Paid to Be Lucky

©Michael Yamashita

Bonsai Master Yamada Tomio

This is the first of what I hope to be weekly posts about the back-story behind my pictures and my life as a photographer.  Each will feature a photograph and how that particular image came to be.

When I started taking pictures, I never planned on photography becoming my life’s work.  Now I can’t imagine doing anything else.  I say this at a time when it seems like just about everyone is proclaiming photography, or the kind of photography I’ve made a career out of, is going the way of the dinosaur, along with book publishing, print journalism and the music industry.  In the 150 years since the birth of photography, things kind of rolled along, with innovation coming at a pretty measured pace.  But then, about 20 years ago, a tsunami swept through, turning the industry on its head. Digital, internet, HD, multi-media, crowd-sourcing. None of this is big news now, but I think it’s worth reflecting on, if only to counteract the sky-is-falling predictions that surround us. That’s because the same thing that hooked me on photography in college still grabs me.

While in London on a junior-year-abroad program, I bought an old motorcycle, a Triumph 650 Bonneville, and with only a backpack and a borrowed Nikon, headed for Tunisia to join my sister who was working as a translator there.  Experiencing this unimaginably exotic landscape soaked in North African sunlight lit the fire that began my obsession with travel and taking photographs.  And that same fire still gets me every time I land somewhere on assignment.  I’m fascinated by the great journeys of fabled travelers like Marco Polo or the Chinese explorer/admiral Zheng He – not just for the adventure, but also for the chance to shoot ancient places and cultures through a modern lens.  This is especially true as so many ancient places are so quickly disappearing. (I write this as I’m shooting the Grand Canal in China, whose oldest parts date back to 600 BC.)

Despite the changing economics of the photo business and the technology that has transformed everyone with a cell phone into a photographer, the content, the picture itself, still remains the irreplaceable, though often elusive goal.  I often say photographers are paid to be lucky, but that’s only part of the story.  The famous quote about luck being what happens when preparation meets opportunity may be cliché, but it’s true.  You have to be there, and be ready, to take advantage of the lucky shot.  Otherwise, it’s just an accident.  And accidents don’t make photography careers.

Before embarking on any assignment, I try to compose the images of the story in my mind.  And I do this after a lot of research.  This is where the foundation for photographer’s luck is laid – you have to know what you’re looking for.  Once I have my shooting “wish” list, I start the hunt. That might involve hiking for hours or waiting a day for a mountain mist to clear.  It might require returning to a site many times or even in another season — for just the right light.  Often, though, the real key to success is to be ready and open to seeing the photograph when you least expect it.

This shot (Bonsai Master Yamada Tomio) was one of those cases of instant inspiration … and being open to that moment.  I was in the bonsai village of Omiya, Japan, trying to figure out a way to capture the detail and artistry of these miniature trees, some over a hundred years old, when a master gardener emerged from the nursery delicately handling a beautiful specimen.  I looked up and saw these wonderful hands framing the tree against his black sweater.  I asked him to turn slightly toward the light, and CLICK. I was handed the image I was looking for.

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7 Responses to Paid to Be Lucky

  1. iheartfilm says:

    Our local botanical garden has a bunch of little banzai trees and other miniatures. Some of them are the result of years of miniaturization. They have a ginkgo that’s only 25 inches tall!

  2. andrewgould says:

    You’ve brought up so much to ponder on here in this most interesting post, Mike. Firstly, being also of a generation that did not grow up with computers, the Internet and digital cameras, I cannot ever cease to be amazed at what we have now, and most of all, at how it links us together. Very interesting insights here too on your preparation for an assignment, and what is entailed in this.

    I also want to say what a wonderful image this is, with the light and combination of the bonsai and hands. I’ve somtimes heard or read a photographer say, “I wish I’d taken that picture!”, and in this case — although I’d never assume that I could have come up with this result — it’s really true for me, as I have a very good Vietnamese friend back in Australia, who has a garden full of wonderful bonsais, but it never occurred to me to take this approach. So here, we come back again to what you write about previsualising, etc. Thanks for the lesson.

    By the way, I’ve just looked up Omiya Bonsai Village on the Internet, and have noted down their “Great Bonsai Festival” held on the 3-5 May for my travel list. Thanks for that, too.

  3. Elizabeth Bibb says:

    Those lucky moments make for some beautiful images.

  4. Tom Ervin says:

    What a wonderful story Michael.

  5. Jerold Jette says:

    I adore a memorable post, I really do

  6. Nick says:

    Mr. Yamashita,
    I’ve read your blog from the end up to the beginning. It is awsome. I suppose you shot one of the best pictures I ever seen. Thank you for this job done in perfect way.

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