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).


Taboo subjects in street photography


The story of Kenneth Jarecke’s 1991 photograph of an Iraqi soldier burnt to death in his truck has been widely reported. Differing editorial decisions in the US and Europe saw the photograph published by The Observer in the UK and Libération in France but, not by Time magazine or the Associated Press in the US. This is one of many such examples where particular images are deemed too politically or socially sensitive in relation to dominant public narratives.

For street photographers, this issue of self-censorship raises interesting personal questions. Primary among them being: In what ways does your personal identity and ethics affect what and how you photograph? Mary Ellen Mark put it this way:

“I think you reveal yourself by what you choose to photograph, but I prefer photographs that tell more about the subject… I think each photographer has a point of view and a way of looking at the world… that has to do with your subject matter and how you choose to present it. What’s interesting is letting people tell you about themselves in the picture”. [1]

Mark raises two very interesting points here.

Firstly, by drawing attention to choice of subject matter she raises the interesting question of whether we have boundaries around our vision that would, for example, deem some subjects to be out of bounds or even taboo.  Much as Jarecke’s image from Iraq was outside the bounds of acceptability for some US media outlets in 1991.  Do you always look for the happy faces, the comic juxtaposition or the graphic quality in an image or are you willing to take those images of the street that show their darker more challenging elements. That is to say, the kind of subject matter highlighted by Jacob Riis, Bert Hardy, Diane Arbus, Danny Lyons, Mary Ellen Mark and many others.

Secondly, she challenges us to escape our own identity in an attempt to reflect the reality of someone else’s. Of course, there is no way to completely suspend the self and depict someone else’s reality as they experience it. We can, however, expand our current identity by crossing its boundaries to share experiences with others living in very different contexts.  The resulting images, rather than being a pure reflection of the subject’s experience will be a modified version mediated by our presence. For our part, we have the images, but we are also changed and redefined in sometimes subtle, sometimes significant, ways as a result of our expanded experience.

Consider the following example drawn from a five year project I have been pursuing to document contemporary Vietnam (more portraits from the project are online here). This is an example of a subject that I would not normally point my camera at on the street.

I came across the scene below in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). It was 7.40 am and this mother and child were sat alone beside a busy thoroughfare in the centre of the city. I was immediately reminded of W. Eugene Smith’s Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath, Minamata, Japan 1972 (my all-time favourite photograph).

Given the physical appearance of the child, I wondered if he was one of the long term victims of Agent Orange spraying during the Vietnam war. I knew Cu Chi, twenty five miles outside Ho Chi Minh, was the area most heavily sprayed with the defoliant during the war. My heart went out to them (naturally).

I had my camera in my hand: What to do, take the image or respect their privacy and move on? I decided to move on. However, in the moment I had hesitated, the mother looked up at me and smiled. It changed my mind and I gestured if I could take a picture. She nodded her consent, closed her eyes and looked straight ahead. I thanked her in Vietnamese and left feeling very conflicted.

Image of mother and child, Saigon.

Mother and Child, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam 2014. © John Meehan 2014

Was I justified in taking this picture? Had I overstepped some mark? Visually, I find it a satisfying image. I can analyse it formally but feel uncomfortable/trivial doing so given the human story it depicts.  Perhaps this is what photojournalists experience regularly when covering challenging subjects as W Eugene Smith was with his famed Minamata project in the early 1970s.

This is an example of an image I like but it challenges me both in subject matter and my own relation to the people depicted.  Without the back story, it would appear to a viewer that I sneaked the shot and thereby infringed the subject’s privacy. The truth, as I have explained, was very different.

This image was a moment in time with powerful repercussions for the photographer. Such is the  power of photography as a personal journey.

Images and words © John Meehan 2014

[1] Quoted in Marianne Fulton’s essay accompanying the book Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years. Essay available here.