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‘I'm constantly checking what's outside the window in case I want to shoot a frame.’
Gems in this
When he’s not traversing the mountains of Tibet, retracing the journeys of Marco Polo or dodging danger in Afghanistan, photographer Michael Yamashita can be found either working and relaxing with family in New Jersey, or zipping into New York to let his foodie flag fly.
With an illustrious career that spans more than three decades shooting for National Geographic, Mike never spends more than a few months in one place. It’s no wonder then that he does his best creative thinking on planes and in hotel rooms. Mike’s life on the road has led to 16 books; two documentaries; a sold-out NFT collection; and exhibitions in Singapore, China, Italy, Germany, Japan and the US — amassing millions of followers on Instagram in the process. We chat with the renowned photographer about the importance of confidence, embracing his Asian background, and where to get wagyu like butter in his New York Travel Playbook.
On growing up in the suburbs
My father was a Japanese businessman with Mitsubishi and he moved the family to Montclair, which is a suburb about 30 minutes out of New York City. There were very few Asian families in the vicinity.
On picking up a camera in Japan
When I was growing up I played a lot of sports, so I was always on the other side of the camera. I didn’t actually have one in my hands until I went to Japan, on a roots trip, to basically see how Japanese I might be — my name and face are Japanese, but I think like an American. I bought a camera there, a Nikon, and I thought, well, I better learn how to use this. I joined a camera club and got totally into photography — ate, slept and drank photography. I was obsessed. I was teaching English to make a living but otherwise I was just doing photography and perfecting my craft.
On turning photography into a career
From there, I decided to be a professional photographer, so I put out my shingle and got work with a travel magazine, which eventually took me to Singapore. I got the biggest assignment you could get at the time, which was shooting for Singapore Airlines. I did all their destination stuff — I went everywhere in Asia and took pictures for their in-flight magazines and brochures. After a year of serious travel in the region, I had a portfolio. Then I left Singapore and went back to the US.
On the importance of confidence
I didn't know if I was any good until people started telling me, ‘You've got something here, you should show your pictures to an audience.’ I met a photo agent who told me the same, but he also told me, ‘Don't start, because it's impossible to make a living as a photographer. There are no more magazines.’ LIFE Magazine and Look, the big illustrated magazines in the States, had closed, and basically it was only the Geographic. What are the chances of me making it in that magazine? It's a big leap. You have to get real cocky and have the confidence to walk into somebody's office and say, ‘Here's my portfolio and I'm going to make pictures for you.’ And that's what I did at the Geographic. I basically walked in and said, ‘I speak Japanese and I can do a better job than any of your guys in Japan, so you better give me a job.’ It actually worked out. They gave me my first assignment, which was to Hokkaido, and I've never looked back. It was a success, and I ended up doing 34 more stories, a bunch of books and a couple of documentaries. I haven't stopped.
On what photography means to you
It's my life. This is a very tough profession, there's a lot of competition. And the kind of photography I do is very physical and requires a lot of constant travel. You’ve got to be totally committed. Right from the beginning, it was always a labor of love. It's a great fit; to have your hobby become your profession, I'm one of those lucky few.
‘Marco Polo went to Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, and therefore, so did I.’
On journeying through Asia
I am a foodie and I love Asian food, so I used to tell my editors, ‘Don't send me anywhere unless they're serving rice.’ I became an expert, especially on China, after repeated trips there. Each time you go, you learn. We spend long periods of time on Geographic assignments, so I might be there two, three months at a time, and you get to really know what the story is. My area of interest became my area of expertise. I ended up doing every icon of China, deliberately proposing everything I could think of — from the Silk Road and Marco Polo and Zheng He, the 15th century admiral; to the Tibetan world and Tea Horse Road; and the Great Wall and Grand Canal. I did absolutely every one of them and most of them became books. I became an expert because of all the time we were spending there.
On time traveling in Afghanistan
Marco Polo went to Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. Therefore, so did I. Afghanistan was very difficult because at the time, the Taliban were firmly in control. The head of the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Massoud, was fighting the Taliban to a standstill. He was my host and guide as we got into Afghanistan. Every way in was shut down — you had to go through Tajikistan and fly in on one of his helicopters. It was kind of hairy. There was no electricity, no running water, no vehicles. We commandeered a pickup truck and that was one of the few vehicles that were available to travel — people were basically going back to horse and carts. That was a real eye-opener. In the end, it was great because it allowed me to shoot a culture and country that had absolutely lost its infrastructure; like shooting something that Marco Polo would have seen.
On minders and religious police
Iraq and Iran were difficult in different ways, because of working with minders — fixers work for you and minders work for the government. I was there during Saddam Hussein's reign, late 1999 to 2000. Thanks to the Geographic, we got access where a lot of the big news organizations couldn't. Because they thought it was going to be a cultural story, they allowed me to roam everywhere. Iran was equally a pain because you had the religious police there. They were always on your case, and were maybe even more dangerous than Saddam Hussein's government — these very radical religious police patrolling and looking for fault.
On your Asian background opening doors
Certainly my Japanese heritage has been a big help and a boost. When I go to a place like Iraq or Iran, they see me as Japanese. So I get less heat from the government. Then in Asia, I think it's to my advantage again. The whole thing about storytelling is to get access to your subject. I think my face puts people more at ease. It's been a good run and my background helps.
‘I literally ran out of great assignments to cover because I did them all.’
On photographing the real thing
I look for pictures with an edge, and as a storyteller I tell stories about things that people don't know much about. My good fortune is that I was able to do so many of these stories on subjects that cannot be repeated — these situations have disappeared or cities have grown where there used to be just mud villages. I have a history of China, for example, and its greatest period of growth, and the pictures are real. I say real because so much now, especially in Southeast Asia, has been ‘Disneyfied,’ in that they have become all about the tourists. It's sad that if you go to Cambodia and Angkor Wat now, everything is behind a fence or restricted area. When I was there, you just wandered around and took pictures. That goes for pretty much every one of these places where now everything is canned for the tourists, so I don't believe that what people are seeing is real. My good fortune is that these photographs I have are of the real thing.
On upcoming projects
I definitely need to get back to Asia. I'll be going back to Tibet, which is my passion right now. I have been documenting all the changes and it's changing fast. I probably have the world's largest archive on Tibet, after 20 years of tromping in and out of there. Same with China — I've been able to amass this very large archive, what may be the world’s biggest by any single photographer in Asia, again because of working for the Geographic. You do definitive work and they give you adequate resources to do a good job. I spent a lot of time shooting when even Chinese photographers were not allowed to go to some regions, and I got a lot of access everywhere with unlimited film and resources. So yeah, I'm a lucky guy, and this archive continues to keep me in good stead — it's the source of all my books. I have 18 right now and growing, so in the coming years there is work coming out on China and probably more on Tibet, and maybe someday on Japan, which is close to my heart because of my heritage.
On creative stretches
I love long flights because that's where I do a lot of thinking and kicking back; I’m always doing editing on the plane and just enjoying myself. I love hotels too, for the same reason. There are periods where you're on call all the time and you're shooting and you're busy and always working with other people. And then there’s a lull in the action and you actually get a couple of days where you're not doing anything. At that point, I love just doing nothing and hanging out in my — hopefully nice — room. That's my life on the road. A plane and the hotel is where you really recharge your batteries and do some creative thinking.
On living in New York
I have a studio in New Jersey and an apartment on the Upper West side — it’s very neighborhood-y and quiet. I'm a foodie, so I go in for the restaurants. My apartment has a great 360 degree view. In summertime, we're up there a lot, usually having drinks, and that's part of my New York life. I spend a lot of time in the city because it's just so enjoyable.
‘There are tons of great restaurants on the Amsterdam strip, so that's usually where I'm hanging out.’
On where to eat in the city
At home, I do all the cooking — that's part of my creative process and how I like to relax. But when we go to the city, we just want to eat out in good restaurants. Man, you’ve got great restaurants everywhere! Less than a block away is a place called Cibo e Vino. It’s neighborhood Italian but really well done. There are tons of great restaurants on the Amsterdam strip, so that's usually where I'm hanging out. Lucciola — a little expensive, but they’ve got great stuff, like 90-day old wagyu. It’s overkill because already the wagyu is like ‘buttah’ (butter), and they age it for another 90 days. Of course you’ve got to try that once. It’ll cost you a fortune, but that's really good stuff and a great wine list. For oysters, I go to Crave Fish Bar. Some of the best photographers in the world happen to be my friends and live in New York City, so of course we hang out. Usually I do breakfast at City Diner and start from there.
On the best spots for Asian food
For Chinese, it’s Jing Fong. It's the biggest dim sum place around, probably the biggest in the country. Huge landmark in New York Chinatown, but they had to close over Covid so it's no longer, except for the branch on the Upper West Side. For sushi, it's Yasaka. They’ve got a great omakase, it's not too dear. Those are the rounds I make.
On where to shoot in New York
Even during Covid, I did three assignments. I couldn't go anywhere else, so of course I shot in New York. I shot the ground zero of photo ops, which is Times Square. I did it in the rain, which really made it quite vibrant and exciting. It’s magical — all the bright lights reflecting on shiny surfaces. The other thing is that I shoot from the air. I suggest to everybody, if you want to see New York in a unique way, just get in a helicopter. They have several services — mine is based in New Jersey at Essex airport: DEL Helicopters. That is just a great way to see the city. I recommend it because there is no other city like New York for skyline.
On music that reminds you of the city
It would probably have to be Bruce Springsteen. Does he have a particular song that relates to New York? I'm not sure, but I’d guess it’s New York City Serenade. ‘So walk tall, or baby, don’t walk at all’ — whatever Bruce has to say about New York, I'm all behind.
‘If you want to see New York in a unique way, just get in a helicopter. I recommend it because there is no other city like New York for skyline.’
On your relationship with New York
My home is here in New Jersey, my other professional life is in New York. I drive in, usually on Wednesday, and come back on Friday. It's all about restaurants and meeting people and doing activities like that. Here in New Jersey, it's so quiet. I'm working in my studio and it's kind of the work portion. And then New York is the play portion.
On a window or an aisle seat
That's an easy question. For every photographer, you want to see what's out the window. The last seat you'd want is somewhere in the aisle, because you're not seeing anything but more passengers. Now I'm constantly lifting that shade, I'm always checking on what's outside the window just in case you want to shoot a frame. I always have a camera, of course, in my carry-on luggage. I don't want to miss a photo opportunity, whatever is out there.
On New York in one word
I just think it's the greatest city in the world. Everything's here. Why would you want to move? Certainly if I ever retire, it will be here in New York, because it has everything to offer. A little expensive, but worth it.