Vietnam was scorching. Unforgivingly. To prevent my physical and mental state from wilting amid endless waves of suffocating heat waged by a vengeful sun, capturing the streets became a ritual: Shoot in the early hours, eat, rest, eat, rest, eat some more, then shoot again in the later hours. Starting early in the day was an absolute must in order to fully encapsulate a variegated culture that has yet to be worn down by the daily bustle.
I immediately found myself drawn to the people over the gorgeous landscapes that dot the country. I was swept away and immersed in a sea of faces tugging at my camera to tell their story. All around me, it was like visual poetry. Walking from block to block, a new verse was being told. So I stood on a busy corner and mentally framed scene after scene. The legendary photographer Joel Meyerowitz once said, “If a street calls then say YES!” I said “Yes” to the first element that my instincts drew me in. I said “YES!” to the street.
My focus was then set: Capture Vietnam with a photojournalistic approach. Be invisible, follow the light and look for themes. Why? Ordinary life isn’t ordinary. It’s poetic.
After months of planning, the journey began in early May 2019 for two weeks alongside the Fujifilm X-T3 and my trusted trio: Fujinon XF 23mm f/2, 35mm f/2, and 56mm f/1.2. The weather sealing of the first two make them the essential go-to to withstand the unexpected, sporadic, torrential downpours that are typical during the summer season. The entire set up was compartmentalized with ease in a 10 liter sling bag, a travel companion that stows just about anywhere. Such a relatively small carry-on deprives a photographer of overwhelming gear options which in turn unshackles the mind — a zen inspired doctrine where the boundaries of the creative mind could be pushed further with just a single prime lens than an entire arsenal. This philosophical approach helps fend off the nagging fear of “missing the shot.” I can state with all confidence that the vast majority of the compositions captured on this trip were taken on the versatile, unobtrusive 23mm.
At first what seemed like utter chaos, Ho Chi Minh City [Saigon] resembled a busy beehive assembling a visual poetry that I sought out to frame. Once the dust settled, my eyes locked into an unforgettable encounter. A man partially concealed behind a strikingly vivid blue door, stared timidly into the lens. The door was the dividing line as it separated light from shadows on a quiet street. In the adjacent picture, a boy was lost in thought while his father looked exuberantly on as they pulled into the street markets. Lastly an elderly woman gazed across the way at a young man as he gingerly balanced four oversize, stacked buckets of freshly caught crab on his routine delivery route.
A three hour flight to Phong Nha National Park, in the central quadrant of Vietnam, followed. Wary of deadly snakes lurking around a precarious trail that runs through a vast, dense jungle, I conquered my fear by braving the 13 mile hike to go spelunking in the fourth largest cave in the world.
Feeling victorious with body aches and bruises, I made my way to Huế – an imperial city lined with temples and fortresses that once housed and protected the privileged. Outside the walls, I found the daily life to be quite humble and relatively modest — yet mysterious. In contrast, the nearby Hội An enchanted me with its manicured streets in this 15th century port town that is deeply rooted in indigenous and foreign influences that are reflected in the buildings untouched by the war.
Once the sun set and the temperature cooled in these cities, crowds swarmed to the night markets to satisfy their lust for the street food. And rightfully so. The dishes explode with flavor. At first bite my taste palate entered a state of euphoria, plunging into a dream of skewered meat wrapped in rice paper drizzled with fresh chili sauce that amplified the wonderful ingredients that the people treasure so much.
I departed Vietnam with a sense of hope that perhaps photojournalism still has a pulse despite that prominent publications have increasingly minimized the medium to just freelance. Experiencing firsthand the openness of the Vietnamese, it became evident that their intention was to communicate their humanity to the rest of the world.
As a medium for capturing the visual poetry of every day lives, photography is more important than ever. It gives a voice to the reticent, the overlooked.