These days it’s easy for the average traveller to get a good picture. With all the gadgets we possess most of us manage to create images that wow our fellow trekkers and friends back home. We’ve all got the quintessential Vietnam photographs of ladies in conical hats, Notre Dame cathedral, French colonial architecture and so on. But don’t you want images that speak of an experience…..your exploration of Vietnam?
I’ve visited Vietnam several times in the last ten years and have come to realize that the really great images and stories are tucked away in the nooks and crannies of the country. Those nook might be those dimly lit alleys that peeks your interest, the cranny could be that dirt road that seemingly goes nowhere but begs to be explored. The point is get out and investigate this incredibly photogenic country beyond the typical tourist stops.
One tip that can expand your travel experience and provide you with superb photo opportunities is to do a one square block walk. One square block can reveal a broad choice of subject matter and open up an aspect of the cityscape that captures your attention. One late night I took a walk around my neighbourhood and discovered the sidewalks become one big lounge room with people sleeping outdoors to escape the balmy heat of April. It was a stark contrast from the bustling ward I’ve come to know in the daylight and provided a new window into the street culture of Saigon. It was a surprisingly peaceful scene in a city that I assumed never rested.
Exploring the outer edges of the city is also an effective means to achieve impressive images. Once you get deep into the suburbs, and beyond, you are out of the tourist districts and probably a little outside your comfort zone. It is one of the best ways to have social interactions with the locals. They are just as curious about you as you are about them. Push yourself into situations where you can start up conversations with people. A prime example of this kind of encounter would be a short ride I took south of District 7. The trip led me down a series of gravel roads meandering through farming villages and rice fields. A quick stop at a road side banh mi stand turned into a brief but pleasant chat with two young guys who spoke some English. We shared some laughs and nervous smiles as we tried to communicate with each other. This limited interaction was enough to make them feel comfortable with me taking a snap shot of them chilling out at the local food stand and it gave me an interesting story to tell of the two guys I met while eating a chicken skin sandwich.
Probably the most important tip I can offer for getting beautiful images is take your time. When you are on the road it is instinctive to blow through a town or a neighbourhood in the quest to see and do as much as you can in the limited amount of time you have to travel. My suggestion is to slow down and take in your surroundings and observe what is going on around you. The longer you look around the more likely you will spot points of interest and the more likely people will take interest in you.
One of my favourite projects has been compiling a photo essay of an old apartment complex that is slated to be demolished in my ward. The aged colonial yellow of the buildings, the colourful clutter of daily life that hangs from it’s facade, and most of all the smiling faces of it’s inhabitants makes for a stellar photographer’s experience. My friend and I took a walk through, one of several I’ve done in he past 4 years, and explored the complex paying attention to the colours, the geometric forms, and the daily goings on residents. The longer we stayed the more people gathered around as we listened to stories of residents experiences and the storied history of the block. I find these kind of experiences rewarding because it connects me to the images that I take and provides a history that you can’t get from a book.
Vietnam is a wonderful place to visit and to photograph and I guess the underlying message is to encourage you to make a connection with the subject matter you choose. The country is picturesque, the people are charming and worth the time to investigate. Enjoy the time you have creating art and break away from shooting snap shots. Have an experience and bond with this beautiful nation.