AAPI Heritage Month: Stephen Yang

Stephen Yang has three years of journalism photography under his belt working with Bloomberg News, Wall Street Journal and the New York Post. The world traveler always has a camera in hand. He says, “The camera is a great way to document what you see in the world, whether it’s in Egypt or in East Flatbush.” Yang is an adrenaline junkie who loves the thrill of the chase, from taking photographs on news stake-outs, meeting new and interesting people, to finding a way to make a photograph look good on the fly in any location. While he covers various events, nightclubs, street scenes, fashion and food, news photography is his love because he says he can be a “faithful but perceptive observer”.

Stephen Yang

How long have you been in photojournalism?

I have been in journalism since 2010 when I started stringing for Bloomberg news in Shanghai. I moved back to New York in 2010 and started working for the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal 2012.

How and why did you decide to become a photojournalist?

I started off shooting film, with one 50mm lens, doing mostly abstract geometrical patterns, travel, architecture, and simple portraits. Me and my best friend from high school used to walk around New York late at night, seeing what was going on, and that inspired me to take my camera everywhere. I studied literature in college but always wanted to take pictures. After college I took a job at an architecture firm in Shanghai which led me to live there for three years, starting in fall 2007. I learned how to use a digital camera, began shooting all sorts of things as a freelancer, events, nightclubs, street scenes, products, food, a little bit of fashion and then journalism, which I liked the best. When my friend Qilai Shen got me my first gig shooting for Bloomberg News in Shanghai during the 2010 Expo, I realized I liked being outside with my cameras shooting natural light the most, not in some studio tweaking lights. Journalism was a way for me to combine all the things I love to shoot, and to be outside meeting people, the variety, and to be a faithful but perceptive observer.  I have no formal training, but I am hungry to learn about them all and while I love working as a journalist, I still consider myself to be a photographer interested in many things.

What do you love most about photography?

I love experiencing new things and talking to people, seeing the stories very few get to see first-hand. The camera is a great way to document what you see in the world, whether it’s in Egypt or in East Flatbush. I like the challenge of getting a specific photograph, being outside a courthouse all day looking for someone with only a vague description, finding them, getting that shot in the 15 seconds before they get into a car and speed away. The adrenaline and the hunting aspect of the job, looking for that one frame that says it all, boiling down a scene.

How has being an AAPI helped/hurt your photojournalism career?

Being Asian has helped me in many ways. While in Egypt I had many people come up to me, so curious as to why I was there. That curiosity on their part matched my curiosity in them and created a situation where we could share information freely, an exchange which was essential for getting good photos. By being so foreign to their lives, I was able to gain access because they wanted access to me as well. I wasn’t the only one asking questions, in other words. Giving them the power to ask me questions gave me more time and ability to ask them questions.

Another example is when I go to poor neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. There is a certain fascination from Black and Latino communities about Asians. I’ve endured being called “Jackie Chan”, kung fu, Wu Tang, people shouting “ni hao,” all those, but if you can get past the reduction of a face to a trope, laugh at it, sometimes others laugh back and take you in. Being Asian, again, adds a bit of mystery. I used to envy being White, but I’ve come to the conclusion that there are many times that being a minority allows me to connect with other minorities. Having been disrespected in the past allows me to have more compassion for others who have also been disenfranchised. It’s not a 100% thing, but I have found that just being Asian allows me to walk down a street and not be thought of as a rich white kid, a gentrifier, a hipster, which some of my white friends experience. Also, this is kind of lame, but a lot of people like Chinese food. I’ve been able to connect with so many people just over the fact that we both like noodle soup.

What advice did you wish someone gave you when you were starting out?

Observe and listen. Don’t rush things, and make mistakes, but be smart enough to learn from them. And figure out where the action is!

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A street fight on South 2nd street, Brooklyn, NY. (Stephen Yang | New York Post)

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DOA in the subway, New York (Stephen Yang | New York Post)

Metlife Building

The Chrysler Building, New York. (Stephen Yang)

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The Highline, New York.  (Stephen Yang)

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 A boy salutes in Tahrir Square, Cairo. (Stephen Yang)

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Gun and Sandwich in Tahrir Square, Cairo. (Stephen Yang)

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A portrait of an Egyptian man in Cairo. (Stephen Yang)

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Garbageman, Cairo. (Stephen Yang)

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Tahrir Square, Cairo. (Stephen Yang)

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Collage, New York. (Stephen Yang)