This October, Michael Yamashita will lead a 9-day photography journey on the Silk Road. We caught up with Michael Yamashita to chat about photography tips, his passion for the Silk Road, and the lessons he hopes to share on the road this fall.
For over 25 years, Michael Yamashita has covered the world, with a concentration on all things Asia, as a photographer for the National Geographic. In his work, he has combined his dual passions for photography and travel, and shot on assignment on six continents. In addition, he has authored seven books, including Marco Polo: A Photographer’s Journey, Zheng He and The Great Wall, and produced two full-length documentary films, featuring Mr. Yamashita as writer and host. Mr. Yamashita has received numerous awards for his work. His photographs have been shown in major exhibitions in Beijing, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Taipei, Rome, Venice, Frankfurt, Perpignan, France and Massachusetts, USA. Mr. Yamashita is a frequent lecturer and instructor for photography workshops around the world.
When not on assignment, Mr. Yamashita lives in rural New Jersey where he is a volunteer firefighter.
WildChina (WC): How did you first become interested in the Silk Road?
Michael Yamashita (MY): I did a three-part story for the National Geographic about Marco Polo in 2001. I retraced his route to China, much of which followed the Silk Road. I used Marco’s book, The Description of the World, written in the 13th century, as a sort of travel guide. Working on that story was an incredible eye-opener, mainly because so much of what Marco Polo wrote about can still be seen and photographed today. It was an amazing experience to still be able to find things today that the world’s greatest traveler described over 700 years ago.
WC: Do you have any favorite stories you like to tell from your trips in Xinjiang?
MY: The exciting thing about Xinjiang is that it is still very much the way it was when Marco Polo made his trip. The beauty of Karakul Lake, the horses grazing in mountain pastures, and the stark high-altitude landscape, unlike anything I’ve seen before – it’s all there just as Marco described. There is a mountain, Muztagh Ata, where you can drive right up and see the glacier glistening in the sun. You have this remote and wild culture there, as far west as you can go in China, all the way to the Afghan border.
One of my favorite places in Xinjiang is Taxkorgan, a high-desert town on the Afghan border. The people who live there are actually descended from the Tajiks, but became Chinese after the border was closed in 1949. Because of this, they’ve developed a kind of hybrid culture, with some unique customs. All the women there, including little girls, wear red, and the men and boys all wear blue, which makes for great pictures.
Also, because the weather in Xinjiang is unpredictable, you can have snowfall one day and blazing heat the next, especially in the fall when we’ll be there. For photography, there’s nothing better than those kinds of extremes.
WC: What do you hope to teach the people who join you on the trip this fall?
MY: Photography is all about vision, not the camera. Of course, the camera is a tool and there are technical things to learn, but aside from the mechanics, the purpose of the workshop is to teach students how to find a way of seeing, rather than just documenting what’s there. It’s about finding an artful, high-impact way to tell a story. I hope that what people will get out of this experience is their own unique vision and style.
WC: What camera and equipment are you currently using?
MY: I’m using a Sony Alpha 900 — it’s the world’s highest resolution camera. But again, it’s not just about the camera. Because we’ll be shooting digitally, the great thing will be seeing instant results. In the evening everyone will download their pictures to share with the group. Looking at what they’ve shot during the day is part of the learning process. The next day they’ll go out and work on improving what they shot the day before. Not only will students have amazing subjects to shoot in Xinjiang, they’ll also get immediate feedback, so that they can gauge their improvement from day to day.
WC: Do you have any advice or tips for amateur photographers shooting the Silk Road? Are there cultural sensitivities they should be aware of, things not to take pictures of?
MY: The people along the Silk Road are generally open and friendly and are usually willing to having their pictures taken. Most are Muslim Uighurs, and along the western border there are Tajiks, who are also Muslim. There are a few restrictions about shooting people worshiping in the mosques, but aside from that, it just takes being sensitive and respectful of your subjects.
WC: What is your favorite Silk Road site to photograph?
MY: There are so many places I love along the Silk Road. Kashgar, with its huge outdoor markets, is terrific. It looks like something out of the 13th century. Kashgar also has a beautiful mosque and amazing arabesque architecture.
Dunhuang, which is out of Xinjiang, in Gansu, is also a huge favorite of mine for its stark desert scenery. Marco Polo called it the Singing Sand Dunes. The Thousand Foot sand dune there is one of the biggest in the world. We’ll definitely be shooting the camels constantly trekking around the dunes. We’ll also visit the Mogao Caves, one of the world’s greatest treasure troves of Buddhist art.
Also, when you do the Hexi Corridor, outside of Dunhuang, all along the way you can see the Great Wall — not the huge Ming Dynasty wall you find in Beijing, but the much more modest pounded-earth section of the wall that dates from the Han dynasty.
These were also some of Marco Polo’s favorite places. In fact, The Description of the World is a good primer for those coming along on this trip. They might take a look at his passages on the Silk Road and make a shoot list of must-see places and subjects, which is what I did for my Geographic story.
WC: What are you looking forward to the most on the October trip?
MY: I’ve done the trip several times, but I haven’t been there since 2003, so for me, it’s like returning to visit an old friend. After having done a magazine story, a book and a film about this area, I’m looking forward to checking out what has changed. I’ll be trying, as always, to do one better, to get even better pictures. Many people approach travel in a kind of been-there, done-that fashion, but photographers are never finished. Every trip is different, and there’s always something new to shoot, even in familiar territory.
WC: Do you have any other stories or advice you’d like to share?
MY: I want everyone who’s coming to make sure they have a good pair of hiking shoes, and plenty of flash cards. They’re going to shoot 10 times more than they’ve ever shot before. I’m going to teach them how to see.
For more information about this 9-day photography tour on the Silk Road, see the full itinerary on our website: http://www.wildchina.com/province_details.php?product_id=52