A Moment in Vietnam

Some time ago, I finished my first photo book, called A Moment in Vietnam. I spent three years putting it together and I enjoyed nearly every part of that and I’m quite proud of it. However, my next book, whenever that comes, will be quite different. Through this project I learned a whole lot about photography, about putting collections together, and maintaining, researching and presenting photo projects. Let me elaborate.

Filling the gaps

After deciding to make a book, one of the first things I learned was that I needed to go out and take a bunch more photos. I think it’s a natural thought of a photographer that if one photo can tell a story, more photos together can tell more of a story. I had been doing that, but the turning point came when I stopped thinking about just adding pictures onto a pile, and thought about what the pictures would look like arranged out into a book, and saw that there were many gaps. Suddenly I had a lot of work to do!

I thought to myself, ‘What are the defining views of Vietnam, that I haven’t captured?’ and ended up with a great long list of things I needed to snare with my camera. I needed the food. I needed the wild traffic. I needed Ha Long Bay, and the little alleys of Hanoi, and the farmers in their fields, and the coffee, the dusty highways, the chill of the north and the torrential rain of the south. Each of these things became a mission, and when I was able to show multiple of these in one frame it was a great thing.

Filling those gaps was quite different from the way I’d started out in photography, which was just taking pictures of whatever I thought would look nice, or things I could make into a visual story. Instead, my missions were now quite specific. For example, I didn’t just want food – I wanted a working person’s meal and more upscale city-chic kind of offering next to it. I didn’t just want to capture new year’s traditions, I wanted to show young people following new year’s traditions. Trying to fulfill these missions was a fantastic challenge that really stretched my skills.

For me, photography is a reason to get out and see new places. In a similar way, the book became a reason to go out and get photos, and specific ones too.

Contrast and consistency

My idea for the book was to have a series of photos that captured aspects of life in modern Vietnam, all on film. I felt that using film would give the work more consistency, but in hindsight I think that it needed more than that. I used all sorts of film, from black and white Tri-X to vivid Velvia. In all, 11 different films appear in the book. It feels a little messy and cobbled together, though not enough for a scrapbook kind of feel. There is no overall visual theme. Doing it again, I would probably choose two films to shoot everything with, and perhaps limit myself to one lens.

Why not use one film and make it even more consistent? Well, I also found that contrast is important, and a different film is useful in providing that. For example, I can use a blue-green-leaning Fuji film to show the modern Ho Chi Minh city, and a yellow-leaning Kodak film to represent traditional Hanoi. One of the most powerful things about a photo collection is the ability to contrast two things, like the two cities, that you can’t do in a single image. I can put old next to new, rich next to poor, open next to closed, dark next to bright.

Furthermore, lack of contrast makes things boring. The collection needs flows and shifts to keep it alive. I found that collecting the black-and white shots together worked well, and I could follow it with Velvia and the sudden, saturated colour would be even more powerful.

The flow of the collection is very important. A piece in the wrong place seems to stand out in a bad way. This could be because of the colours or the feeling of the picture, or just that the subject doesn’t seem to connect with what comes before or after. Eventually the idea of the book became a journey from the city into the country, from the modern day into the past. I thought about this quite a lot when trying to fill those gaps.

A pleasing discovery was that some pictures can work well in a collection even if they don’t stand very well on their own. In the flow of the book there should be some ‘rest’ points, and a picture that isn’t very attention-getting can sit there quite nicely. On the other hand, pictures that look good on their own don’t always jibe well when set next to others.

Now that I have an idea of how much effort and expertise goes into editing, I think I will consult a professional when my next project comes to that stage. I’m glad I had a go at it by myself, but it’s very hard to do on your own and your friends will get tired of you asking for opinions on every little change.

Biting off what you can chew

After I came up with my list of things to capture, I knew it would take a lot of effort. The collection is not huge at 40 photos, but even if it were 150, I think it wouldn’t do justice to a subject like ‘Vietnam’. I’m quite happy with what I’ve done, but as the title says, it’s only a short experience of the subject. For my next project I think I will narrow the topic somewhat.

Photography has a great power to see deeply into something. With my book I covered a lot of the basics, but I didn’t get through 100% of my list and missed the chance to really study something.

Another thing to consider when deciding on a subject is expertise. I’m not Vietnamese, and it took me a few years before I felt that I had any insight to offer on the subject. I didn’t want to stick to the obvious, but there was also the danger of offending some Vietnamese people by showing my ignorance. I will always be a foreigner in that country. It’s a bit of a conundrum because it can be hard to see what’s unique about your own country, since everything seems normal. An outside perspective is kind of necessary.

My role was to document rather than create, but it felt both too loose and too limiting

On one hand, Vietnam was a great subject because it was something I was interested in, and many other people are too. The project helped me to learn a lot. Now that it’s done, however, I’m going to choose subjects that I can be more of an authority on.

Should you choose to accept it…

Making a photo collection is an essential exercise for a photographer, in my view. Working photos together is very different from working on individual pieces. The lessons were invaluable for me. And while I like my book, I know the next one is going to be better in a lot of ways.

Now, how to get people to know about your book? That’s something I’m yet to learn.

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