Michael Yamashita never made the connection between two of his most significant bodies of work, how they show both sides of the same coin in China’s historic engagement with the outside world.
For the veteran National Geographic Asia specialist, these daunting quests were simply about chasing the history of two of the world’s greatest explorers across an ever-changing continent.
But as China increasingly looks outward to cement its own domestic economic growth and newfound global clout, it seems that the loop has been closed for him — and it happened here in Atlanta.
This week and next, for the first time, Mr. Yamashita’s works retracing Italian explorer Marco Polo’s journeys from Venice to China across the ancient Silk Road will be displayed alongside the photographer’s shots from the “sea silk road,” trading routes established by the massive fleet of Chinese admiral Zheng He, who sailed from China’s east coast to Africa’s (and some say even onward to America).
The “Silk Road Journey” exhibition in Atlanta March 20-29 is sponsored by the cultural foundation of the Reignwood Group, a Beijing-based conglomerate founded by Thai-Chinese entrepreneur Chanchai Ruayrungruang. Reignwood has interests in golf courses, residential real estate and consumer goods: it owns the rights to Red Bull in China and has a 25 percent stake in coconut water company, Vita Coco. Dr. Chanchai’s net worth according to Forbes is some $2.9 billion.
Dr. Chanchai was so inspired when seeing Mr. Yamashita’s breathtaking photos during a visit to the U.S. in 2015, he bought the rights to 350,000 of them and put together a series of Silk Road exhibitions that have been seen in person by more than 100,000 people, mostly in Asia, according to the foundation.
The grouping of 37 photos at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta is the first time Mr. Yamashita’s land and sea Silk Road photos have been shown in tandem. It also marks their U.S. debut.
Both the timing and the setting in Atlanta seem appropriate. China is ramping up its One Belt, One Road initiative, an infrastructure building spree that it believes will enhance links to countries with which it has enjoyed historical trade ties.
Already, 40-plus countries across Central and Southeast Asia have signed up to be part of this network, which China itself frames, rightly or wrongly, in terms of connectivity between cultures and nations.
Even more telling, China finds itself a new steward of the global trading order, as the U.S. under new President Donald Trump turns inward with an “America First” strategy.
Chinese President Xi Jinping in January spoke on safeguarding global trading system at the World Economic Forum. In mid-May, he will welcome the world to the first One Belt, One Road international cooperation summit, where the photos will also be exhibited before moving on to the United Kingdom.
As for Atlanta, President Carter played a key role in enabling China’s modern standing in the world. Continuing the work President Richard Nixon started, Mr. Carter recognized China diplomatically just as leader Deng Xiaoping was opening the country’s economy to the world.
For Mr. Yamashita, the reasons behind the exhibition all came together when he toured the Carter library.
“I walked into the museum here and I thought, ‘Yes, now I get it. There (Carter) is with Deng Xiaoping,” he told Global Atlanta in an interview.
While viewed with some trepidation in the West, China’s return to a posture of global influence is a restoration of what it sees as historical equilibrium. Up until the Industrial Revolution, China had the largest economy in the world, birthing many innovations that took hundreds of years to eventually make their way to the West through exchanges by emissaries like Marco Polo and Zheng He.
In different journeys, Mr. Yamashita faced the tough task of snapping modern-world shots that captured glimpses of the ancient lifestyles that gave rise to products and practices like silk, aquaculture, gun powder and navigational implements like the compass.
But his common thread was his desire to capture the stories of locales linked through trade.
“The Silk Road is kind of this exotic image in people’s minds but most people don’t know where it goes,” he said.
The Marco Polo trip emerged as an investigation into academic challenges to the Venetian traveler’s account, viewed with skepticism but also widely regarded as the world’s first work of travel journalism. It eventually became a more than 70-page story in the magazine.
Pursuing Zheng He, on the other hand, was a response to the fact that he’d done most of China’s other big iconic journeys — the Grand Canal, the Great Wall, Shangri-La, the Tea Horse Road and more, amassing six books on the country.
“I’m always asking (Chinese audiences), is there something I’m missing? Is there any subject that’s still out there that I can photograph?”
Zheng He was a Hui Muslim from the southern part of the country who rose through the ranks and became the go-to admiral for China’s largest-ever period of overseas adventurism. He is said to have commanded a fleet of 300 ships spreading the fame of the Chinese empire — and its commercial interests — as far as Africa’s eastern coast.
“He’s the world’s greatest explorer that no one knows anything about,” Mr. Yamashita said.
While shooting in Lamu, an island off the coast of Kenya where Zheng He’s voyages are said to have ended, Mr. Yamashita remembers interacting with Chinese officials looking for DNA evidence that sailors left behind descendants — a poignant detail considering Chinese engagement with Africa in recent years.
Walking Global Atlanta and Carter Center employees through the exhibition, he recounted more stories behind the photos — the helicopter from which he shot a valley in northern Afghanistan, the bureaucratic issues getting into Iraq and Iran, the red umbrella that made the impressionistic shot in snowy Xinjiang, a man’s sunshine silhouette in a Yunnan fishing village, camels dwarfed by dunes in the Taklamakan Desert, the steam and smoke from a cauldron of yak-butter tea in Tibet.
It all adds up to a portfolio that would be hard to replicate, not only from a skill perspective, but also because it’s nearly impossible for Western photographers to spend five years on stories, to shoot with the resources of National Geographic or even to gain access to some of these now-sensitive countries.
To Mr. Yamashita, his professional arc owes itself to the luck that seems to rise with the glittering sun, and guide the photographer to capture almost mystical moments.
“I always say, photographers are paid to be lucky,” he said, later applying that principle to his decades-long coverage of China.
“It’s not like I planned, ‘Oh, China’s going to be great someday and I’m going to cash in.’ Without having planned it, I have the world’s biggest single photographer body work on China.”