Special Feature Article

Self-Portrait #6 by William Yang

The Power of Words and Image

William Yang, legendary photographer, writer and performer is set to wrap up the Perth Writers Festival in style, sharing his personal life experiences through images and words in a one-night-only event.

The relating of a rich lifetime by a consummate story teller seems a fitting culmination of the 2018 Perth Writers Festival. Photographer, performer and writer William Yang is heading to WA to share his personal life experiences through a one-night-only performance - experiences spanning from encounters with men and the gay community, and a boyfriend dying of AIDS to his relationship with his mother, his uncle’s murder, and his Taoist life philosophy. Yang sees his performances akin to writing of a diary.

As a young architecture student at Queensland University, Yang discovered that taking photographs gave him certain liberties with men - liberties he did not yet have the courage to undertake in reality. He could ask his subjects to take off their shirt, or lie on a bed, while simultaneously feeling mortified should anyone discover his photographs had more than a hint of male eroticism in them.

Yang says he reinvented himself when he moved to Sydney in 1969. “Very few people knew me, so I didn’t bring a case history with me. My biggest reinvention was that I came out as a gay man. That changed my life. I was rediscovering the world with sex. It was a liberation.”

Invisibility #1 by William Yang

He tried his hand as a playwright, but found it was “too hard to make money.” He began taking photos at parties, which led to a position with Mode magazine taking shots of the glamorous celebrity set, while also documenting the hedonistic, sub-cultural, gay community. A long list of well-known identities, all sharing a commitment to their art - actors, artists and writers - were captured by his lens. “I’d go out at least five times a week to events, a camera in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other,” he says.

Early in Yang’s career, actor Kate Fitzpatrick took him under her wing, making numerous introductions. His fellow diners at exclusive dinner parties included artists such as Jeffrey Smart and Margaret Olley, performers Barry Humphries and Geoffrey Rush, and writer Patrick White. Fellow party-goers included Brett and Wendy Whiteley, Martin Sharp, Bob Geldof and Jim Sharman (director of productions such as Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Yang burst onto the gallery circuit with his 1977 landmark exhibition Sydneyphiles at the Australian Centre for Photography. The exhibition, with its raw depiction of Sydney’s gay community, caused a sensation. Most of his subjects were complicit, but the image, Invisibility #1, reflects an ongoing struggle for gay liberation. Yang has blocked out the face of one the subjects, adding text to reveal the sitter’s reason for anonymity: “Please don’t put me in your exhibition. I still live at home. No one knows about me. Put Norman in, he likes things like that. He wants to be in it. I’m not ready yet.”

Yang took photographs for Flamingo Park fashion designers Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson, who embraced Australiana in their designs. Yang says he doesn’t really know the celebrities of today. “I just stick with my old friends. That’s the good thing about photography - as your subjects get older, they remain interesting. I took a photo of Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson recently and posted it on Facebook. I was happy to get lots of likes, and to know they still have cache as people.”

In fact, many of the people Yang once knew have long departed, thanks to the insidious scourge of AIDS in the 1990s. One of them was his boyfriend Allan. “In some way, taking photographs of Allan was a way of connecting with him, because it meant I didn’t reject him. A lot of people were rejecting him because he was sick. As much as I could ascertain, he liked me paying him photographic attention as a way of paying him attention.”

Allan 16 by William Yang

While Yang’s life played out in his photography, and his homosexual status was firmly flung into the open, there was another skeleton metaphorically lurking in the closet - his ethnicity. His mother had raised her children to be more Australian than Australians, and Yang felt he had lost his ‘Chinese-ness.’ “I didn’t identify with being Chinese. In fact I was in denial that I was Chinese. I was a ‘banana’ - yellow on the outside and white on the inside,” he says. He began a quest to research his ancestry. His grandparents had arrived in Australia in search of gold in the Northern Territory. He also explored Chinese values and philosophy in the form of Taoism. As the quest continued, he took a tour around Australia, visiting sites of early Chinese settlement. Yang also visited the site where his uncle, who owned cane farms, was shot in 1924 by a manager in his employ. The perpetrator was acquitted because the victim was ‘only a Chinese.’ He also travelled to China - after attempting to learn the Chinese language - but found “no one could understand a word I spoke, so I just gave up.”

He first started writing on his photographs with a pen in the 1990s, and toured the world with his performance works based on his life. “During performances I realised that often an image has a story to it. The early performances were about encounters I’d had with men, so I started writing about the encounter directly on the photographs.”

These days, Yang says he concentrates on photographing people he feels are marginalised: Chinese people and his relatives, the gay community, and photographers. He has been in a long-distance relationship for 20 years with Scott, who lives in Brisbane, while Yang resides in Sydney. The couple have no plans to marry, despite being thrilled at the outcome of the recent same-sex marriage survey. “We are happy as we are. I’ve given Scott my power of attorney, and I think that’s a greater commitment than marriage.”

In recent years, he made a three part series of his performances available for sale on DVD. The films are part of a wider plan to preserve his work. “At the moment I’d like to get my photographs out there in a retrospective exhibition, perhaps in about three years’ time, and in the process have a good look at my collection before I die - I’m not planning on dying immediately, but it’s a big thing to do. It will take me many years to get my collection in order. Once I die, no one will know my photos as well as I do, so they’ll just go into storage, whereas if I scan them and label them and get them ready to go out into the world on their own, then they’ll have a better chance of a life after I’m gone.”

Words & Image: William Yang, a one-night-only performance, is at the Octagon Theatre, 7pm, Sunday 25 February. Visit www.perthfestival.com.au for more information.

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