Michael Yamashita

Profile Michael Yamashita

© Michael Yamashita

“Photography must be your passion, your total obsession…”
– Michael Yamashita

─── by Josh Bright, March 22, 2024
  • 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.

    Photography by Michael Yamashita. Spear fisherman in the Philippines
    Spear Fisherman, Palawan, Philippines 1998

    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.

    Photography by Michael Yamashita. Children spinning silk in Xinjiang, China
    In the Hotan region, spinning silk is still performed using large spinning wheels - Xinjiang, China

    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’.

    Photography by Michael Yamashita. Palace in Tibet.
    The Potala Palace, former residence of the Dalai Lama, commanded the view as caravans neared Tibet's capital of Lhasa. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the 13-story structure ranked among the world's tallest buildings.
    Photography by Michael Yamashita.
    Masked woman in Minab, Iran
    Photography by Michael Yamashita. Portrait of a holy man in India.
    Sadhu holy man in Jujarat, India

    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.

    Photography by Michael Yamashita. Monks in a blizzard, Tibet.
    Heedless of a blizzard, monks await the start of morning prayers. Labrang Monastery, Tibet.

    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.

    Photography by Michael Yamashita. Datak Chachar festival, Malaysia
    At the peak of the Datak Chachar festival, the procession of penitents, skin punctured with fishhooks, passes through Malacca, Malaysia.
    Portrait photography by Michael Yamashita. Young muslim woman.
    Young muslim women on Pate are swathed in the traditional buibui that covers everything but their expressive faces.
    Photography by Michael Yamashita. Draft horse racing in Hokkaido, Japan
    Draft horse racing in Hokkaido, Japan

    “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.

    Photography by Michael Yamashita. Fishermen on the beach in India.
    Scales sparkle like jewels, as fishermen clean their nets on Somatheeram Beach, just as when Zheng He sailed along the Malabar Coast, India.

    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.

    Photography by Michael Yamashita. Yi women, China
    Yi women, known for their colorful and distinctive costumes, prepare a meal in their village near Shaxi. They are among the 40 minorities whose cultures were linked by the Tea Horse Road. China
    Photography by Michael Yamashita. Tajik Children of an elementary school in Taxkorgan, Xinjiang, China
    Tajik Children of an elementary school in Taxkorgan, Xinjiang, China
    Photography by Michael Yamashita. Women tend their barley fields by hand. Yunnan region, China
    Old ways prevail in Yunnan mountain where women still tend their barley fields by hand - China

    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.”

    Photography by Michael Yamashita. Women tend their barley fields by hand. Pilgrims, Lhasa
    On their way to Lhasa, pilgrims prostrate themselves every three steps. Having spent weeks on foot, the family still has nearly 300 miles to go on this thousand-year-old road. Tibet.

    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