As an ‘instant photographer,’ Moi tells us how the digital revolution is phasing out his job…
MOI WALKS THE street every day taking pictures of tourists and the occasional Vietnamese couple who can’t afford a camera. For each successful picture delivered on time, he’s paid VND15,000. He is an ‘instant photographer,’ and his kind is what many call a dying breed. At a time when almost everyone owns a camera or a camera-worthy smartphone clients are hard to come by.
Moi isn’t bothered. “I make enough,” he says. But how much is enough? He answers by showing his camera roll and shutter count for the day – two. He has taken two shots the whole day from 7am to 7pm, VND30,000, enough for a bowl of pho.
“I make enough for a new guy,” Moi insists. “I’ve only worked this job for the last 10 years or so.” In this profession, 10 years of experience is still considered a rookie.
He points out a fellow photographer who circles Ho Chi Minh monument garden with him every other day. “His name is Hong. He’s the oldest one here. He’s 76 and he’s worked here for 30 years. I don’t think he got any shot today.” Moi is 65, hardly a spring chicken himself.
While there aren’t many old school photographers like Moi and Hong around the city anymore, don’t consider them extinct just yet. “We signed ourselves up under the District 1 Mobile Photographer Cooperative Club. Every week or so we have a meeting with 20 to 30 people, young and old, in one tiny sweatshop.” They operate on a rotating roster where Moi and a handful of his colleagues have the monument garden to themselves for one day. Then the following day, a different group occupies the space and Moi’s free to go anywhere he wants to until the next shift comes.
“It’s a free job. It’s not your nine-to-five office work. I like it,” he says.
This, however, has not always been his job. Before working as a photographer, Moi was a soldier, a veteran of the Khmer Rouge Cambodian war and the 1979 border disputes. He was originally stationed in Tra Vinh. “I was 24 when they gave me guns, told me to go over the Cambodian border and shoot some Khmer Rouge.”
When he was released from the army in the 1990s he found he didn’t know how to do anything else but be a soldier. “I didn’t know how to work the rice fields, but I knew how to use a knife and how to throw grenades,” he reflects sadly.
Eventually Moi left Tra Vinh for Saigon. On a comrade’s advice he took a class at the city Photography Association, and that was how he became a photographer. From the onset, he knew the job was not for those looking to get rich. “I was on the government’s veteran list. My family received all sorts of subsidies. I didn’t need to work. I wanted to.” It’s a much better kind of shooting that he does now, Moi says. Back in the 1990s and 2000s, it used to be better because not many people had a camera of their own then. A photographer’s service could turn in serious money but over time, things changed.
“Every other month, I see a tourist with a better camera than mine,” he laughs. His customers these days are the occasional Vietnamese couples and tourist companies. Apparently, tourist companies pay big for souvenir pictures of their clients. “Japanese tourists like them big. The Japanese tour guides always order the biggest size. There’s also Taiwanese, Chinese…”
“There’s not as many of us as there used to be. All the full-timers are old guys like me. The young ones do this freelance. They only come here when they’ve got nothing else to do,” Moi explains. It’s a smaller pool than it was but despite this, Moi has no plans to change jobs or to go back to his hometown of Tra Vinh. “The first half of my life is all ugly things. The second half is trying to find the small beauties, trying to see things in different ways. I’ve lost count of the number of camera rolls I used to shoot this garden or the People’s Committee buildings,” he says. “I prefer the second half. Only happy people come to me for a photograph – people in love, people wanting to keep a good memory.”