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Recording a life in the wild

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081203_17.jpg

Chinese photographer Wang Gang showcases the life of the mysterious Yi people of China in an exhibition of black-and-white photography opening today at the Chinese House

© Wang Gang

One of the photographs showcased as part of the “Yi in the Wild” exhibition.

CHINESE photographer Wang Gang, whose exhibition "The Yi in the Wild" opens tonight at the newly renovated Chinese House at the north end of Sisowath Quay, is visibly pleased.

As one of the international guests at PhotoPhnomPenh, he believes he has scored top spot in terms of venue. "It's a fantastic gallery, the most beautiful of all the venues here,"  Wang said.    

The subject matter of Wang's first exhibition in Cambodia is the mysterious Yi people who live in the barren and desolate Liangshan mountains, some 3,000 metres above sea-level in Sichuan, China.

Originating from the Tibeto-Burman language family,  they now speak their own language and have their own writing. Their traditional dress includes the charwa, a warm poncho featured in many of Wang's pictures.

Photographers for decades have been intrigued by the tribe's traditional way of living in the harsh terrain, capturing them as they go about their daily life.

However, Wang's approach is different. "For many, photography is about documenting reality. I'm not interested in that. For me, photography is purely a process of creation," he said. "I don't photograph natural life, I take portraits."

IT'S DIFFICULT TO GET CLOSE TO THE YI WOMEN, AND IF YOU TAKE A PHOTO THEY ALWAYS SMILE.

Wang explains that the most important thing for him is photographing people's personal lives. "People can understand my work because even if the situation is different, human nature is the same everywhere." The expressive faces of the Yi are what attracted Wang to them, "You can see yourself, your friends, in their faces," he said.

Through his photographs, Wang wants to convey the basic human attitude and dignity that the Yi possess, despite their austere living conditions - something that he said resonates in Cambodia.

In many of the portraits, sometimes dirty and rugged-looking children and men stare back at the viewer. The backdrop is expansive -  skies and mountains devoid of any development.

Wang acknowledges no pictures of women feature in his exhibition. "I care more about children and old men," he said. "It's difficult to get close to the Yi women, and if you take a photo they always smile. I don't like that," he said, adding that traditional Yi beliefs say that a subject's soul could be taken by a photograph, which make some women unwilling to have their picture taken.

Learning the trade

All photos featured in the exhibition are in black and white, mainly because when they were taken in late 2006, Wang was still learning the trade and did not know how to take colour photographs. Not that he made it easy for himself, using an old secondhand Rolleiflex camera.

"Convenience makes you lazy," he said referring to modern cameras, "Also, I like the photographic gesture. With the Rolleiflex you have to bend forwards and down towards the subject, making you appear less hostile and aggressive than with a big lens in front of you."

Wang started photography rather late in life, picking up a camera in his 30s. "I never knew any photographers' names, maybe Cartier-Bresson and Koudelka," he said.

"Now, of course, I know many, but I still do not know the rules of photography. That's probably why some people call my pictures unconventional," he added.

Early success

Early on in his photographic career, Wang met with success by winning a World Press Photo award in 2006.

The achievement made it easier for him to exhibit his work, to the extent that he can now be more discerning about where his pictures are displayed. Wang's success is not limited to China either, as his works have featured at galleries in France, Belgium, Italy and Holland.

Hailing from Guangzhou, Wang is a man of many trades.

He has continued his business ventures from before his photographic career and is planning on entering the world of the silver screen. "I have invested in a TV series before, but now I want to be part of the process of making a film," he said.

Wang's next photographic project involves Tibetans. "People in the city don't really interest me, I never take my camera out in the city," he said.

Despite working with potentially controversial subject matter in China, Wang has so far had no trouble with the authorities, which he suspects is because he takes portraits, not photos of natural life.

In accepting the invitation to Cambodia, Wang was largely unaware of local issues surrounding indigenous groups in the Kingdom.

"Someone told me something about it the other night," he said. "Cambodia is a mystery to me. All I know about Cambodia comes from [Chinese] government history books. Now I can see for myself," he said.

With only one week in the country, however, there is not much time.

"The Yi in the Wild" exhibition opens at 7:30pm at Chinese House, 45 Sisowath Quay. 

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