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A Tale of Three Cities (Part II) SAIGON

Posted by on September 20, 2012 | Student Photography

By Abby Robinson

Lam Hieu Thuan

Image © Lam Hieu Thuan/#6 A, B & C


On my first trip to Saigon in the summer of 1994, the most
important person I met was Lam Tan Tai, head of the Saigon branch of the
Vietnamese Association of Photographic Artists (VAPA).

He asked me to give
a talk on my work, so I chose my long, ongoing self-portrait series because
photographers there didn’t do that kind of work and I thought it would be the
most interesting and novel to them. This was the kickoff of cultural
misunderstandings and faux pas galore. When my presentation ended, exactly one
person had a question: why do you only use one lens? Then everyone filed out of
the auditorium and no one mentioned that talk again for years. It’s funny now,
but not so amusing then. If I had understood anything about Vietnamese
photography, I would have known that that was about the worse choice of topics
ever because it epitomized everything Vietnamese photographers thought Western
photography was: self-indulgent, confusingly composed, and ugly. Their highest
praise for a work of art is dep,
which means beautiful. My work: absolutely com
. Not beautiful.

Tai was either
generous or else felt I was profoundly in need of an education, because he gave
me the names of Vietnamese photographers throughout the country to meet. And I
met most of them and I looked at loads of their pictures.

In 1995, I went
back to recruit a Vietnamese photographer for an SVA scholarship and in 1996-97
I received a grant from the Asian Cultural Council to work with the Saigon
branch of the VAPA for a year.

Back then, if you
were Vietnamese wanting to have a career as a photographer, you pretty much had
to be a member of that organization. The big thing was the regular competitions.
They were usually judged by the same jurors (in different combinations) and, it
seemed to me, the prizes always went to pictures that looked like pictures that
had previously won.

Image © Dao Hoa Nu/The Life of the Stork/#1

Life of the Stork

What I came to
understand was that the Vietnamese have quite different notions of what a
photograph should look like and be. While Western photographers turn inward in
their search for subject matter and content, the Vietnamese focus outwardly on doi thuong, daily life. Their concerns
are far less personal and more societal, with personal style taking a backseat
to collective appreciation.

In addition, most photographers
don’t work in series; their portfolios are more mosaic, constructed out of a
number of prescribed images (e.g. water buffalo, women in conical hats in
traditional dress either standing next to a tree or sculpture or going up and
down a sand dune, an old person with roadmap wrinkles holding a baby). Their
role was to portray the beauty and integrity of the country, to make Vietnamese
proud of their homeland and foreigners like and respect their nation. As the
countryside was considered the “eternal” Vietnam, photographing in cities was
rare. Photographs were rarely dated. Titles were key; they could make or break
an award winner. In fact, titles were so important there used to be a guy to
whom photographers went to like an oracle to bestow their images with textual


During my grant, I
lived with Dao Hoa Nu, Vietnam’s most famous woman photographer and her family. There were
countless misunderstandings and misadventures but I’ll spare you. I took trips
with Hai Au, Nu’s all-woman photo club. The photo below was taken at the famous
photo-op sand dune in Phan Thiet.

Hai Au Dune Shoot


 (Dao Hoa Nu in middle with umbrella hat)/#2

I should also add
that I learned to shoot color in Vietnam and that I made a lot of work there. I
think it also made me a better teacher. And, as
challenging as it all was, it was worth it.


I’ve been back to
Saigon a number of times. The one big change since my last trip: you can now
buy Jimmy Choo shoes to go with your Marc Jacob ensemble and accessorize with
Gucci, Versaci or Chanel. Not that this has had much impact on local

Bui Huu Phuoc

Image © Bui Huu Phuoc/The ID series/#4A & B  

On this trip I
visited with Dao Hoa Nu, who has opened a photo school that teaches technique
in a continuing-ed-ish sort of way. She had a dinner at her home with some of
the members of the still very active Hai Au club. Looking at Hai Au’s work, along with the 500+ images in Nu’s new book
Viet Nam: The Ways of the Country, it
seemed to me that the content of VAPA members’ images had changed hardly at
all. The only difference was that the water buffalo and women in conical hats
were now being shot digitally. Photoshop’s biggest contribution has been the
sharpening filter. I spent a lot of time with Bui Xuan Huy (another former
student) because one of my favorite things on the planet is riding around on
the back of his motorbike in Saigon’s death-defying traffic. Huy was never big
into water buffalo even when I met him in ’95; the main reason I chose him for
the SVA scholarship (aside from his excellent English) was that his favorite
photographer then—when the country was still pretty cut off and there were few
photo books—was Minor White. Many of my American students don’t know who Minor
White was.

Bui Xuan Hui



When Huy returned
from his New York City stint, his foreign training got him a lot of commercial
work and he also did a bit of teaching. In 2006, I met some of his students— Bui
Huu Phuoc, Linh Den, and Lam Hieu Thuan—and was impressed by their originality
and perseverance. While not appreciated at home, a few had gotten scholarships
to study abroad and fellowships to the Vermont Studio School. In 2012, most of
them were still at it, basically working in a vacuum.

Vietnamese prints
tend to be small (11” x 14” to 20” x 24”); work is rarely editioned and I’ve
never heard anyone seriously talk about print quality. Although photos go up
regularly on the VAPA HQ walls, there aren’t really any galleries dedicated to
photography and there isn’t much of a market either.  

There is, however,
one big exception: Dinh Q. Lê. 
Dinh, an internationally known artist who had a big solo show at MOMA in
2010, was born in Vietnam, left when he was ten, got his BFA in photography from the
University of California, Santa Barbara and his MFA from SVA (and no,
alas, he wasn’t one of my students). A number of years ago he moved back and
set up a studio in Saigon where he does most of his work. His most recent
project: Erasure, an interactive sculptural and
video installation where the gallery floor is strewn with thousands of black
and white photographs of Vietnamese found in second-hand stores. These
photographs are now being scanned, and catalogued in the Erasure Archive. Dinh
is also one of the cofounders of the independent, artist-run San Art,
“dedicated to the exchange and cultivation of contemporary art in Vietnam…to
support the country’s thriving artist community by creating opportunities that
provide exhibition space, residency programs for young artists, lecture series
and an exchange program that invites international artists/curators to organize
or collaborate on exhibitions.” It’s an
ambitious project that, sadly, most of the Hai Au members had not heard of and
none had ever visited. 

Linh Den

Image © Linh Den/Coffee Shop Series/#5A & B


Oh, yeah, and the
food in Saigon? Totally delicious. 

Next up … a recap of Robinson's SVA workshop in China!