Some months ago we were asked by Glass Magazine to interview Yang Yankang about his work. A few extracts of the interview were included in Glass Magazine's highly interesting edition on Religion in Photography, to which we refer our readers. However, there were many interesting comments from Yang Yankang that did not make it into print, and there is little information about Yang Yankang in English, so in the interest of contributing to the awareness of his amazing and beautiful series of work "Buddhism in Tibet", we decided to release the full interview here, retaining also the original Chinese responses for those who prefer to read them.
Are you religious? Does your photography also emerge from a spiritual place?
I have tworeligions, both Catholicism and Tibetan Buddhism. The former one began in 1993 when I started the project of Catholicism in China's countryside. “A photographer should have the courage to believe in faith, and to trust them”. If people have the faith from the bottom of their heart, with the standard of faith, and through the eye of religion to see the relation between human being and nature, “to have faith is happiness”. With a heart of thanksgiving, and do not do things that are against morality, and to live within the faith, to record the life of faith, to approach in the most amiable way. To observe the people who have faith, to understand their attitude, their point of view in life. In 2002, I showed the “Catholic in the Countryside” series in France, and other countries in Europe, to tell people around the world about the “freedom of religion” in China, to show the “real face” of China, and that gave me the idea to do another project of “religion”. Before I converted to Catholicism, I had experiences of participating in Buddhism events, and I am a Buddhist as well, but no matter whether it is Buddhism, Catholicism or Tibetan Buddhism, it’s faith from the heart. I become one of them, and work with them to record their life in faith.
In what ways does Buddhism influence your photography?
During the past, in China, I was a bit eager for quick success and instant gain, so my previous works were utilitarian, more or less. As an artist, if we have faith, in the life of faith, spend ten years, live together, and see how people face the challenges in nature, photograph with faith becomes sympathetic and real. You see peoples' minds through their own eyes, you see how they face difficulties in nature through their mind. Of course Buddhism influenced my photography, such as how does Buddhism see things, “follow God’s will”, “calm”, “peaceful mind”. Especially in China nowadays, it’s very free, many things are almost well developed, and people have freedom to choose their religion, for me, as a Tibetan Buddhist (a special religion), through my photograph, I am a photographer, to see “how do people with faith live”, “how they appreciate”.
What differentiates a religious person from a religious artist?
People without faith might be doing something for fame or with purpose in order to aspire to another state of life, for doing a show/exhibition, for publication. With faith, it turns everything into a very easy to access, real state of life.
What inspired your “Buddhism in Tibet” series?
“A continuation from one religion to another religion”. Some people in China do not have faith, so they do things that are against morality. People with faith know that, even if people don’t observe them, still God sees them, so God is watching, which restrains them from doing evil things. Because in Tibet, Sichuan, Qinghai, people follow Nature's way, and live within nature, take whatever God gave them, and appreciate God, they believe that's the challenge given to them by God.
In 1933, I met some photographers in Shanxi and some Catholics, so I decided to start the project, and then I spent ten years. Before I started the Catholic project, I'd been to Tibet, and took some photos of the issue of Tibet, religious activities and so on, touching the "surface" of the region. In 2002, I spent most of the time doing the exhibitions of "Catholic series", in 2003, I decided to spend the next 10 years on " Buddhism in Tibet
In what ways can photography bridge reality and faith?
Art as an expression. First, as a photographer, or as a poet, a musician, a novelist....I saw a phenomenon/moment, something that touched me, through my eyes, heart, hands, through media to spread/to be recorded, because the photograph touched me, and then it's published, in someone's collection, and more people have chances to see the image and be touched by the image. Art, photography is art as well. Through a photograph taken by a photographer, it shows the place that you never have chance to go. In our real life, especially in China, life is changing so quickly, and is so busy, people look for easier access to success....I think our lives should return to spirituality. Through art works, music, poetry, and feel the spirit, touched by the spirit. Do something to help people, and do something good to the whole society, examine our life, to improve, and then the society and the world will become more meaningful, not just full of materialism and money...
Can photography reconcile reason to faith, or perhaps faith to reason?
Yes, they can be reconciled with each other. In some particular environment, for people who have hard lives, how they face difficulties, how they suffered from the pressure? With faith, through my photographs, I showed people what I saw, what touched my heart, and hope to encourage others, to treasure our present life.
Does photography lie in the intersection of technology and spiritualism? Or do you think photography's invention has irrevocably undermined the spiritual?
Photography may have been invented as a technique or device, but it's "human beings" who control the camera. Human beings have emotions, we appreciate what we have, we have a sense of judgment. Along with the invention of the digital camera, it speeds up the use of cameras among the public, and gives freedom for people to record life easily. However, profession photographers are still differently. Artists have rich hearts, and we are sensitive, we select what we think is "good work", based on our professional experience.
Before I started "Buddhism in Tibet", I decided to spend ten years on the project. Now it has been 11 years, I have selected only 80 works that satisfy me, and I think it's enough. It is not a easy process for me to select 80 works. We, "human beings" who control the camera, we have emotions. The camera is only a device. Through art, to reconnect the relationship between people.