National Geographic photographer Michael Yamashita on his favourite places to shoot in Singapore

National Geographic photographer Michael Yamashita on his favourite places to shoot in Singapore

Picture perfect

Text: Rachel Chan

Image: Michael Yamashita

We sit down with veteran photographer Michael Yamashita as he’s back in town for #WhatMakesSG, a National Day campaign by National Geographic and the Ministry of Communications and Information

Mention the name 'Michael Yamashita', and National Geographic immediately pops up into your head. Known for bringing to life everything he captures through his viewfinder, this award-winning veteran photographer and filmmaker has that power of alluring wanderlusting dreamers and budding photographers alike to his pictures. With his contribution to National Geographic spanning over 35 years and counting, Yamashita provides a vast vantage point of the world, especially in Asia, where it was in Singapore that he first established his career. And what a career it has been, one that has garnered him awards such as the Best Historical Documentary at the 2006 New York International Film Festival and National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) Pictures of the Year.

Yamashita has been frequenting Singapore ever since the '70s, documenting this city as it evolved from a trading port to a concrete jungle. He's taken pictures for the Singapore Tourism Board, the 2013 CapitaLand-National Geographic Channel 'Building People' campaign and 2015's A Light on the Straits — Maritime Singapore, a book to commemorate Singapore's Golden Jubilee. It's perfectly fitting then, that National Geographic and the Ministry of Communications and Information has roped in the Japanese-American photographer for this year's National Day campaign, #WhatMakesSG. Yamashita's roles include judging for the campaign's photography contest and contributing pictures for a special 'What Makes Singapore' edition of National Geographic magazine that will be published in August, with only 250,000 copies made available.

Last week, we sat down with Yamashita as he shared more about #WhatMakesSG, his memories of Singapore and his favourite spots to photograph. Judging from his Instagram page that's backed by a strong 1.4 million following, it's evident that Yamashita had the time of his life here, taking photographs of the local skyline and even squeezing in a selfie with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife.


What made you decide to be a part of the #WhatMakesSG campaign?
I've been working for the National Geographic magazine for over 35 years and now, they asked me to come to Singapore and judge the contest, leaving the things that I normally do in my line of work to make some pictures of what makes Singapore. And as you may know, my career started here, so I've been shooting Singapore for about 40 years.

After being a photographer for more than 30 years, what are some of the key things that you're looking out for in this photography contest?
A great photograph compels you to want to look at it as if it just stops you in your tracks, where you stare at the picture then gather in the information. It has to have that 'boom'. First impact is to draw you into the picture, and then some complexity to keep you there. And as a National Geographic photographer, it's storytelling, so I want a picture that tells me something about the place.  

What constitutes an inspiring picture to you then?
Well, a picture that has impact, and that you wished you took yourself. The best complement to a photographer is saying, "I wished I saw that myself" or "I wished I took it myself". 

Tell me more about your contribution to the special Singapore edition of the National Geographic magazine.
Well we've been shooting a number of subjects and this is a special time since it's the month of Ramadan. For example, I was shooting subjects in the Muslim community both in the mosques and during the Hari Raya celebrations — things connected with the Malay community. I also shot in places like Botanic Gardens — generally icons of Singapore.


You've been visiting Singapore regularly and like you said, it's where your career started. In your opinion, what makes Singapore so Singaporean to you?
There's ethnic diversity, and when I think of the city, I think architecture. Speaking of the word 'inspiring' before, I think Singapore has some of the most inspiring architecture in the world. And with these world-class architectures that you have here, you get tons of tourists because let's face it, everybody loves it. The moment you put up pictures of Singapore's beautiful skyline, people just say, "That's the most beautiful city in Asia".

How much do you think Singapore has changed over the years?
Oh God, don't get me started! When were you born?

I was born in 1997, way after your career began.
Well, I've been here since 20 years before that. I came here in 1978, and then it was still quite an under-developed city like Hong Kong. The British used to send the old buses here, the double-decker buses. Singapore went from what I call a third world country to a place that's amazing.

And landscape-wise too right? 
(laughs) Are you kidding me? You have no idea! We had farmlands and fish farms back then. Now, it's a modern city-state to the point of being ultra, over-the-top and futuristic. And when you look at its beginning and its roots, just like all of Asia. It came in a hurry, and all in the past four years. In 40 years, the whole place was just transformed — in Singapore, more than any of the Asian countries. 

How different is it photographing Singapore compared to other Asian countries?
It's kind of a different photography because it's off the beaten track in other countries, but there's nothing off the beaten track here. 

That's true, since a lot of your photographs show off the natural landscape, whereas it's just a lot of buildings here.
Well, that's Singapore. It's a city. Two weeks ago, I was here shooting the 'City in a Garden' campaign for Mrs Lee, so I will be back here with an exhibition showing the city as a green city and as the world leader in preserving the environment. That's also a big part of it. It's not a little city — it's one of the greenest cities in the world, and it's on the cutting edge of protection of the environment and sustainability. So, I don't see Singapore as just a city, as this country is actually one that has kept its roots of being a rainforest at one time, and now we don't see the rainforest. But when you go to the Gardens by the Bay, they have an incredible education about rainforests, because that's what they do there. They have recreated all the ecosystems, and this is a good thing because it's a classroom for the world on how to preserve the environment. 

Are there any places in Singapore that you hold close to your heart and that you like to photograph?
The first time when they came up with Gardens by the Bay, I was so astounded. I didn't have an assignment then but I spent the week shooting that anyway, just because it was so inspiring and incredible, and I respond to visual stimulus. The Botanical Gardens is another favourite place of mine. I've been shooting the skyline for years and it changes almost every time I seem to come back here, whether it's some new building that has gone up. I would say with every trip here, I find some new angle on something. I was also at Jewel Changi Airport, and that blew me away. I had a vision of what it was going to be like, and then to be told that it's going to be twice as big compared to the pavilions in Gardens by the Bay, that's pretty amazing. 

Are there any old buildings that you remember in Singapore?
That's the wonder of the skyline. It's this combination of the old and new. I think Singapore has done a good job with preserving the past. Looking outside the window now, you see the Supreme Court on the right, in middle it's the National Gallery Singapore, and then on the other side you have Fullerton Bay Hotel. In fact, I remembered Fullerton Bay as a post office. I'm sure Clifford Pier was the real thing too, where I'd get off the bumboat and into the town as I was living on a schooner, where the Marina Bay Sands is sitting now. 

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