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National Geographic’s Michael Yamashita on the search for serendipitous moments

SINGAPORE — Renowned National Geographic photographer Michael Yamashita was in Singapore over the weekend for the CapitaLand- National Geographic Channel ‘Building People’ Photography Exhibition, for which he was one of the judges. He presented a photography seminar on Friday (Aug 16) to a full-house at the Capital Tower auditorium, followed by a workshop with the winners of the competition.

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SINGAPORE — Renowned National Geographic photographer Michael Yamashita was in Singapore over the weekend for the CapitaLand- National Geographic Channel ‘Building People’ Photography Exhibition, for which he was one of the judges. He presented a photography seminar on Friday (Aug 16) to a full-house at the Capital Tower auditorium, followed by a workshop with the winners of the competition.

In an interview with TODAY, he shares about his career, his visual philosophy and his impressions of Singapore.

How have you enjoyed your time in Singapore and what are your impressions of the country?

My whole career started here. Coming back to Singapore is like returning to any familiar place — it’s strange and yet familiar at the same time. Singapore changes very rapidly and constantly. Every time I come to Singapore there’s something different to look at. I am a real foodie too, so while I’m here I love to indulge in the array of fine food here. In the 1980s I shot for the Singapore Tourism Board (STB). What the STB was selling at that time was Singapore as a cultural crossroads. I was here for about six weeks documenting the Indian, Malay and Singapore-Chinese communities. I spent a lot of time in Little India, Chinatown, Arab Street, and so on. Over the years of course, a lot has changed — many buildings have been torn down, rebuilt, renovated. I think at one point there was the general feeling that that had been a mistake. But in place of that has emerged a world-class city with astounding architecture. That’s certainly a focal point for me.

Do you still photograph for your own enjoyment — or is it primarily a day job after 30 years in the field?

Even though I rarely photograph outside of an assignment, when I saw the Gardens by the Bay I was blown away. I took it upon myself to go and shoot a couple of pictures in the early mornings and late afternoons — just for myself. Normally I don’t move without an assignment. It’s fortunate that what I like to shoot is what people hire me for. I have been very fortunate to do the stories I want to do. Many have been developed beyond the magazine story. I have published 13 books and most of them stem from National Geographic assignments.

Which would you say has been your most iconic and personally impactful assignment to date?

It’s always the latest to be honest! I have a new book coming out called Shangri-la focusing on the Tibetan way of life. Tibet has been a passion of mine for about 15 years. It started out when I did a story on Joseph Rock, who was a well-known explorer in residence in China. I kept proposing stories that would take me back to Tibet. In the last five years I have had three stories that have taken me there. Over the course of time, I had enough to create a solid body of work to be turned into a book. That’s the hot one for me now. However in terms of impact I think that my work on Marco Polo was a massive achievement; I had a documentary connected to it, and the book sold well too.

What were the greatest challenges involved in pursuing a career in photography?

Everyone was quite discouraging at the time. I decided to pursue photography as a career in the late 1970s and there was no more Life magazine; all the big weekly picture magazines had closed. Only the National Geographic remained. I remember thinking, ‘What are the chances of that happening?’ But somehow, beyond my wildest expectations, I started working for what was the magazine then, and I think I can confidently say, is still the magazine now. I don’t discourage would-be amateur photographers, which is why I enjoy doing workshops. It’s always been a miniscule percentage that’s going to make it, firstly as a professional and then as a successful professional. There are a quite few young photographers out there making it — they have different looks, different approaches (some now employing video too in multimedia, which is a better story-telling medium for the internet); many of them get to be where they are now through their followings on social media. The tough part is that everyone needs to make money; most of the photo agencies have closed or are closing (or are owned by Getty), but you can’t sell images at US$1 (S$1.30) apiece and expect to continue. To give you an idea of how it’s changed: I used to deal with seven different agencies spread around the world. Of those agencies, two have survived, so the whole game has changed.

Do you ever feel a sense of nostalgia about the loss of film?

No, I don’t at all. In fact I wish I’d switched from film to digital earlier! At the time of the switch I dug my heels in; I wanted to be the last person to ‘cross over’. I wanted to be that guy that would be hired because he was shooting film. But about six years ago I got an assignment to do an aerial shoot of Manhattan. We had a budget of about US$15,000 for film ... and the cost of the helicopter hire cost about the same. So I thought: Why don’t I just use the film budget and buy a digital camera and use the rest of the allowance for the helicopter hire? So I did, and it turned out to be an even better book as a result. I needed the pressure of an assignment to prompt me to make that transition ... and it’s never been easier! This Tibet book is a good example. My predecessors who shot assignments in Tibet on film could not get the shots I got as a result of using digital. I have a lot of intimate pictures inside monasteries that were impossible to get on film.

Who have been your greatest sources of inspiration over the course of your career?

Certainly the National Geographic photographers — Steve McCurry is one, and he is a good friend of mine. I have always had tremendous respect for underwater photographers, who are doing cutting edge work in extreme environments. I used to shoot underwater so I have an idea of how demanding that is. Tim Layman is an incredible animal shooter, bringing a lot of new technology to the field. Frans Lanting is doing extraordinary work, too.

What do you make of new technologies employed in photography — such as the use of camera traps?

Most of the wildlife guys are shooting camera traps now; they set it up and, in principle, let the animal take its own picture. I know many wildlife photographers who use this method feel somewhat discouraged by the fact that they don’t press the shutter. It is still your picture in this instance — you set up the camera, employ a skill to manipulate the technology, but because of its remote nature, something’s lost. There are many photographers who reflect on that fact. Have they merely become technicians? I feel that way about video, to be honest. I don’t see the art in it. Having done documentaries I have friends who are the best at what they do shooting video, and I don’t see how I can compete with them. But often as not the director is telling the videographer where to point the camera. I will always be a stills shooter. For me, that’s the art.

What has your experience of the CapitaLand- National Geographic Channel ‘Building People’ photography competition and workshop been?

This is advanced amateur territory. The interest in photography has never been higher because of the digitisation of cameras. I saw a lot of good photography as a judge in the competition, although I will say, I got a bit tired of seeing the 16mm wide angle look! In the workshop I tried to convey where that would work and where it wouldn’t. I’m a traditionalist in the sense that I don’t like curved lines and distortions; I’m a linear-, clean graphic-kind of guy.

Do you have advice for amateur photographers and next year’s competition hopefuls?

It’s all about the light, the colour, the composition — it always has been that way and always will. I want to encourage amateur photographers to focus on the moment; to aim for pictures that capture that split-second unique point in time. Turn off your preview button — it’s not about what’s already in your camera, it’s about what’s coming next! Never miss the moment. Aim for that epic image that jumps off the page. It should compel a person to stop flipping to look and engage. It should tell a story. It should leave an impact.

Mr Ray Ang — an auditor turned wedding videographer — placed first in the Capitaland- National Geographic Channel ‘Building People’ competition and won himself a three day trip to China under the mentorship of Michael Yamashita. The exhibition from the competition is on display at B4, ION Orchard, until tomorrow (Aug 20). For more information visit

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