Photography touched by devotion

Updated: 2013-09-05 07:24

By Li Yang in Nanning (China Daily)

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Yang Yankang is a Chinese documentary photographer famous for his work on religion.

He spent nearly 14 years photographing a Catholic community in Northwest China's Shaanxi province, and another decade taking photos of Buddhist Tibetans.

"I think a responsible documentary photographer should set a certain period of time to 'get close' to his or her targets," Yang says.

Born in 1954 in Anshun of Guizhou province, Yang was a mechanist for hosiery knitters in a local footwear factory before he went to Shenzhen in Guangdong province in 1984 in search of a better life. He worked as a steamed-bun cook in a restaurant and met Li Mei, the chief editor of a local photography magazine, who came to eat in the restaurant.

"Li used to give lectures on photography in Anshun and I recognized her as soon as she came in," Yang recalls. "I told her I liked photography very much and asked her if there were any jobs for me."

 Photography touched by devotion

A picture by Yang Yankang features a young Buddhist monk memorizing the scriptures.

Yang was later employed as a distributor of the magazine.

"I learned a lot from appreciating works of many masters," Yang says. "Li Mei loaned me her camera on the weekend and asked me to start from the basics."

Yang went to take photos of people's lives in the Loess Plateau in Shaanxi province, following the documentary photography master Hou Dengke for 40 days during his vacation in 1985.

They came across a Catholic priest just released from 15-year imprisonment during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), who was secretly praying in Fengxiang of Shaanxi province with his followers in the village yard.

"I was shocked by their dedication to their belief in a society that had only just thawed, and decided to make civil religion in China my subject," says Yang.

He quit his job at the magazine and worked as an independent photographer in 1992 in Shenzhen. He stayed in Shaanxi for one-third of a year and worked in Shenzhen for the rest of the time to make money. His photo project on the Catholic community in Shaanxi was completed in 2001.

"I appreciate the priests and the believers for accepting me," says Yang. "I just want the world to know Chinese people have religions too, even without a church."

Yang was baptized in 1997. After baptism, Yang felt closer to the subjects in his photos. "Living in the village for a long time, I was already one of them. My shooting became a natural process involving the most unaffected states of them and me."

Yang started his Tibetan Buddhism project in 2002 and finished it in 2012. He took about 30,000 photos and eventually selected 86 pictures for the collection.

"I was so moved by the Tibetan people's firm belief in Buddhism while living in that forbidding environment. I want to pass my feelings on to other people through my photos," he says. "Taking photos of Tibetan Buddhism for 10 years is also a Buddhist practice for myself. I don't want the superficial visual beauty in my photos. My photos should bear relevance to people's souls."

Yang remains single. He became contracted to an art gallery in Shenzhen in 2008 and feels satisfied with his life. "I have so many friends in arts. They are my family. I enjoy sharing my photos with them."

After digital cameras made photography more "democratic", Yang thinks a photographer's skill is determined in a split second.

"You may have thought for decades before the particular shot. You have to put your eyes, hands and heart at the same axis at that very moment, a time for eternity. Your photo will be irreplaceable."

Yang plans to take photos of Muslims in China, starting in 2015 and dedicating the next decade to the effort. He says it will be his final project.

Lu Pei contributed to the story.

liyang@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily USA 09/05/2013 page10)

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