By the time Daniel Cheng Yang was 20 years old he had been to Africa five times, published a book of his photographs with the forward written by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and traveled the world with his exhibitions.
Now, as a senior at Hamline University, about to graduate with a degree in Political Science and Social Justice, Yang’s passion for the refugee community is being celebrated again in the only place he says is truly his home – St. Paul.
Metro State St. Paul Campus Library Gallery hours are Monday–Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Friday–Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. through October 5 For more information, contact Erica Rasmussen, gallery director, at 651-793-1631 or e-mail erica.Rasmussen@metrostate.edu.
Yang, a self-taught photographer, visited northwestern Kenya five times from 1999 to 2002. Selected photos from his stops at the UNHCR Transit Center en route to Kakuma Refugee Camp, where he photographed Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda and Somalia, as well as the nearby indigenous ethnic Turkana, an indigenous people who raise livestock in an arid region of northwest Kenya.
The photographs from these trips created quite a stir with local groups, including a January 2003 exhibition at the Minnesota Center for Photography.
This led to a meeting with Ms. Bonnie Hayskar, owner of Pangaea Publishing & Design, which focuses on books about nature and people. Yang’s African photos were published as “Kakuma Turkana, Dueling Struggles: Africa’s Forgotten Peoples in 2002.
“This was an untold story,” said Bonnie Hayskar, who feels that governments and media focus on events but do not stick around to address the pain and indignation of millions of people like these who languish in the camps.
Hayskar added that foreign photographers typically do not capture what Yang was able to do as a young person who won their trust by sticking around and showing that he cared.
Erica Rasmussen, MFA, director of the Metro State Library’s Art Gallery, was moved by the photos and thought Yang’s work would be a wonderful exhibit that would benefit the Metro State Library. The result is the exhibit, “Testimony: Visions of Hope and Despair from East Africa, a photographic documentary by Daniel Cheng Yang, through Oct. 5 at Metropolitan State University Third Floor Gallery, 645 East Seventh Street, St. Paul.
Rasmussen had little to go on in locating Yang, until she noticed a photo credit in the book to renowned Minnesota photographer Richard Bancroft, Yang’s documentarian colleague. She called Bancroft, and he surprised her by describing Yang as his mentor. She got Yang’s contact information and then turned to Suzanne Walfoort, Metro State Communications Professor, who conducted a video interview with Yang that can be viewed in the exhibit.
In the video, Yang tells of his several trips to Africa. His initial trips were to visit with the Sudanese refugees, and the photos depict the loss, despair and helplessness of a people without a home and a doubtful future. There is a bench in the gallery where patrons may watch the Yang interview.
Rasmussen’s students, including Leah Anderson and Tricia Erickson, put together the exhibit as part of a graduate studies art course. The students chose the frames, the gallery color and the placement of the photos on two walls, with refugee camp photos on one side and the native Turkanas on the other.
They compiled a collection of 30 black and white photographs that represent the struggles of more than 100,000 refugees that have been stranded in the camp since 1992.
“There is a lot of pain,” said Rasmussen about the powerful and moving exhibition. She was also moved at Yang’s ability to capture the sincerity and dignity of both the refugees and Turkana people.
As the son of a Hmong refugee and a former international relief worker, Yang had the desire to tell the stories of these ancient people who go on murdered and displaced for generations in a civil war that the world ignores.
“I thought that if I could take images that stick in people’s heads, I could create change,” said Yang. “Those suffering are no different than you or me. It is simply a matter of geographical circumstance. We must view the single mother suffering from HIV/AIDS in Haiti as our own mother. We must view the young boy throwing rocks in the West Bank as our own son. We must view the elderly fleeing their homes in Darfur as our grandparents. It is our duty to be a voice for the voiceless.”
Yang’s later trips focus on the ethnic Turkana indigenous peoples of the area. Here, the faces are proud and tell the stories of thousands of generations in the cradle of civilization. Their plight is to maintain their livelihood and culture as war and global warming threaten their very existence.
William Yang, who served refugees as director of Hmong American Partnership for over 15 years, said that his son Daniel was a bright and compassionate high school student who wanted to understand the refugee experience first-hand. Rather than go to Asia, Daniel went on his own to Africa and stayed in the camps to immerse himself in the Sudanese and Somali refugee experience at Kakuma.
William accompanied Daniel on the last trip to experience their plight himself and to capture a rare glimpse into the indigenous life of the Turkana near the camp.
Yang has since traveled to Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba to promote indigenous rights by working with governments and social movements in the regions. His photos include Cuban President Fidel Castro, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and the children and grandchildren of slain Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. He has also photographed the Native American Indian peoples of North America.
Ashford Thomas came to the reception to congratulate his friend Daniel Yang, who brought his photos and stories to the Children’s Theater, where he was an actor in the production of “Lost Boys of Sudan”, referring to thousands of displaced orphaned boys and girls who fled the Sudanese Civil War.
With only stories about a camp in Kenya that would take them in, these children walked across mountains and deserts to reach the camps. Around 40,000 of them were eventually sponsored to the United States, including a North Dakota farm where Ashford went to meet to prepare for his role.
As an actor for 8 years, and graduating with a Performing Arts degree from Howard University, Ashford said that he did not learn much about their plight after growing up in the North Carolina.
He said Yang’s photos, much like meeting with the boys themselves, brought about a direct connection with this painful reality. He felt that Yang captured the pain and suffering in a dignified way.
Ping Xiong, a cousin of Yang’s said that he moved here after the book was published and although he knew Yang as a close companion, he was not aware of this project until recently. “He brings to reality the plight that these people are going through,” he said.