Photographer Michael Yamashita has spent decades bringing to life stunning and stirring imagery in documentaries, books, and major publications like National Geographic. With a focus on Asia, Yamashita has captured and shared photos that are illuminating, and, as places he’s photographed (like Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iraq) undergo dramatic change, Yamashita’s photographs become even more sacred — proof that things now destroyed once existed.
We spoke to Yamashita to understand more about his work, his journey, and how he uses Instagram to push his work forward and connect with his audience. See our exclusive interview with Yamashita below to learn more about his career, being a photographer on Instagram, and where he’s headed next.
How did you develop an interest in photography, travel, and Asia?
I was an Asian Studies major in college. I went to Wesleyan and I was interested in finding my roots, so that’s why I started to major in that. I did two-years abroad, and with travel you want to show your folks and your friends back home what you’re doing, so I started taking pictures and I got totally hooked on the whole thing. That was late in college, it was my junior year.
So my last year in college I was focusing towards photography, and then I went to Japan. My graduation was a one-way ticket and a visa to Japan so I could live there and that’s when I bought my first camera.
What would you say are the driving motivations behind your photographs and what some of the themes you hope to convey to your audience through them?
Everybody develops a passion for a subject, and my area of interest and expertise has always been Asia. I’m a storyteller and have been the last 35+ years, working for National Geographic. I have more stories on China, Japan, and other parts of Asia and they have more books than anybody in the world. Especially China — I have this huge collection and I’ve had the good fortune to be sent back and forth to China many times before anybody else was even allowed in there.
Knowing that a lot of your photos have an environmental and cultural conscience, how do you think photography plays into that conversation, especially around the issue of conservation?
It’s the best medium. You could be a non-believer in climate change, but how can you deny the photographs that are out there that show very graphically what most of us take as fact?
I still believe in photography as fact. Pictures are real things in real time and I don’t think there’s a better way to focus the environment and all the issues that go with that than through photography.
What’s your go-to camera?
I’m a Sony photographer, and one of the first — if not the first — professional to make that switch way back in 2006 when they came out with their first professional camera body, which was called the A900.
I was asked to do some advertising — I was in a commercial in China and in Japan — and since then I’ve become the face of Sony in Asia and I’ve never looked back. They just keep getting better and better and I certainly made the right choice.
What has the Silk Road project taught you and how have the roads of ancient travelers and traders changed or remained the same? What’s your big takeaway from that project?
I did the land Silk Road in 2001 for National Geographic, it was the story of Marco Polo. And then I did the sea Silk Road in 2005, which is the sea route from China back to the Middle East and Africa as well as all the way back to Europe.
These are huge projects that took years to do when National Geographic could afford to do that kind of assignment. I ended up doing a TV documentary as well and did these stories in these countries that were difficult to access then and impossible to access now. I have the entire Silk Road through places like Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan and nobody else has gotten that.
I’m in high demand for these projects, both land and sea Silk Road because of OBOR — One Belt One Road, “One Belt” meaning the land Silk Road and “One Road” is the sea Silk Road. It’s China’s policy initiative, and there’s not a day that goes by that you don’t read something in news coverage of Asia and China that doesn’t include something about OBOR.
These photographs give the historical background and perspective and this is why I’ve just had this slew of exhibitions opening. I had one in London three weeks ago, and before that, there was another in Atlanta and it’s been traveling all over Asia — Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing.
It’s very gratifying, obviously, to see these photographs being shown everywhere and it’s sort of the gift that keeps on giving. I keep adding to this collection by shooting more in all of these countries. It’s an ongoing thing.
How do you think that photographs that are taken today can tell us stories about history?
One of the reasons that I got very much into China is because it was still possible to find stories that either had not been done or you could find examples of culture that hadn’t changed. Marco Polo was 700 years ago, but I was shooting a lot of stuff that still existed. There are all these subjects doing things in the old way and a lot of the subjects that he talked about, you could still find them and photograph them.
Obviously, that’s changing very fast and so is the Silk Road. For so many places, the photographs that I have are the only ones that exist. That’s certainly the case with Kashgar, which was the world’s biggest market at the time of Marco Polo and still is in Asia.
But so many things have changed. These cities, the old sections are now destroyed. I was in Yemen and it’s so sad that that entire city of Sana’a is totally destroyed now from civil war.
I was in Mosul, Mosul was in the news last week, the Iraqi forces have taken it back from ISIS, and the sad thing is that that old city — which we published as a picture to show what a medieval city in Marco Polo’s time looked like — that doesn’t exist anymore, it’s been totally destroyed. And I can give many examples of that, but that’s the hard part now, and the sad part is that a lot of what was once photographable is either nonexistent or impossible to get to.
Is there one place that you’ve photographed that really stands out as the most breathtaking or impactful?
I can say from a historical point of view that a place like Afghanistan was very fruitful for us when we were shooting the Silk Road because not only had things not changed much there except that the Interim structure was completely destroyed, so there was no electricity, the roads were pretty much unusable, so we were talking about a culture that was very much like being in the 13th century.
At night time, you went to sleep because there was nothing to do or nothing to see because everything’s lit by firelight and no telephones, of course. Horse carts instead of automobiles.
The sad part of that country, of course, is all the suffering that’s going on there, but as far as shooting a story on something that happened seven centuries ago, well that was the place to go. I found the same in Yemen. There were so many subjects that I could shoot that looked like they were right out of Arabian Nights. I’d love to go back now, but of course, both places are nearly impossible to negotiate.
How have Instagram and social media changed photography’s role in art and journalism?
It’s just amazing because it started as an experiment. We — myself and my photographer friends — are really competitive and nobody wants to be left behind, so we all started playing with it. Instagram has just grown and grown and it’s never been easier to reach an audience with your photography if you’re serious and you think your stuff is good and should be seen.
It takes up a lot of our time because we want the picture to not only be stunning, but we want to have a story with it. I spend quite a bit of time on the captions and try to reach an audience. It gets very interesting to get immediate feedback and to know your audience.
In the days of print, you’d do a National Geographic story and then wait a couple of months before you got letters coming in from readers. But now, of course, you post a picture, you’re expecting at least a hundred comments. It’s changed everything, including the way I look at social media and now it’s an important focus of my studio. We spend time on it because you’re feeding this larger group of fans.
Do you think that the incredible number of photographs taken and shared every day on social media makes it more difficult to make an impact with an image, or do you think that it’s easier because it’s more accessible?
I think good photography stands out. There’s an awful lot of junk out there. I just think you have to value your photography and be confident in what you’re doing and what you’re showing and just get it out there.
I think you’re always being judged as a professional photographer, so you better make sure that the pictures you put out there are worth looking at. It’s never been easier to show your pictures and get an audience and I think you just have to have something important or something that you think is valuable to show.
You’ve done books, documentaries on TV, and years’ worth of projects for National Geographic. Is there a medium that you think has had the biggest impact?
I think TV is a big one, but the medium that photographers love is books because of their permanence, the fact that you can open it and touch it and it doesn’t depend on screen size, which, on Instagram, is very small, so you’re sometimes choosing pictures that are less complex for Instagram because most users are seeing it on a small screen.
I love books and also prints. These exhibitions have been great, to see your photographs blown up to big sizes and to see all of this detail. I’m still finding things in photographs that I’ve lived with and known very well over the years.
In your experience with Instagram and social media, have you found that some photos work better on social media than others? Some types of subjects?
As far as subjects, I don’t shy away from controversy, but sometimes I’ve had to take photographs down in the case of religion.
It’s a sad commentary on the world that you see how little understanding and tolerance there is for different religions. I post a picture that’s totally noncontroversial, say a father teaching his son how to pray in a mosque, and I get a lot of hate mail. This is the downside of the internet. It’s anonymous in that anybody can comment.
I had a funny picture of Trump that I found in a London art store and I posted it and there was a huge amount of negative response. That wasn’t a good week for me, I probably lost a lot of followers — Trump supporters who didn’t think it was appropriate.
What’s next for you? Are there new focuses that you’re looking to explore or new projects that your fans can look forward to?
In August, I’m off to China again, back to Yunnan, which is one of my favorite provinces, and I’m going to shoot.
I’m most interested in continuing to shoot and document to see all of these changes that are happening and Hunan is a special place where the biggest number of minorities in China live. A lot of what I’m shooting and documenting are things that will be lost to Disneyfication. Many cultural icons in China have become Disneyfied for tourists, so I’m trying to get there before the masses of tourists get there.
The I’ll go back to Silk Road in September to shoot on the western Silk Road in China.
I’ll be in India later this fall doing the same there, retracing that coastal route that I did years ago. It looks like I did all of these pictures in a linear way, but you’re always going back, you’re always working on these subjects and switching in and out photographs.
The quality of what you shoot is pretty much dependent on how many times you’ve been there. It’s my goal to revisit as much as I can over the next bunch of years on this one subject alone, Silk Road.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.