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Learning through photography: Dr Yan Wang Preston's To the South of the Colourful Clouds

5 years ago

Focusing on long-term projects driven by a particular, often rooted in academia, photographic artist Dr Yan Wang Preston explores our complex relationship to the natural world through a variety of perspectives. We take a closer look at her series To the South of the Colourful Clouds, part of her eight-year project Forest and winner of the Landscape category in the 2019 Sony World Photography Awards competition. 

When you’re not out in the field you’re a lecturer at Huddlesfield University. How has having this academic perspective benefitted your work?  

have a PhD in photography so I have gravitated towards a more research-based approach. My photography is often devoid of emotions and instead look at a subject from many different angles. I like to think of it like an intellectual debate with pictures. I prefer to work on long-term projects. Forest, for example, took eight years to create. When I first started transplanting trees I felt it was very sad, yet some really transformed where they have relocated to. There were instances where a city has grown and developed with the trees. The story is never one-sided. The academic side is also about exploring and presenting all of the different aspects – the environmental history, the human side and so on – so finally the project will come together to talk about the difficult issues from different angles. I am interested in the complexity of things, not making visual statements or judgments.

"I am interested in the complexity of things, not making visual statements or judgments."  

You are a renowned photographer and have enjoyed a variety of success in the industry, what was it about the Sony World Photography Awards that appealed?

I never thought I would enter the Sony World Photography Awards just because I felt it was very far away from me, I came to see it every time. I was encouraged by a curator from The Photographers' Gallery. I just never thought I would get in, because so often you see people in the exhibition that are leading figures in the industry. I decided to enter To the South of Colorful Clouds, as the work hasn't been shown too much. I shot the series towards the end of 2017 and published a book that came out last May. 

The other entries I've seen in the 2019 Awards seem to be very strong, particularly in the Professional category. It's interesting to see how many of the projects are long term: many of the photographers have invested a lot of time into their research, building relationships with the subject matter. A significant amount of the works in this year's competitions are quite conceptual which is interesting as some competitions can go for the visually compelling and nothing else. In the Sony World Photography Awards there's a good balance. I enjoyed the exhibition this year as there seems to be a better pace. It's not an overwhelming number of pictures so you can engage which each series more deeply. Also, it’s not like there's one or two very strong pictures and then you don’t see anything else, the size is dealt with quite nicely.

"As a photographer, I learn about the world thanks to photography, I don’t just learn how to take photographs."

Why is visiting photography exhibitions important?

Visiting an exhibition like the Sony World Photography Awards is good for photographers as well as the public as there are so many topics that are relevant to everyone. As a photographer, I learn about the world thanks to photography, I don’t just learn how to take photographs. You can see photographs on the Internet and social media but you're speed-looking at those images, sometimes even just a split second. Seeing photographs in an exhibition is a much more immersive, a vast learning experience for anyone. Each year, I come to the exhibition and I am always very impressed by the variety of work. The printing is beautiful. 

See more of Dr Yan Wang Preston's portfolio here. 

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