Photographing Asia: A Talk With Michael Yamashita ’71
by Faraneh Carnegie ’05
Michael Yamashita is passionate about sharing important stories from Asia with his camera. Without any formal training, he has forged a successful career in photography and photojournalism. He has created an extensive body of work on Asia, and most recently, he had a photography essay on 15th-century explorer Zheng He, in the July 2005 issue of National Geographic, where he has been a contributor for more than two decades. Since that article, Yamashita has produced Treasure Fleet: The Adventures of Zheng He, a two-hour documentary about Zheng He’s many voyages that has aired on the National Geographic channel in Asia and Europe. He will be a presenter at the WESeminar "Before Christopher Columbus, There was Zheng He" during Reunion & Commencement Weekend, May 25–28, 2006.
Zheng He was a formidable figure, imposing in stature—he is said to have been seven feet tall and almost five feet around—but more importantly, he was a man of remarkable vision and unfailing faith in humanity. From his maiden voyage in 1405 to his final expedition in 1433, he sailed almost a century before Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama.
Last fall, I had a conversation with Michael about his time at Wesleyan, his career as a photojournalist, and his most recent project.
Whose artistic work or photography has inspired you?
Michael Yamashita: Growing up, I was mainly involved in sports. Even though my father was an avid amateur photographer, I didn’t even own a camera when I came to Wesleyan. I had no interest in photography. In fact, I majored in Asian history because I wanted to figure out my roots. I grew up in a town in New Jersey where we were the only Asian family, and I had always been curious about my history as a third-generation Japanese American.
When did your interest in photography develop?
MY: While at Wesleyan, I sustained many injuries that forced me to stop playing sports. That created a void in my life and left me without an outlet for my energy. While in London, England during my junior year, I purchased a camera to record my experiences as a tourist. Instead of studying, I spent most of my time traveling around the city. I fell in love with travel. My love of photography grew out of those experiences. When I graduated from Wesleyan, I went straight to Japan to teach English.
I lived in Japan for four years trying to eke out a living teaching English, but I continued to travel around the country a lot during that time and finally saved up enough to buy a good camera. It was in Japan that I got my start as a photographer.
Do you feel that your Wesleyan education has had any influence on your career?
MY: It got me over to Asia, and I think that it prepared me better than any other school would have. Wesleyan gave me many alternatives.
Some say that the life of a photographer is one of unlimited freedom. how would you describe the profession?
MY: People imagine the lifestyle is one of freedom, wandering outdoors, doing the kind of things that they like to do on their holidays; they think that we are just cowboys with a camera instead of a gun. That’s certainly not all there is to it. It is also very difficult. There is a lot of competition and lots of wannabe photographers. People think that you can just pick up a camera and make a living as a photographer. Because there are so few outlets, it’s hard to make a living unless you work for a magazine like National Geographic or unless you are a contract photographer for a news magazine. General interest magazines are dying and the ease of making pictures available digitally has cheapened the overall value of photography.
Are you conscious of the effect that your photographs will have on viewers?
MY: Yes. Photographers divide pictures into two categories. One is the point pic, the picture you take to convey a certain point. The other is the page stopper, that’s the one I am looking for. I like to take a picture that is so visually arresting that the reader must stop and stare at the photograph.
Do you think that your approach to photography distinguishes you from other photographers?
MY: I am a storyteller. My subject is Asia because that is where I feel most comfortable. I am familiar with the cultures and the people there.
Is that that why you decided to tell the story of Zheng He?
MY: In 2003, my brother-in-law sent me a book. 1421–The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies, who postulates that Zheng He discovered the Americas 70 years before Columbus did. When I read the book I thought, "How could this be?" I had never heard of him. I spent years developing a body of work on Asia yet, I had never heard his name.
In many ways, this story was ideal. It focused on this incredible character, a non-Chinese Muslim and a eunuch, who became Asia’s greatest explorer, and no one had ever heard of him. Unfortunately, in the magazine world, little known stories rarely get the coverage they deserve. Because Zheng He was not well-known, National Geographic only ran a respectable 26-page story on his voyages (unlike Yamashita’s expansive Marco Polo story, which National Geographic ran in 2001 as an 80-page story in three parts).
What intrigues you about rediscovering these early explorers' pasts?
MY: You are living with these men every day. Trying to figure out who they were and where they had been. In the case of Marco Polo, I was proving a point: did he actually go to China? And each time I found evidence and got a great picture of it, I cheered him on.
Zheng He was a visionary. It was unusual for an explorer in the 15th century to be thinking in terms of religious and racial tolerance. He wrote on a stele in Sri Lanka, words praising three religions, Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism, and expressing the belief that all religions should be treated equally. On all his travels, Zheng He went not to colonize or conquer, but rather to promote peaceful trade.
However, my stories are not just about explorers. I am building a body of work on Asia. I could probably say that I have one of the largest photo collections on Asia, and I am constructing a history of what Asia has looked like for the past 20 years. I am always interested in doing projects that add to this collection and preserve the aspects of Asian history that are rapidly being replaced by modern development. A lot of the scenes that I shot for the Marco Polo article are already gone.
What is your next project?
MY: I am hoping to do something on Mao and the Long March, which was the birth of modern-day China and the Communist Party. During the March, Mao visited the absolute hinterlands of China while avoiding the troops of the Chiang Kai-shek. He went to the poorest and most far out reaches of China, creating his peasant base for the Communist Party and eventually taking over China in 1949. The survivors of this time period are few and far between; I would like to work on the story before these survivors are deceased.
Is there anything else that you wish to share?
MY: There aren’t many minority photographers. There is a great need to have more minority journalists. I think that minority journalists can provide better coverage in their own communities. I cover Asia and bring these stories and pictures back from there. I care about these subjects and I am interested in pleasing my toughest audience, which is the local audience. I don’t shoot clichés and I try to shoot the stories that are meaningful for Asia. I would encourage young people to get into journalism.