William Yang: A community hero behind the lens
His decades of documenting the gay scene was celebrated at the 2013 Honour Awards when William Yang was named ‘Community Hero’. Now, the photographer is sharing his historic images and memories to a wider audience through film and multimedia. Cec Busby reports.
With a body of work that spans over four decades, photographer William Yang has captured all elements of LGBTI life: from the political rallies of the seventies and the HIV crisis of the eighties, to the commercialisation of the gay scene and gradual mainstreaming of gay culture. The softly spoken Yang can often be found, camera-in-hand quietly observing, ready to capture our community’s most important moments.
Queensland-born Yang first made the trip to Sydney in 1969. The bright-eyed young Chinese-Australian quickly became immersed in the city’s burgeoning gay scene. Australia was in the midst of a sexual revolution and Sydney was its epicentre. As gay men began leaping out of the closet, Yang was there to document every living moment.
Yang said he never consciously came out as a gay man but was ‘swept out’ by the events of the time as gay men and women all over the world became politically active and began to call for their rights. Yang remembers it as a celebratory time, which peaked with the emergence of gay pride and Mardi Gras in the late seventies and early eighties.
All the while, the shutter was firing as Yang captured some of the scene’s most famous figures including artists Peter Tully and David McDiarmid.
Much of the memories of this time can be found in Yang’s documentary, Friends of Dorothy, which premiered at Mardi Gras Film Festival earlier this year. The film, part of a working trilogy, brought us the stories from the early days of Sydney’s queer community as told through Yang’s lens. Yang is now working on part three which looks at things closer to home.
“Friends of Dorothy covered a similar time to my earlier film My Generation – but it was the gay scene as opposed to the straight celebrity scene,” Yang tells SX. “Since then I have been finishing off Blood Links which is the final film in my trilogy and covers my experiences in my Chinese-Australian family. It’s been slow to fall into shape – we’ve been working on it all year, but I’ve just finished working on the score. So we’re inching forward.”
While Yang is still active as a photographer, he spends less time on the scene these days. “I don’t do it so much now,” he says. “I still photograph milestones, but I’m concentrating on finishing Blood Links and cataloguing my archives.”
Yang thinks his work resonates with the queer community because it provides an historical record of an important time in Sydney gay history. “Throughout history the gay community has been invisible, but in the 70s it started to be recorded in an open way – not a closeted way,” Yang says. “I think all people want to see their stories represented as it reinforces one’s existence.”
He described photography as an observation and said in the beginning it was about standing back and watching. “In those early days it was harder in a way because there was still that legacy of oppression and most people still didn’t want to be photographed. But I suppose with the rise of Oxford Street, there became a stronger sense of community, and Mardi Gras came along and there was stronger sense of acceptance.”
Today no one shies away from Yang’s lens, and his work has been acknowledged both inside and outside the LGBTI community for its cultural and historical significance. Indeed, last year, Yang was the recipient of the Honour Award for Community Hero.
“It was fantastic to get that recognition,” Yang says. “And being of mature age it felt good, actually, because it felt like my life was being acknowledged in some way.”
KNOW A COMMUNITY HERO?
Nominations are now open for the 2014 Honour Awards, an event that recognises people and organisations whose work and achievements have made a difference to the lives of people in the LGBTI community in NSW.
Now in their eighth year, the Honour Awards are an annual gala fundraising event for LGBTI community initiatives supported by the Aurora Group and ACON.
Nominations can be submitted in categories covering the business, health, education, community, legal, political, youth, media, arts and cultural sectors.
Nominations are free and can be submitted on the Honour Awards website.
People who nominate a finalist get a chance to attend the gala awards ceremony for free*.
The ceremony will be held at The Ivy Ballroom on Wednesday, September 7.
Tickets are now on sale.
Go to www.honourawards.com.au.
*only the first person to nominate a finalist gets a free ticket