“I don’t take selfies,” says Michael Yamashita of the recent global phenomenon. But that isn’t to say they haven’t infiltrated the acclaimed photojournalist’s work. “I just came back from Sri Lanka, where my friend Steve McCurry took a famous picture of stilt fishermen in Galle,” says Yamashita. “So I took a shot of all these people taking selfies next to the location he photographed years ago!”
While Yamashita has seen plenty of photographic trends and technological changes come and go in 40 years, he admits, “I do shoot with an iPhone, it is a great tool.”
The American lensman picked up what was perhaps his most important device in Japan, during a “roots trip” to learn about his heritage. “I was born in America, but had never been to Japan, so I spent four years there. I learnt to speak the language and bought my first camera… committing to work mostly in Asia.”
Yamashita’s first gig was shooting destinations for Singapore Airlines, before he joined National Geographic 35 years ago. He has since released coffee-table books and documentaries, and now runs workshops for amateur photographers all over the world.
In the course of his work, there are few, if any, countries Yamashita hasn’t visited. Some are more dangerous than others. He trod carefully through landmine-filled territory in Cambodia. And, in 2000, while following the route of explorer Marco Polo on the Silk Road – “I went to get the keys to Afghanistan” – the helicopter Yamashita was flying in had to skim the treeline to avoid enemy fire. But the lensman is philosophical about such perils.
“These are calculated risks every photographer takes because the interest is in getting the picture,” he says. “You have to trust your fixers and interpreters.”
Some places, such as Myanmar, are “incredibly photogenic”, while others have an emotional pull. Yamashita’s passion for Vietnam began after the war, in the Mekong Delta. He returned to the country to adopt his daughter Maggie, now 20. “I’ll take her back, not just to Vietnam but also to her village,” he says. “Wanting to go back to your native country is a big decision, so I’ll wait until she’s ready.”
Of all the photos he’s shot, one of his favourite images, Sea of Monks, was taken at Labrang Monastery in Gansu, China. “It’s a picture of 100 monks hunkering down in the snow – the bouncing light reflecting onto their faces, each with a different expression. You can spend a lot of time looking at it.”
Four Final Questions…
Is photography a tough job, physically?
“It can be glamorous but when you’re out in the field, it can be physically tough – high altitude and things like that. I keep in shape. I work out when I’m at home: stair-climbs, running, lifting weights. I go to the gym regularly.”
What advice do you give students at your photography workshops?
“I tell my students, ‘I’m your best dream’ because I never had any professional training. My photography just keeps taking me to the next level.”
You’re also a foodie. Where is the best place to eat?
“My favourite cuisine is in China’s Sichuan Province – cooked in ma la sauce with chillies and peppercorns that are hot and spicy. And Italy.”
You’re a volunteer firefighter in your town New Jersey, and ride a motorbike. Is there anything you’re scared of?
“For all the time I’ve spent at high altitudes, I still have a healthy fear of heights.”
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.