William Yang: Stories from the Margin

© William Yang ‘Photographing Matthew Mitcham #2’ [detail] 2009

Gradually I began to realise that the thing that meant the most to me (because I feel meaning is very important) was the cultural community in which I moved. 


William Yang is Australia’s most famous and respected contemporary story-teller. His medium is a combination of photography and words, a synthesis of the visual and the oral that creates a rich and complex narrative, always from a personal perspective. This is not egotism but a lens through which to refract the world in a way that makes emotional and experiential sense. We understand how he feels about situations and people. His analysis of his own actions and feelings is candid and insightful. He does not build himself up, but rather explores the uncertainties and foibles of his own character as a way of understanding the world around him. It is the honest point of view of an individual rather than the ostensibly neutral eye of a ‘disinterested’ observer.

He started taking photographs in the early 1970s when he worked as a freelance photographer in Sydney. His principal subjects were people and he specialised in photographing parties and social events. He became involved in the emerging gay community, living opening as an out gay man.

In 1989, William began creating performance pieces for a theatre setting. In these, he tells stories accompanied by music, while projecting images. These performances have proved highly successful and have toured extensively in Australia and the Western world. He realised that an image often contains a story that needs words to help it be understood. The words reflect upon what the image means to the photographer and, in so doing, he invites the viewer–listener into that privileged understanding of the deeper personal significance of the photograph. This use of words extended into his published and exhibited work as he began writing by hand onto the surface of the image, recounting the story in a way that has both narrative and graphic impact.

A third-generation Chinese–Australian, much of William Yang’s work has focused on exploring his extensive family connections (his ‘blood lines’) through the Chinese diaspora that followed his grandparents’ arrival in Australia in the 1880s. While he looks Chinese, William’s formative experiences were all Australian. He speaks no Mandarin. Now, as he grows older, he feels increasingly drawn to his cultural heritage in China, but he also acknowledges that he can never truly return and must always be something of a foreigner in the land of his ancestors. It is this standpoint of an ‘outsider’ (culturally and in terms of sexual orientation) that lends William Yang’s work is subtle, melancholic beauty and gentle but incisive authenticity. These are stories capable of touching the hearts of many, told from the margins.

Alasdair Foster

© William Yang ‘Alpha’ 1960s


Alasdair: How did you become a photographer?

William: Initially, I was an architect, then I was a playwright, and during both those periods I took photographs. In 1969 I moved down to Sydney from Brisbane hoping to make a living as a playwright. I found that I couldn’t do that, but I discovered that I could make a living from being a freelance photographer.

I wasn’t trained in photography, I taught myself. I did everything that people would pay me to do. I was OK as a photographer – I am not that technical – but people liked my work enough to give me jobs. Looking back, I was probably better than I thought I was. [Laughs]

What was the secret of that success?

I knew what people wanted. I think that is the important thing when you are photographing; to know what people want. Of course, what they really wanted were flattering photographs. I wasn’t actually that good at flattering photographs, that’s more the domain of the studio photographer. But most of all they wanted representation. I find that, especially if I am talking about marginalised people, they are just pleased that their story is out there. They recognise it’s their story and, even though they mightn’t have come out of it in a flattering way, I’ve thought that it was important enough to be told.

© William Yang ‘Stiletto Oscars’ 1976

I guess my skill is being able to walk into a situation and cover it in a visual way. I understand the narrative progression of a social event, and I understand principal characters. There’s a bit of theatre comes into that: I pay attention to the dramatis personae. And that’s how I made a living.

This was the 1970s?

Yes. Right up until 1980. I was amassing a body of work … although that sounds a bit overblown. Really, I took photographs and so, by default, I had a collection of photographs. I started working for magazines, doing their social pages so I had access to celebrities and commercial social events. I covered a lot of awards nights.

© William Yang (assisted by Peter Kingston) ‘Allan’s Dinner for Me’ 1981

Why did you change direction?

I just couldn’t connect with the commercial jobs – promotion was not as real to me as people’s private social lives. So I thought that I should concentrate on that instead.

I suppose I found myself in the 1980s. In 1978 I had a very successful exhibition at the Australian Centre for Photography called ‘Sydneyphiles’. I even brought out a book by 1984 – ‘Sydney Diaries’ – which was very popular. And then I started to project images … I had a lot of colour transparencies, and it was quite expensive to get prints made from slides. So I started to do slide-shows as a way of presenting my colour images. I would talk and play music as well.

It became very clear to me that the slide-show performance was the way to go. To me it was more attractive than an exhibition or a book. It was just juicier. All the same, it took me seven years from when I first started projecting to put nine photo-essays together to create a show.

What did you learn in that time?

It reinforced two ideas for me: that people really want to see photos of themselves – quite rightly so. If you can tap into something that is close to them, like someone they know in the photograph, even if there is just one image of a person that they know, then they will home in on that … and cling to it like a raft.

Today, we are all putting our lives online through social media, but we weren’t in the 1970s and 1980s. You were making that possible for people.

Yes! I was a blogger before the word was invented. [Laughs]

What was the other thing you learned?

Simply that one’s own cultural environment is actually important. Most people don’t quite get that. In fact, to begin with, I hadn’t quite got that either, because I was so caught up with celebrity. But gradually I began to realise that the thing that meant the most to me (because I feel meaning is very important) was the cultural community in which I moved. 

© William Yang ‘Life Lines’ 2008

How would you describe that community?

Nowadays I have kind of divided it up into three main communities: there’s the artistic community and that’s my social life in Sydney; then there’s my family and that’s the Australian–Chinese diaspora; and finally there’s the gay community.

© William Yang ‘Linda Jackson, Peter Tully, Jenny Kee’ 1982

The gay scene was quite underground in those days, how did you gain access?

It was kind of symbiotic in a way, in that people regarded me as the main chronicler of the gay community. People would ask me to parties … only certain people, not the whole gay community, it was very specific. So, for example, I knew the artists Peter Tully and David McDiarmid; they gave me huge access to their working lives, the gay community, and to the Mardi Gras festival and parade as they were both at some time directors.

© William Yang ‘Mardi Gras and the Church’ 2013

Were you exhibiting this work publicly?

Yes. A lot of the ‘Sydneysiders’ exhibition was gay. I was very aware that I was transgressing by showing gay images to the general public. Well, not so much transgressing, but there were some people who didn’t approve.

You were showing things that people were perhaps aware existed, but which they did not wish to be made to acknowledge.

That’s right. They might not even have been aware that they existed. But they felt that it shouldn’t be public. That was the thing.

How did this fit at the time with being seen as ‘Asian’?

Because I looked Chinese people responded to me in a certain way. Looking back, I can see that it was a cultural environment where to be Chinese or ‘Asian’ didn’t really have any sex appeal. Sex appeal was still White. So, it’s kind of complex.

I came out as a gay man in the early 1970s; I decided to be visible as an out gay man and not be closeted, so I became politicised. About twelve years later, I realised that my ethnicity had also been supressed by society in the same way that my gay sexuality had been. I like to say I became born-again Chinese.  Really, I just acknowledged my Chinese heritage, though I had to make an effort to do that. I started telling Chinese stories and describing what it is like to be Chinese in a predominantly Anglo society.

[Left] © William Yang ‘Self Portrait #2 (photographer unknown)’ 1947
[Right] © William Yang ‘Mother, Graceville’ 1989 from the series ‘About My Mother’

What was the public response?

People liked that. They liked it better than my gay stories. The gay subjects seemed too confronting; sexuality is a personal thing. But they liked my Chinese work because it was about family. So I started telling stories about being Australian–Chinese in a predominantly Anglo–Australia society. At that time [the early 1990s] there weren’t many Chinese doing that in Australia. In fact, I think I was the first.

I have only ever made one gay performance piece whereas I have done three or four just about my Chinese family. ‘Friends of Dorothy’ is the gay one. ‘Sadness’, which I created in 1992, actually encompassed a Chinese story about an uncle who had been murdered back in 1922 and a gay story about Aids. That was a very successful piece for me because it started my international touring career, which lasted for about fifteen years.

Do you change work based on how the audience responds?

Yes. The audience response validates the work. So if they are not responding to something, is there something wrong with it? And if the response is unexpected and then you think “Oh! That was better than I’d thought”. It’s a dialogue.

What are you working on now?

I am still developing the story-telling approach. That is probably my craft: honing down a story. Now, I am moving from live performance to DVD. It’s about finding the short way through a story, like stepping stones in the narrative. There’s got to be enough information to tell the story, but it can’t be too long and involved or you get bogged down. It’s better if you leave a bit for the imagination and keep your story moving along.

© William Yang ‘Climbing Huang Shan’ 2005

In between the live performances and the DVDs, the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] made a televised version of ‘Sadness’. Were you involved in that?

Tony Ayres made that and I was more or less the actor in his film. Tony is a very talented filmmaker and I think he did a really good job on the story; it’s very cinematic. But it was not such a good process for me as the performer. I probably learned nothing from doing that film apart from just getting the words out without having a nervous breakdown. [Laughs]

© William Yang in the editing room of the Australian National University 2007

But what I am doing now with the DVDs is coming to understand this new medium more. It’s taken me three years to do it and a lot of practice. It’s a luxury I have as a Visiting Fellow at the University of New South Wales.

Are you working on a new story? Or are you focusing on bringing your existing oeuvre into a new form online?

Well, both of those things are happening. I’d like all my performance pieces to be in a DVD format but that is pretty impossible. At the end of the day, I’ll be happy if I get three performances onto DVD. More generally, I am getting my existing work into some kind of edited order so that I can pass it on to future generations.

I think editing is a very important part of the photographic process and one which most people don’t really adhered to. There’s this tendency to keep taking more and more, when really you should be editing down to less and less.

© William Yang ‘Alter Ego’ 2001

I am also teaching. I don’t teach photography so much as story-telling. It’s satisfying; passing something on. But it’s a slow process and that can be hard today when everything seems so instant. My own work has developed quite slowly over twenty years, but there has been a definite progression.

What does success look like to you?

I think if you are respected then it validates you. Actually, I am always a little bit surprised that people like my work because there are more glamorous people out there. But, while I might complain that I could be selling more prints, I do feel people hold me in high respect. I think I am validated. I am happy with that.

© William Yang ‘Three Epiphanies’ 2013

Biographical Notes

William Yang was born in Mareeba, Queensland, in 1943. He has a BA in architecture (1968), and Honorary Doctorate of Letters (1998), both from The University of Queensland. Initially working as an architect and later a playwright, he began photographing parties and social events as a way to make money. His exhibition, ‘Sydneyphiles’ (1977), and book ‘Sydney Diary’ (1984) documented the Sydney party scene of the 1970s and 1980s, and the emerging gay community. In the 1980s, he began to explore his Chinese–Australian heritage, integrating his writing and photography skills in one-person monologues with slide projection, a medium he has made his own. In 1999, his monologue ‘Sadness’ was recreated as a multi-award winning motion picture.

He has exhibited and performed his monologies throughout Asia, Australia, Europe and North America, including a major retrospective ‘Seeing and Being Seen’ at the Art Gallery of Queensland (2021). His photographs are held in many prestigious public and private collections including the National Gallery of Australia; the National Library of Australia; the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra; and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. His work has been published in a number of monographs including ‘Sadness’ [Allen & Unwin 1996], ‘Patrick White: The Late Years’ [Pan Macmillan 1995], ‘Friends of Dorothy’ [Pan Macmillan 1997], ‘Seeing & Being Seen’ [QAGoMA 2021]. In 1993, William Yang was awarded International Photographer of the Year at the Higashikawa International Photography Festival, Japan, and, in 2007, the H.C. Coombs Creative Arts Fellowship by the Australian National University. He lives and works in Sydney.

This article was initially published in Chinese, in the October 2013 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.