“Photography must be your passion, your total obsession…”
– Michael Yamashita
One of the most influential photographers of our time, Michael Yamashita has spent much of his near-five-decade-long career traveling Asia, capturing truly extraordinary images that distill the essence of this vast, diverse continent.
Born in San Francisco in 1949 and raised in Montclair, New Jersey, Yamashita, a third-generation Japanese American, harboured a deep interest in his heritage from an early age, which led him to pursue an Asian Studies degree at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
His journey into photography was serendipitous; after graduating he embarked on a trip to Japan in search of his roots and acquired a camera to document his experiences, a decision that would alter the course of his life. Despite, at the time harbouring no particular passion for photography, Yamashita found himself immediately enamored with the process. He joined a camera club, wanting to meet as many photographers as possible in order to develop his skills and explore his passion, and, as he improved and further explored Japan, began dreaming about what it would be like to shoot professionally for National Geographic.
Undeterred by sceptics who labelled his aspirations an ‘impossible dream,’ Yamashita remained unwavering. Four years after his pivotal trip to Japan, his dream became a reality after he approached the Director of Photography at National Geographic Magazine, Bob Gilka, with his portfolio. After reviewing his work, Gilka handed him a few rolls of Kodachrome and tasked him with shooting for National Geographic Kids, Yamashita accepted, and produced a compelling story on a mountaineering and ski school in the French Alps, which as he puts it ‘passed the test’.
His subsequent proposal for a story on Japan initially faced rejection due to another photographer already working on the subject. However, fate intervened when the photographer in question fell ill, leading Gilka to invite Yamashita to take on the assignment. The resulting 32-page feature on Japan’s last frontier, the Island of Hokkaido, marked a turning point in his career, leading to a long-time association with the magazine, one that has engendered some truly extraordinary work.
While throughout his career, Yamashita has photographed on six different continents, it is his work in Asia for which he is best known. Yamashita says he owes ‘everything to his Japanese heritage’, and feels most comfortable working in Asia, joking that he ‘only shoots in countries where rice is the main dish’.
He has consistently proposed stories that hold personal significance, covering a broad spectrum, from well-known subjects to the somewhat obscure. In addition to extensive travels across his homeland, he has traced the paths of historical figures Marco Polo and the Chinese explorer Zheng He, exploring almost the entirety of the Asian continent, whilst, in the last two decades, his focus has predominantly been on China and Tibet, amassing arguably the world’s most extensive photo archives on the regions.
“Tibet continues to be my passion as I’m working against time, documenting a culture fast disappearing due to modernization and Chinafication. After being shut out of China for the past three years, I just spent three weeks witnessing the growth of cities with blocks of multi-story buildings where once two-story Tibetan houses stood. Another book is in the offing.”
Whether breathtaking landscapes, intimate depictions of daily life, religious and cultural ceremonies, or portraits captured in quotidian settings, Yamashita’s stunning images are invariably characterized by sensitivity, respect, and a deep passion for his subjects. Coupled with his technical prowess, eye for composition and color, and creative ingenuity, his photographs create a compelling narrative that draws viewers into the depicted scenes, evoking b0th a sense of wanderlust and fascination.
From that seminal trip to Japan decades ago, camera in hand, Yamashita’s journey has been nothing short of extraordinary. Since that initial assignment for National Geographic Magazine in Hokkaido in 1980, he has contributed nearly forty stories to the publication and produced two documentary feature films inspired by his extensive coverage of Marco Polo and Zheng He.
He has published sixteen books, exhibited extensively across the globe, and received a myriad of prestigious industry awards and accolades. Beyond his accomplishments, Yamashita has become a sought-after teacher and lecturer, conducting workshops and lectures at universities and appearing as a TEDx Speaker. Ever generous with guidance and advice, he is eager to assist emerging practitioners:
“Photography must be your passion, your total obsession to make it in today’s world. Study the masters and hone your skills. Take workshops with photographers whose photos you love. Enter contests and post on social media to see how your work is perceived by the public. The best training ground is working for a newspaper where you are required to make pictures out of any and every situation on demand and where you will learn the art of visual storytelling.”
Yamashita is a truly unique photographer. One of the medium’s most influential figures, and a modern-day master, whose passion, perceptivity, and unwavering dedication to his craft can serve as an inspiration to us all.
All images © Michael Yamashita