S'pore was my career turning point

SNOWY START: Mr Yamashita shot this scene of monks in Gansu, China, braving a blizzard for morning prayers.


    Aug 21, 2013

    S'pore was my career turning point

    National Geographic photographer Michael Yamashita, a Japanese-American based in New York, says that there's one thing he'll never forget: That his career began in Singapore, where he worked on projects for Singapore Airlines from 1976 to 1977 and, later, with the Singapore Tourism Board.

    The 64-year-old award-winning travel photographer - who was in town to speak at a CapitaLand and National Geographic Channel photography seminar, and to judge a photography contest - sat down with My Paper to speak on his experiences.

    As a National Geographic photographer, you have seen many places and experienced many cultures. Which place has been especially memorable?

    Probably Tibet. It is still one of the wildest places on earth, it's hard to get to and a not-so-easy place to travel in because of the high altitude.

    It's populated by very genuine, spiritual people.

    Tibetans live a vanishing way of life, which makes me interested in documenting that.

    The people there are very connected to their religion. They have a lifestyle unlike anything that you would experience here in Singapore. They live amid harsh weather conditions, for one thing.

    Which place do you keep going back to?

    I've focused on many Chinese landmarks, from the Great Wall to the Sea Silk Road, the Tea Horse Road and the Grand Canal.

    (But) China has so many fascinating things to shoot, I keep going back and finding more.

    What is interesting about the country is that there is so much that hasn't changed - its traditions, for instance.

    It is one of the last places where you can see cultures and history that don't exist in other parts of the world, because everything else has become too modern.

    How have things in Asia changed since you started exploring the region?

    When I first started, Singapore was not well-known. People did not know much about Malaysia and Thailand, either.

    But, of course, it is very different now. In those days, Singapore was considered to be exotic (by most people).

    What were some of the turning points in your career?

    Coming to Singapore was the biggest turning point because my career really started here, 30 years ago. I lived on a schooner and, every day, I would row into Clifford Pier looking for work.

    I went to Batey Advertising, which did the advertising for Singapore Airlines, and it hired me to shoot Asian destinations for about a year. The photographs were used to publicise Singapore and Singapore Airlines.

    Several years later, I shot for the Singapore Tourism Board. So, I feel very proud of that.

    What is your perspective on Singapore now?

    As far as it is a place to live, I would not call it exotic or cutting-edge, in terms of history and culture, any longer. But it is one of the greatest cities in the world for food, architecture and a lot of other good things.

    There are many nice buildings here that are certainly design statements in themselves.

    Name one untouched place with a rich culture that people can visit.

    Most of South-east Asia is pretty picked-over now, in that it is frequented so much by tourists that it is hard to - unless you are living there - have a real experience.

    You could try Myanmar because it just opened up fairly recently and its tourism is in its infancy. What you'd be seeing there would be pretty realistic.

    What are some of the most pertinent lessons you have learnt as a world-travelling photographer?

    That people are very different, yet similar. Because every human may look different on the outside, but there are human traits that everyone has and that's what unites us all.

    What is lined up for you next?

    I've been shooting some buildings here and I'm here to judge a photo contest mostly on the architecture and people in Singapore.

    I will probably be shooting in Xinjiang in Western China next. I'm working on a story on Tianshan, a new Unesco area. It is very wild and remote, like most of the places I like going to, and it is in the western-most part of China, on the border with Tajikistan.