Robin Yong: Flowers of Ethiopia

Robin Yong is an Australia-based medical doctor with a passion for photography and travel. He enjoys traveling to exotic destinations to befriend and photograph the locals. Over the past few years, Robin has quickly become one of the most popular and influential photographers at the Venice Carnevale.

His one of the best known series “Flowers of Ethiopia” alone has gathered numerous awards, finalist status and honorable mentions in many International photography competitions. Last year, he scooped the top prize of the 2017 “Sente Antu Cup” International Photo Contest and was crowned one of the “Top Ten Photographers of the World”.

In a conversation with Global Photography, Robin talks about his passion for travel portraits, some of the amazing locations he has visited, as well as the stories behind his dramatic and colourful works.


Robin Yong at the award ceremony of the 2017 “Sente Antu Cup” International Photo Contest

1. Could you tell us a little of the background of this series, and how you became interested in Ethiopian culture and people?

Flowers of Ethiopia is a series of about 200 plus photos of the Surma Tribe, Omo Valley, Ethiopia. This is the place where mankind, and possibly where fashion first began.

It is a powerful series of photos, and I usually enter up to 10 different photos in the same series for photo contests. Sente Awards is the largest contest I have entered so far and this time we are showing 30 different photos from the same series.

©Robin Yong

The series is done using only natural lighting. The tribes people have superstitious beliefs that each time a flash goes off, it sucks blood energy out of them.

I am a 'people' photographer and I only photograph people during my travels. I have long heard of the Surma people and their elaborate body painting and headgear made of flowers so I decided to pay them a visit.

©Robin Yong

©Robin Yong

2. It seems like you preferred not to focus on poverty, yet poverty is also present in these tribes. How did you navigate this balance?

Every time I do photos, I want to show the best side of my subjects. And I want my photos to be dramatic. I suppose in many places we go, poverty is quite common, but life goes on. The people have pride and we want to be their friends, we want to show their best and most beautiful side.

©Robin Yong

3. In your opinion, what makes a great portrait? Could you share some experiences you have had in shooting staged portraits like this series?

A great Portrait is one that has a wow factor, wins many awards and my subject must like the portrait. Flowers of Ethiopia is probably semi-staged. It was done in a deserted guard post that has a large window, such that when you stand the subject inside at certain times of the day, the behind goes black. I never like to tell my subjects what to do. It will just make the pictures look unnatural.

I like to show my pictures to the kids. They are really intelligent people. When I return the next day, the head decorations just get better.

I also like to show the children my other works. After looking at the Venetian pictures, some of them were actually copying the poses of the Venetian models.

©Robin Yong

©Robin Yong

4. How did you communicate with these tribesmen? Are you the one who designed the styles and poses of the subjects?

I can't communicate much with them. They get little visitors every year cause their village is only accessible to cars 3 months of the year. Naturally this is still a very unspoiled area for photography and they are keen to have fun in front of the camera. I don't design the styles and poses. I leave them to do what ever they like to do.

©Robin Yong

©Robin Yong

In fact, when I shoot most times, I am usually the photographer that don't speak much to my subjects. I talk to them before or after the shoots, but not during the shoot, cause I am always so busy thinking of other things - such as the natural light source etc.

5. You have a medical background. What drives you to take photography as a career of equal importance?

Photography doesn't make money, it's a money losing business. Currently, the most I do is to assist in travel photo workshops in Venice. I go there every year for the Carnevale anyway, so the little money I make as a workshop assistant helps cover my causets for accommodation and travel.

My travel photography just makes me more new friends and makes my travel experiences more interesting. That's all.

©Robin Yong

6. What do you hope to achieve from photography in the future?

Hopefully more awards, exhibitions and being represented by art galleries, and maybe become an ambassador for a camera brand. It is a well-known fact at present that everyone knows I still don't own a camera, relying solely on borrowed stuff every time. So my gear may be a Canon one day, a Leica on another or even a Sony or Olympus. And of course, better quality photos in each and every of my future shoots.

©Robin Yong

©Robin Yong

7. What are your upcoming travel plans?

I am heading off to Venice for the Venice Carnevale. My photography Teachers and friends are all there. We gather in Venice every year to make beautiful pictures. This is the place where my photography started, and where I am best known for my work.

Thereafter, it is to Kyoto again to photograph the Geishas during the Cherry Blossom season. These ladies are so professional when it comes to photography and they always make everything so easy. Shooting hours are short and I get good food.

And after that, I usually do another Venetian themed event in Europe - usually Belgium or France. I maintain very close relationships with the French Venetian Association so I usually do an event for them every year. And maybe after that, either Bhutan, Cambodia or Thailand or even Kyoto again for whatever long weekend I can find.

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