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Street Photography in Vietnam

By: Tim Russell Posted: January-30-2012 in
Ethnic minority kids, Mai Chau
Tim Russell

A question that I’m often asked by clients, and a question frequently asked on Tripadvisor, is “Is it OK to take photographs of people in Vietnam?” Certainly for photography beginners/amateurs, street photography, and the thought of approaching a complete stranger & taking their picture, is an intimidating prospect – however, Vietnam’s buzzing street life and its photogenic people are simply begging to be photographed.

Personally I love street photography and there are few things I enjoy more than taking my camera out for a wander around Saigon, and Saigon-based professional photographer Adam Martin wholeheartedly agrees with me.

“For street photography Vietnam has it all – everything except sex happens on the street!” says Adam. “Life is on the street, so you can watch things that normally are hidden from view taking place in public. Repairmen of all sorts reworking something that in the west would be thrown away, people eating on little plastic stools, buying chicken’s feet or pig’s ears etc. It all happens!”

And this lack of privacy, and the very public nature of Vietnamese life, means photographers have a lot more freedom than they would in the west.

“You can see virtually every aspect of Vietnamese life on display by just walking around a place” Adam tells me. “You can stroll into temples and pagodas and take photographs without being hassled. Most businesses find it a novelty to be visited by a camera-toting tourist and if you go about things the right way no one seems to mind you taking their picture.”

This was certainly true on a recent visit to Mo Cai in the Mekong Delta, where I came across a group of women processing coconut husks. Not only did they not object to me wandering into their yard to photograph them, they insisted on posing for pictures and seeing the results, and I spent a very enjoyable half hour chatting with them & taking pictures.

Which brings us onto the real thorny issue – when taking photographs of people, do I ask for their permission or not? Personally I’m in two minds about this – asking for permission, and getting a no, can mean missing out on a good shot, however I can feel a bit intrusive & rude taking pictures of people without asking first. The man in this shot got pretty shirty when he saw me taking his picture. For beginners it can be a lot safer & more comfortable to use a long lens & take pictures from a distance, though the results can lack the intimacy that comes from a subject feeling comfortable with having their picture taken & looking directly into the lens, as in my favourite picture of the Lao villager & her baby. Adam is equally undecided.

“Permission is always good but then there are times when that just isn’t going to work” he tells me. “I like to sit and watch a scene from a distance and if I can, I use a long lens to capture it without the subject being aware and behaving in a natural fashion. I often prefer this. However if you want to get right amongst things and take portraits than it is important to seek some kind of permission from your subject. But often then the subject ‘poses’ for the camera. Make sure you keep shooting after the initial shot when the person becomes themselves again and wherever possible show the image to the subject. In the end the best shots are usually natural, showing people going about day to day life, doing their normal stuff and street photography is about capturing that moment in time and the pictures tell the story.”

Very good advice, and easily executed in a country where people, especially younger ones, love having their pictures taken & seeing the results. Certainly in rural areas where people may not have seen a digital camera before, photographers quickly become the centre of attention and the locals will end up queuing to have their pictures taken. I also find that simply smiling at everyone puts them at ease & makes them more receptive to being photographed.

Adam also has good advice about the best locations for street photography in Vietnam.

“My favorite places are older neighborhoods and street markets” he says. “Also boats that have come up from the Mekong and tie up in canals around Saigon. Parks are great for early risers as they are quiet places to be and there may be all manner of stuff going on from Tai Chi through to sword and fan dancing.”

He also advises looking at cities from different angles, both high up and low down on the street. “There are quite a lot of buildings in HCMC that have great views from rooftops or viewing platforms which give another way of seeing the metropolis. And if you are really willing to get amongst life on the street then it is imperative that you spend time on the back of a motorbike getting around and being one with the locals.”

As for equipment, personally I find my newly-purchased 50mm lens is perfect for street photography & for getting up close to subjects, and indeed since I bought it I’ve hardly used my other lenses. But for Adam, equipment isn’t a big issue.

“Any equipment is good equipment if you have an idea how to use and understand it” he says . “Photography is all about capturing light and using it, and the other major part of it is composition. Think about how the final shot will look to the viewer, the person who wasn’t there. I have seen great shots from everything from disposable cameras to iPhones and with all the latest trickery in many cameras no one should be getting dull shots!”

Adam’s love of street photography in HCMC comes with one minor caveat – the increasing amount of thefts in the main tourist areas of the city, with cameras being a prime target for the motorbike ‘cowboys’. “In Saigon snatch & go theft is common and that makes taking pictures in this city a little trickier but this really only applies to the District 1 areas, where tourists are. So, you do have to be aware of your surroundings.”

Personally I always make sure my camera strap is around my neck and that I’m not standing right on the edge of the pavement to take shots, which would make me an easy target for thieves. So far I’ve been safe, and indeed HCMC is way, way safer than most western cities, but taking the usual precautions doesn’t hurt.

So whether you’re using a top-of-the-range DSLR, a little point & shoot camera or just your phone, take Adam’s advice and get out there on the street & try to capture some of this country’s bustling, varied & crazy street life. Whatever the results, they’re unlikely to be boring!

Thanks to Adam Martin for his help with this piece. When he’s not taking photographs for his Asian Images site, Adam can be found running off-the-beaten-track motorbike tours for Saigon Unseen, and assisting visiting film crews at Asia Film Fixer. Contact him on asianimages_adammartin [at] yahoo [dot] com.


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