on yang yankang's works


The Reflection of Soul

Li Mei


Yang Yankang is a photographer who has devoted himself to photographing religious beliefs for decades. From the mid-1990s, he spent 7-8 years photographing people who believed in Catholicism in northwestern China, and then he spent more than ten years delving into Tibetan Buddhism. Afterwards, he photographed Islamic believers in the Muslim quarter. As far as I am concerned, he is the only Chinese photographer who penetrates so deep into the lives of those who believe in these three major religions.

For nearly 20 years, Yang Yankang lived as if he was an ascetic monk, sacrificing himself as an oblation in the burden and God’ mercy, with his spirit and will frustrated, his muscles and bones exhausted. The devotee was redeemed finally and Yang Yankang established his unique beliefs through photography. As he asserted: “I am not a scholar. I don’t study religion. I am just a photographer. I believed that all cases would become a unity.” At the begin-ning, I could not understand how a person could believe in different religions? Yang Yankang led me to my realization that, in this era when information is deficient, no matter whatever you believe in, if you can truly believe in it. However, for him, as a photographer, it’s not a necessity for him to look for the religion he believed in. Instead, he developed his belief of photographing through photographing others’ beliefs, trying to find out the reasons of survival, the value of individuals, the dependence of affection and even the stretch of his own body. To sum up, the rebuilding of souls, spirits and body must depend on photographing. Photographing is to Yang Yankang, rather crucial! That is to say, photographing is his own belief, his own religion, the only way to redeem his life and the best way to realize his life, his affection and his spirit. Yang Yankang is a photographer, who enables photography to be religious. 

His photography focuses on the most fundamental problem in Chinese society: lack of beliefs. However, when I finished reading his book the Reflection of Soul, I felt that, from what he expressed I could see the reflection of the soul of the photographer himself. Sometimes, I could even “see” him in his works. 

Yang Yankang, the man I know, is a photographer who photographs by improvisation, instead of rationality. He attempts to express the condition of life through his photographs, with an artist’s variety and enthusiasm, not his thought. Therefore, his photography depicts the unique sensation of both observing and being observed. The Reflection of Soul can even be reckoned as the portrait of Yang Yankang’s own experience and life to some extent. His fierce affection, his loneliness, his poetical interests, his exquisite disposition, his in-depth inferiority, his expectations, his sense of participation towards existence, are all embodied in his photography, which resembles believers’ “kowtow” every time (in Yang Yankang’s self-statement). Everything intrinsic forces him to go outside consistently.

It is because of the intrinsic demands of the photographer that this work is filled with fierce affection. The author’s love towards the land that can be fully embodied by his images, similar to the songs full of feelings sung by himself. Every year, he spent more than half a year on traveling around Tibet. After finishing photographing Tibet, he left Shenzhen and settled in Chengdu. His departure reveals a sense of escape. Moreover, the capability of departure is a kind of ability. The depression Yang Yankang suffered in Shenzhen vanished after he moved. Love is not only an emotion, but also sunshine, illuminating the shadow of life. Yang Yankang loved his photographic subjects by photographing, drove away loneliness by photographing, and overcame inferiority and weakness by photographing.

If there were no photography, I believe, he would be totally hollow. Yang’s attitudes towards photography remind me of his best friend, Hou Dengke. It is appropriate to say that Yang Yankang is lucky. His attempts gains him profound reciprocation and his life changed dramatically because of photography.

Yang Yankang became pure, fine and relaxed creating The Reflection of Soul. These ten years’ life in Tibet, indeed earns him a harvest of true happiness!

Luxun Academy of Fine Arts
Shenyang, China
13th May, 2014
(Li Mei, a famous critic, curator.)