When I discovered how the camera allowed me to capture moments in life, I felt this rush of excitement.
I’m 73 years old, and at my age most people have already retired and spend their days relaxing with their kids and grandkids. But me, I want to keep busy: not working would seem like a waste of time. I’ve been a professional photographer for about 30 years now. It all started in 1973, when a friend of mine let me borrow his French-made camera. When I discovered how the camera allowed me to capture moments in life, I felt this rush of excitement. From that moment, I guess it was my fate to be a professional photographer.
Before that, I was a third grade biology teacher. At the time, the Ministry of Education had a program to publicize the efforts of outstanding students and teachers. So from time to time, journalists would come to the school to interview and photograph people for an upcoming article. A lot of times, I had already taken photographs of the people, so when the journalists found out, they started asking to use my photos. That’s how I got a reputation as a bit of an artist. It must have been around 1975. That’s when I first started going to workshops and meetings about photography.
You have to understand that back then, it was really rare for someone to be a photographer, not like today. Pretty soon I was being called on to accompany this Minister or that Deputy Minister on trips to the provinces to open a factory or launch a new program. When I was on one of these trips, I saw myself as a kind of journalist who worked with images. Before I’d take a picture, I’d always identify the purpose of the story, the intended audience, the correct style… sometimes I’d even write the stories to accompany the images.
Being an analog photographer in Saigon back then wasn’t easy. Times were hard, and everyone was so poor. [Sighs] I had to save a long time before I could buy my own camera. That was back around 1984, I think. Then once I got it, I still had to keep saving so I could buy film. I’m not sure people today can even imagine how hard it was. There were times when I was very hungry. I’d see a loaf of bread for ten hao (one tenth of a dong) but still I wouldn’t buy it. I’d just keep saving my money to buy film and developing chemicals.
The camera is Just a Tool
My first camera was made in Russia. It was pretty difficult to use, not like the digitized cameras everybody’s got today. In those days, I’d often go to camera shops in the Old Quarter to see what they had for sale. I remember one time there was this camera I liked so much that I just had to have it. I gave the shop owner whatever money I had on me as a deposit. Then I ran around the city borrowing money from all my friends until I had enough. [Laughs] Of course, nowadays I have more than a dozen cameras.
I’ve worked hard to develop my professional skills over the years, and even today I continue to study. I love reading about the newest developments and trying new techniques. I can honestly say that my technical skills are on par with anyone’s. But the important thing is that whenever I hold a camera in my hands, I feel I have a duty to capture the spirit of whomever or whatever I’m photographing. I think that’s why my clients keep coming back to me, even for something as simple as a passport photo.
I’ve read a lot of books about photography over the years. There’s this one I read that I didn’t believe at first: “Photographs aren’t captured by the lens but by the photographer’s eyes, which are the windows to his soul.” It’s only as I gained more experience that I really began to understand this line. Now I know that the camera is just a tool. Especially these days, cameras are so sophisticated that it’s easy for a photographer to create exactly the image they want. But if we depend on the tool too much, we end up just imitating life without capturing its spirit.
I’m actually not the greatest businessman. [Laughs] One time a couple came to me and asked me to photograph their upcoming wedding. They explained that they didn’t have much money and asked me just to charge them whatever was reasonable. How could I not agree to help them remember such an important moment? At the end of the wedding party, they paid me as agreed, but I took most of it and gave it back to them as a gift. The way I see it, you should always try to live with sympathy and compassion.
I’m very lucky to have been able to make my passion my career. Photography has given my family a good living all these years. This house, the furniture, these motorbikes, they’re all thanks to the money I made from photography. Let’s be realistic: you can’t just live for your passion without caring about your material needs. I just try to make sure that the money I make reflects the quality of my work. I’m always working to improve the quality of my photos while still keeping the prices reasonable. I guess that’s another reason my clients keep coming back.
I’m also lucky to be able to share my passion for photography with my wife. She works as a second grade teacher but she’s also developed into a really good photographer. It’s wonderful to be able to discuss our experiences and share our ideas with each other. As for our kids, we have three daughters; two of them are married and have families already, and our youngest is in her second year at university. Whatever careers they end up pursuing, I really hope they find a way to make art and creativity a part of their lives, like I’ve been able to do with photography. It’s things like this that bring meaning and color to our lives.
Additional editing by Gerard Sasges. Excerpted from It’s a Living: Work and Life in Vietnam Today, available on Amazon and iTunes. Or look for the Vietnamese version, Việt Nam ngày nay: Chuyện muu sinh in local bookstores.
*Interview by Michelle Ta, Ngo Mai Huong, Tina Thy Pham, and Nguyen Ha Phuong Ninh. Images by Ngoc Tran.