circle of people are changing just because of one small animal.”

“A small animal can have great impact on a large circle of people. The battle around Vaquitas has been going on for decades and it is coming to an end. Witness this battle through the eyes of people that have different values and goals.”—excerpt from Artist’s Statement

Sun brings the human characters in the vaquita’s story to life in an illustrated book that examines four individual’s varying relationships to the animal: a conservation biologist, a local fisherman, a Sea Shepherd crew member, and a student in a marine lab. An exhibition Sun installed in the Frederic Jameson gallery traces these experiences.

The entry wall of When We Say Vaquitas What Are We Talking About introduces these four characters, and visitors can trace their journeys following colored tape pathways. “It mirrors a very simplified concept of the theory of relativity,” she explained. “The tape is the world-line of the people, influenced by time and location.” It starts in 1958, when the vaquita was first scientifically described.

In Sun’s thesis installation all the story lines run through the centerpiece, a sculpture of the endangered vaquita.

The characters’ experiences merge in 2020, with the vaquita at the center. Sun gives the endangered porpoise a physical presence and grandeur by representing it as a sculpture, positioned at eye-level.

Her hope is that her work, based in science and expressed as story, will generate new thinking by its viewers. “I can only control how faithfully I tell a story,” said Sun. “But I hope to give people a broader understanding, and help them feel the closeness of what is going on in their hearts.”

If there is a takeaway from When We Say Vaquitas What Are We Talking About, it’s the precarious interconnectedness between our lives and every living thing. As Sun writes at the end of her book, “We are fighting to live just like the vaquitas are fighting to survive.”

Together with the rest of the MFA EDA Class of 2020 exhibitions, When We Say Vaquitas What Are We Talking About is postponed until Fall 2020.

Iliana Sun’s Website

This spring, the Student Engagement team for Duke Student Affairs hosted an online art talk with Iliana Sun.