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.

Hải Phòng, Hạ Long and Hà Nội

Ninh Bình is already quite close to my eventual destination, Hanoi, but I couldn’t really call my trip finished without a visit to the famous Hạ Long Bay. It’s what I’d been aiming at since the beginning of the journey and for that week the cruise was the only appointment that I had to make. Just the knowledge of my having to be in a particular place at a particular time in the near future gave me a hint of time-stress that I hadn’t felt in a while. I couldn’t think about the end, just yet.

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Ninh Bình

Ninh Bình is a popular tourist spot as it’s only a couple hours south of Hanoi. The main attractions are not in the city itself, but to the east of it. It’s an area with many caves, temples and waterways. Contrary to most visitors, I arrived from the south, having spent about a week away from built-up areas. It was nice to be in a busy place again.

(c) Oscar Saunders 2016. All Rights Reserved.

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Easy Tiger

It’s sometimes said among travellers in Vietnam that there isn’t much worth seeing between Huế and Hanoi. This is actually true if you’re following the coast. I met a fellow from Vinh, whom I asked about things to do there. He said there wasn’t anything, aside from Uncle Ho’s hometown nearby. That’s why he lived in Huế. However, on the western side of Vietnam you can find one of Vietnam’s greatest natural blessings: Phong Nha – Khe Bang national park, home of Vietnam’s biggest cave system, including Hang Son Doong – the biggest cave in the world.

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This is not Hang Son Doong though.

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The Ho Chi Minh Highway West

Heading west out of Hue, I began the journey into the wilds. I was excited about my first stop – a small town called Khe Sanh. It may not ring a bell if you’re not Australian, but the song is one of our unofficial national anthems, along with Waltzing Matilda and the one about being from down under. We know more of its lyrics than of the real anthem, by which I mean about a verse and a half. Anyway, the legendary place awaited. I felt like I was on a pilgrimage.

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The Imperial City

hue_citadel_gate_keystone_1000Two of the best reasons to visit Huế are 1. to eat the food, and 2. to explore the old Nguyễn dynasty citadel. This is located around about the middle of the present-day city and walking distance from my hotel.  It’s a big place and it has plenty to see, including remnants not only of the old kings, but also of the Vietnam war and the famous Tết offensive. The thing I most wanted to find, though, was the gate that appeared on Top Gear.

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The Hải Vân pass

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The road from Da Nang to Huế isn’t long but it’s well-known around the world. I knew it from the Top Gear special all those years ago, and I was looking forward to driving one of the greatest coastal roads – in the world.

The sun was beating down heavily once again and the road was literally melting beneath me – something I’d only seen before in Australia.

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Đà Nẵng

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It was the 11th of April, and today my journey was very short – less than an hour away. I took a wander through Hội An’s old town once more before saying goodbye to the folks at Magnolia, getting lunch and dragging myself out of town. The weather was still very hot (40+ degrees, or more than 100 fahrenheit) but the roads were smooth and unbusy.

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Hội An

If you enter Vietnam through Ho Chi Minh city, you may be taken aback by all the concrete and highways, and think as I did – ‘where are all the rice fields and stuff?’ Well, there are plenty in Bình Định province. I’d spent most of the previous day driving past rice fields. I woke up in Quảng Ngãi on Saturday the 9th of April, and was still to pass quite a few fields before I arrived in Hội An.

Quảng Ngãi town wasn’t great for me – it seemed like part of the highway and not like the idyllic villages I’d been passing through. I wasn’t there long though.

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Typical rice field scene

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