“And so the question keeps lingering in my mind: at the end of all this exploring, will I arrive where I started and know this place for the first time?”
This question, inspired by T.S. Eliot’s poem Little Gidding, concludes the project statement that I wrote to accompany ‘Hanoi Reflections’, my latest series of nocturnal cityscapes depicting the changing face of Vietnam’s capital city. I started this photo project at the end of 2018, as I participated in the Invisible Photographer Asia Mentorship Program. The result of that mentorship was a photo series called ‘Hanoi Skin’, which I wrote about in an earlier article that was published on this very website. While I was, and still am, proud of ‘Hanoi Skin’, I knew it wasn’t the end of the story I was trying to tell. There was still so much to be discovered and photographed that I simply had to keep on going.
Fast-forward to December 2019, and there I was again, hopping on my scooter at night, trying to make my way through the little lanes and back alleys of some of Hanoi’s anonymous residential neighborhoods. Although the starting point for my new series was exactly the same as for ‘Hanoi Skin’, some things had changed. First of all, I had switched from the X-T20 to the X-H1, and decided to focus on one lens and focal length this time around, using just the fabulous Fujinon XF 14mm f2.8 R. This was liberating, as it helped me to focus on the actual scene in front of me, instead of having to constantly decide which lens or focal length would suit that scene better. Not only did I enjoy this simplified process during the image-making itself, I feel like it also helped me to reach a more cohesive and consistent result.
However, apart from this technicality, something more important had changed. By the time that I started creating my new series, I knew that there was a real chance that, for professional reasons, I might move out of Vietnam in the near future. Without realizing it at the time, this possibility changed my mindset. While in the past I was trying to capture the contrast between Hanoi’s old and new residential areas quite literally, this time I ended up recording my personal response to the transformations that were happening all around me.
Some of the images of ‘Hanoi Reflection’ were made in the immediate neighborhood where I live, a very familiar sight, close to the heart of myself, my family and many of my friends. Other images reflect how I feel about all the modernity that’s being erected in many areas of the city where it just seems to be out of place. One image that shows this quite effectively doesn’t even have any buildings in it. It’s an image of an orchard full of kumquat trees, a typical gift and decoration item for Têt, which is the Vietnamese name for Lunar New Year.
These trees are an all too familiar sight in and around Hanoi this time of year. In this image though, the colors seem weirdly artificial. This is because the soil, trees and the low-hanging clouds are strangely lit by the neon lights shining from a few modern apartment blocks that are being constructed nearby. So there you have it: the visual effect of a tradition altered by progress.
In any case, I don’t want to go into detail about each and every image, since that would be the photographic equivalent of explaining a joke. I’d rather let the audience simply look at the series and come up with their own idea of how the images are connected to each other and what story they try to convey. Or better yet: why don’t you create your own story with the visual puzzle pieces laid out in front of you?
As I write this article, the possibility of me transitioning to another country has been confirmed, which means I won’t have time to expand this project any further. So this is it. I’ve completed my personal take on the changes that this amazing city is going through, a city which I’ve been lucky to call home for more than five years. But still the question keeps lingering in my mind: at the end of all this exploring, will I arrive where I started and know this place for the first time?