Vietnam Street Portraits

Obsessions with subject matter are commonplace among visual artists. Photographers are no exception. Famous examples in photography include Eugene Atget’s early morning documenting of empty Paris streets, Alfred Stieglitz’s twenty year portrait of his painter wife Georgia O’Keefe, W Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh odyssey of 1955, and Bernd and Hilla Becher’s cataloguing of industrial structures.

Senior, Hoi An, Vietnam 2014. © John Meehan

I stumbled across my own obsession by accident. In April 2009, I travelled to Vietnam for a three week photographic expedition. The aim was to photograph street life in general and fishing villages in particular. The success of that first trip saw me back in Vietnam in August 2009 for another three weeks. Further trips, with a fellow photographer, followed in 2012 and 2014. The resulting body of work now exceeds ten thousand images. During these trips, street portraiture unexpectedly came to dominate my work. It is a reflection of a new found obsession and love affair with the people of Vietnam: good natured, kind, assertive, pragmatic, and taciturn in varying measure.

I believe that knowledge of the history of photography is a source of creative ideas and depth in photographs. I frequently cross reference other photographers and photographic milestones in my work. Not by imitation, more by means of the iteration of motifs and mixing aesthetics associated with different genres. The idea is illustrated by, and described within, the writer Geoff Dyer’s brilliant book The Ongoing Moment.

What has evolved into an ongoing Vietnam ‘project’ now involves several overlapping strands (street life, traders, manual labourers, fishing communities), here I will present just a few of the street portraits. The aim is to show some of the varying portraiture styles I try to utilise – dictated by the subject – while photographing on the street. The photographs are accompanied by some background about the making of each image.

The influence of formalism is obvious throughout my work. It is extremely rare I make images with slanting horizons, out of focus images, or oblique points of view. My early training as a large format landscape photographer means I generally compose carefully and try to simplify the elements in the frame. The portrait above illustrates.

This early morning shot with soft lighting allowed for a simplified low contrast range of tones (stone, skin, shirt and hair). The gentleman caught my eye because he was sat alone and so obviously exuded calmness and dignity. I asked his permission to make a photograph and he nodded his consent. To keep things simple, I placed his left eye just outside the intersection of the ‘thirds’. I think the offset shirt and head add interest and save this from being a technically successful but boring photograph. Unusually, he never stiffened into an unnatural pose as so often happens. I didn’t want to interrupt his peace so I carefully took one shot, thanked him and left.

By contrast, the image below is reminiscent of the uncompromising direct portrait style frequently employed by Richard Avedon. Not so much compositionally but, rather in terms of its intensity, resolution and close examination of the subject.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASecurity Guard, Chợ Lớn district of Ho Chi Minh City, 2014. © John Meehan

Despite a lot of experience photographing on the streets of Vietnam, I was well aware Chợ Lớn district – it means ‘big market’ and is Vietnam’s largest Chinatown – is not a typical tourist spot; locals are not so used to having strangers pointing cameras at them. Consequently, I kind of ‘stalked’ this guy by photographing around him until I plucked up the courage to point my camera at him directly from fairly close range.

The aim was to capture the tough menacing character of the face. His nonchalance contributing to the sense of confidence the man clearly possessed. The resulting close up is not cropped. In converting the colour raw file to black and white I tried to enhance his toughness by a high contrast treatment to stress the skin texture and his saliva.

The direct formal style of portraiture is one of several approaches to the street portrait. Another common strategy – sometimes referred to as ‘environmental portraiture’ – is illustrated in the next image. This is atypical image for me in many ways. Market traders, fisherman, porters, steelworkers and street vendors at work are recurring subjects.

Ceramics craftsmen in a social enterprise, Hoi An, Vietnam 2014. © John Meehan

Tourists are relatively scarce in Chợ Lớn but, Hoi An is a Mecca for them. This naturally means this beautiful tourist town has been heavily documented by thousands of photographers. To achieve a different perspective, I spent some time photographing in a social enterprise providing employment for people with learning difficulties. The people were employed producing jewellery and ceramic pieces for sale to tourists in the adjacent shop. The opportunity was the result of a chance invitation to photograph.

Any casual Google search for images of Vietnam will show the surprising similarity in images by thousands of professional and amateur photographers. The challenge is to see something fresh and different. In addition, I try to distinguish my Vietnam work by relating it the medium’s history, in an attempt to give my photographs a ‘classic’ feel, while deliberately blending aesthetic styles from different genres to save it from cliché and imitation.

(I am currently trying to secure funding to complete the final part of this Vietnam project. I hope to return to Vietnam in 2016 to complete a series of portraits of the many retired professionals and army veterans who meet daily in Hanoi).


10 thoughts on “Vietnam Street Portraits

  1. A very intriguing piece, I too find that the best projects find you rather than the other way around. They can be more organic and feel less forced when that happens, and a better body of work can emerge as a result. Excellent shots, and thanks for the follow, by the way.

    • Thanks Steve. I’m learning to relax and respond rather than trying to force issues based on everything I read. I think they call it something like ‘maturity’. 😉

  2. I’ve just got round to reading this article properly. Fantastic shots and always really interesting to hear some of the back stories behind each shot – this is what’s missing on sites like Flickr, great as they are for showcasing shots. The army veterans project sounds interesting, looking forward to seeing and reading about the results.

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