William Yang: the other side of the lens

William Yang in his home studio in Sydney. Photo: Ann-Marie Calilhanna.

The Sentinel interviews the photographer who has left his distinctive prints all over Sydney, as well as Australia’s queer and Chinese communities. By Rita Bratovich.  

“It’s great that a photograph can give you a kick in the guts – which paintings perhaps can’t do in the same way.”

So says William Yang, pre-eminent Australian photographer and chronicler of much of Sydney’s LGBTQI history. 

The septuagenarian’s portfolio is being exhibited in a retrospective at the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) from March to August, 2021. Seeing and Being Seen will include a substantial selection of Yang’s art, from very early photographs through to a completely new work. 

“It’s a pretty good chunk of my work. It covers my themes, there’s growing up in North Queensland, my Chinese identity … visits to China. Then, there’s also the gay scene. I do kind of show a bit of a preference to cultural diversity.

“And then there’s a huge section which is just pictures of people socially engaging.”

Yang has photographed many incredibly famous people, including the Queen, Kylie Minogue, Patrick White, Mel Gibson, Cate Blanchett and the Dalai Lama, to name a few. Yet, he’s modest to the point of disinterest when it comes to discussing celebrities – he is much more interested in discovering and immortalising people hidden in the crevices of society. 

Yang has even allocated part of his exhibition to a group called the Oculi Collective, an Australian collective of documentary photographers and visual storytellers.  

Yang’s work is very much about telling stories, particularly his own. One of the newer contributions to the exhibition is something the Queensland-born photographer refers to as ‘My Queensland’.

“What I’m doing is I’m getting all the Queensland stories from all my performance pieces and cobbling them all together.” 

“I was ashamed, really. I was ashamed of being Chinese.”

– William Yang

Yang was born in North Queensland in 1943 to Chinese parents who were second generation Australians. His mother vehemently suppressed any identification with their ethnicity. 

“I was ashamed, really. I was ashamed of being Chinese,” recalls Yang. 

He describes his mother’s attitude as typical of that generation and a symptom of the times: “We all identified as being Australian … it didn’t feel safe to be different.

“I think it’s a shame my mother didn’t teach us Cantonese, but she was very adamant that we fit in, we didn’t make targets of ourselves by speaking a foreign language. She wanted us to be more Australian than the Australians.”

It wasn’t until Yang was in his mid-thirties that he recognised and claimed his own heritage. 

“I started to get into Daoism which is a Chinese philosophy, so I came at my Chinese identity through Daoism.” 

Yang describes it as his second coming out, and his Chinese identity then became as much a focal point of his art as his homosexuality had been up to that point. 

Not that his sexuality was any less problematic for his mother. Yang came out to her after moving to Sydney in the 1970s and describes the response as “not very good”. 

“So, I didn’t really talk about it much to my mother, but she knew and she loved me, and so we just let it go. We just didn’t talk about it.”

“I came out to the rest of the family on television.”

– William Yang

Later, as Yang’s profile grew and his very explicitly gay work was gaining more media attention, it became virtually impossible to stay in the closet. 

“And so, I kind of came out to the rest of the family on television,” he laughs.

Yang began his career as a playwright before switching from pen to camera as a matter of necessity – it paid better.  

“There was a logic to the way my career developed, where I started off as a freelance photographer – and not that good actually, either – but I could do certain jobs, and I’d do whatever people paid me money for. And I went on like that for about 15 years. It was a struggle.”

Yang took photos at underground and private gay parties during the 1970s, effectively documenting Sydney’s gay history. In the mid ’80s, he started exhibiting works with explicit gay and queer sexual content, garnering a following within the community. 

His book, Sydney Diary 1974-1984 (1984), is a photo journal of the mixed Sydney social scene over that decade. Friends of Dorothy (1997) was his first all-gay publication. 

In the late 1980s, Yang extended his visual shows into performance with audiovisual presentations – a form he adopted as his preferred medium. 

“I liked that, projecting the images. One of the things was, colour prints were quite expensive at that time … and so projecting my images was cheaper for me and so I did audiovisuals. And when you project, there’s a natural tendency to talk with the images … So I started talking with the images.”

The medium proved a particularly effective way of presenting his series around AIDS. 

“I realised, me being part of a story and telling it allowed an audience to engage with it more easily. It was personal and they felt that, rather than [just] statistics.”

William Yang presenting a slideshow talk at the Art Gallery of NSW, featuring stories and images from Sydney’s gay scene. Video: Art Gallery of NSW/YouTube.

From this evolved his instantly recognisable trademark photographs with hand-written script on them.  

“I realised there were images that had a story and so I just wrote the story right on the print. So that then became my signature: writing on the prints.”

In a work commissioned for his QAGOMA exhibition, Yang is presenting one of his most iconic photographs, Joe (1979) in yet another new format. 

The black and white photo features a young naked man lying on his side in bed, with a story hand-written on his back (on the photo). Yang has learned Auslan and will be signing the story in the photo. 

“It was harder than I thought,” he says about learning to sign. 

Yang doesn’t take many photos anymore, but he is still keen to curate his work and very excited about Seeing and Being Seen.

“I’m thrilled that I’m having this retrospective exhibition … and it’s just gonna be great because all an artist wants is to have a retrospective exhibition.”

William Yang photographed by Ann-Marie Calilhanna.

Seeing and Being Seen will run from Saturday, 27 March to Sunday, 22 August at QAGOMA, Brisbane. Free entry. More more information, visit www.qagoma.qld.gov.au/whats-on/exhibitions/william-yang.

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