William Yang is best known as a photographer of people, capturing the faces, places and stories of men and women from Far North Queensland where he grew up. Born a third-generation Chinese Australian, Yang grew up on the Atherton Tableland and describes his upbringing as one in which his Chinese ethnicity “was suppressed and denied” to the point where his family name Yang had been anglicised to Young.
After studying architecture at Queensland University, Yang moved to Sydney to become a playwright, earning money as a social photographer. While in Sydney he met a Chinese teacher who encouraged him to explore and record his early childhood in Far North Queensland, and his Chinese ancestry.
In 1992, Yang returned to the places of his childhood, but soon realised that it was not just his own history he had to explore, but also the Chinese history of northern Australia. His journey of discovery took him to the Victorian goldfields, Broome, the Top End’s Pine Creek diggings, Cape York and Innisfail. Wherever his travels took him, he photographed the people, places and recorded their stories. However, it was “the atmospheres and the landscapes of the north that seeped into me, as a lot of my work is about recreating the memories of my childhood,” he says.
This exhibition of William Yang’s photographs from the Cairns Art Gallery’s Collection depicts people of personal interest to the artist; however, the portraits and images of people have a clarity and relevance that go beyond a particular moment or place in time. In Yang’s words, “The people stare out at us from times past…we are far from our origins but we exist in a place that transcends geography, it is a place of blood and other bonds.”
Image: William Yang, Self Portrait #1 (detail) 1992, silver gelatin photograph, 41 x 27 cm. Cairns Art Gallery Collection. Purchased Cairns Regional Gallery, 2001