Hanoi Portrait | Lady Borton

This past month, I spent quite a bit of time photographing inspirational women in Hanoi for the March issue of The Word magazine. Because International Women’s Day is fast approaching. And because, well, why the hell not. We can all use a little inspiration in our lives. In total, I took portraits of eight women living and working in the capital, both Vietnamese and foreign. From market managers (you have to be tough as nails to manage one of the largest fabric and food markets in Hanoi) and doctors to art gallery owners and restaurant entrepreneurs, plus several more.

But perhaps best of all was that I got to photograph a woman I’d wanted to meet for a long time. Lady Borton. Author and translator and champion of the literature and poetry scene in Vietnam. Lady Borton was a name I’d heard often enough, but it was always this kind of elusive thing. Fleeting and without any real form. There was never a face attached to it, and the information surrounding her was always a bit odd as well. She’s been living here since the 60s. She’s friends with General Giap. She’s British royalty. She lives in an old convent on the outskirts of the city. The kind of facts that have been filtered through so many mouths they’ve lost their factiness. I pictured a guerrilla fighter with an English accent. An old woman that carves apples with a hunting knife when she talks to you. If she deigns to talk to you. A warrior poet or something. I don’t know.

The woman I met was almost none of those things. She has written several memoirs on Vietnam, and at least one book on General Giap. And she does consider the man and his family as close friends. She came to Vietnam in the 60s as a Quaker, working at a hospital in Quang Ngai. She left Vietnam and returned years later. But she can speak Vietnamese like she was born here. She’s an American and Lady is her real name, not a royal title bestowed upon her. She doesn’t live in a convent and she’s not part of a silent elite killing force. I didn’t ask if she owns a hunting knife. She was articulate and nice and interesting and interested. She told stories from the war that were heartbreaking in their honesty and straightforwardness. You could tell that she loved the country and the people here, but not in an unconditional or simple kind of way. In the way that only comes with deep familiarity.

I felt like I had met with some piece of history. So I wanted the photograph to represent that. I wanted her to look old and strong and wise. As if the photograph could have been taken from a family album any number of decades ago. Thus the above. Hopefully she likes it.

5 thoughts on “Hanoi Portrait | Lady Borton”

  1. It’s a beautiful photo. Seeing it in the magazine prompted me to come and find your blog.

  2. That’s amazing! I’m glad you like the photo. She was such an awesome person to meet and photograph. Way more interesting than any photo could ever show.

  3. A remarkable image that avoids the literal, becoming a powerful character portrait expressing a many layered, humble yet strong, personality.

  4. Lady Borton lived for many years on a farm near us. She drove school bus for the school where I taught for children and adults with special needs. She was a much-loved counselor at camp that I directed for people with special needs. She was/is a true friend who loved all people that she worked with. We miss her. I was glad to find this recent update on her whereabouts when I “googled” her name. Thanks for the blog!

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