BY DEAN WONG
Michael Wang makes a living as a facilities assistant at PATH (Program for Appropriate Technology in Health) but his true passion is photography.
When doctors at PATH discovered Wang’s hidden talent, they helped him get an in-house ONP (Opportunity for New Professionals) grant. The grant enabled Wang to go to Bolivia with a diagnostic team to photograph the trip and create an exhibit. The diagnostics team worked with the Bolivian Ministry of Health evaluating and improving reproductive health services for women.
PATH is a non-profit organization working on issues of global health. It is based in Ballard.
Wang photographed some of the clinics the team visited. On his own time, he was allowed the freedom to roam Bolivian cities documenting life around him.
“I saw a nation replete with laughter, work, illness, the boredom of long stays in waiting rooms, and the excitement of an election day,” Wang said. “All I knew of people, light, expression and composition was applied to a new place and purpose.”
Because he was taking photographs for PATH to illustrate the work they were doing, Wang brought a digital camera along. Some of these color digitals are included in documentary images.
“We went to three cities in Bolivia,” Wang said. “I followed scientists to clinics and walked around and did street portraits. I was connecting faces with the project. They gave me total artistic control. I wanted to see people the way I saw them.”
Some Bolivians, tired of being targeted by camera-toting tourists, are wary of photographers. Wang brought along a Polaroid camera to break the ice. “Once I gave them a Polaroid, they were more open, their eyes opened up,” he said. “Some people I gave photos to were so happy.” In the case of one woman, he was told the picture may be the only one she receives in her whole life.
One of his favorite images is of a salesman sitting behind a cart full of brooms and toilet plungers. “He was drinking booze and was pretty drunk,” Wang said. “He was looking at me … I felt really visually and emotionally connected to him. He was trying to be dignified with a coat and jacket.”
Another picture is a close-up of a boy’s hands. The boy was shining shoes for 10 cents a shine.
“The street kids wear ski masks,” said Wang. “They’re ashamed their parents send them out to shine shoes. They wear a ski mask so people don’t see who they are.”
In 1987, Wang began learning how to develop film and print photographs.
“When I first developed film, I was shocked,” Wang said. “When I saw my first picture appear in the developer, I was shocked. I could not believe an image appeared before my eyes. I was hooked.”
Wang grew up in New York City and lived in Queens and Brooklyn. He took a photography class at Queensborough Community College where he was mentored by Jules Allen. Wang then went to China and became involved in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
“I was teaching at the People’s University in Beijing,” he said. “I went to the protest and joined in. I took a lot of pictures – it was my first stab at documentary photography.”
Because the water quality was hard, it made dots on black and white film. He decided to take his film to the only custom photo lab in all of China. On the way to the lab, Wang passed some soldiers guarding Tiananmen Square and took a picture of one of them. The solider confronted Wang and took his camera away, along with a bag containing 80 rolls of film he took during the protest. He made efforts to get his camera and film back but was unsuccessful.
His next stop was in Taiwan for another teaching position and he did commercial work ranging from Hong Kong pop star album covers to children. Wang ended up back in New York at the Parsons School of Design. He studied under George Tice and ended up working as a custom black and white printer, doing work for galleries, museums and some well-known photographers. One of his clients was Ralph Gibson.
“When I met him, I said I’ve been looking at your pictures my whole photo life,” said Wang. “I was excited to print these photos I’ve been looking at for 20 years.”
He printed a limited-edition collection of Gibson’s work and fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo. Wang has exhibited his work in New York, Taipei and Prague. In Seattle, he has taught classes at the Photographic Center of the Northwest. Wang has also gone to Kenya with another PATH team.
“I want to contribute a little verse to it,” said Wang. “My eye is good enough to document projects in a long term way.”