Last week I had a chance to visit a clothing factory on the outskirts of Saigon for a story on ongoing trade talks between the EU and Vietnam, centering around rules of origin for apparel companies. Basically, trying to change when clothing can say “Made in Vietnam” and when it can’t. Currently, most clothing worn in the western world is made/assembled in Vietnam, but when some fabrics are purchased outside of the country, the rules of origin can get a bit hazy. Like if a fabric is purchased in China but assembled in Vietnam, it can’t always say “Made in Vietnam”. Is at least my understanding of it. Which is admittedly vague at best. For a better summing up, it’s probably best to read the article, HERE. These photographs are excerpts from my time at the clothing factory in Saigon.
A few weeks back I traveled to Son La Province in the northwestern mountains of Vietnam to work with an NGO, the Prosthetics Outreach Foundation, taking photographs of amputees and children born with clubfoot, and showing the care and services they were being provided with. It was a four-day assignment that consisted mostly of driving. My iPod died on the first day.
I spent a lot of time taking pictures through windows, because I was bored from the long hours in the car and because I wanted to capture a sense of the place, to show the remoteness and isolation where these patients lived. Most of the families I met lived in areas that would conservatively be considered “off the grid”. Like two and a half hours from the nearest highway on small lanes that were half washed away from the previous day’s rain. There were times we’d need to give up the drive completely and continue on foot, or hire passing motorbikes to take us the rest of the way.
There were no addresses or street names or anything like that. We would pull over and ask people if they knew who we were looking for, and if they could point us in the right direction. We’d do this until our circle got smaller and smaller, finally honing in on a single house. Most of the villages had names, but no names that you or I have ever heard of before. Poor backwaters surrounded by rice fields and dirt paths. Everyone was a farmer. The more well-off owned pigs or chickens or goats. Every now and then some cattle.
For me, that seclusion and the inherent obstacles in overcoming such rugged distances were an important part of the story. So I tried to show a bit of that here. This is a long and meandering edit, but I wanted to see all of the images together to figure out what kind of coherence they held. I’m trying for broad strokes, to show not only people, but their relationships with their environments as well. That mirroring and reflection.
I’ve known Ong Duoc for nearly two years now, since I started working on my Urban Farmers in Hanoi project, which deals with farming families and rapid over-development in the capital. I knew some aspects of his life, but before yesterday, when I got to sit down with him and a writer, I had no idea of the extents of it. He’s an extremely fascinating individual. And I only caught brief glimpses of the conversation.
He fought at Khe Sanh during the American War and was left behind, thought dead with the rest of his battalion. He lived for six months in the wild, drinking water from streams and hunting his own food until he found his way out of the wilds. He came to Hanoi. His family was worshiping him at an altar–a common practice to honor the dead in Vietnam. But even thereafter, he couldn’t officially prove who he was, as he had no papers and no identification. So he remained deceased. He lived on the streets of the capital for 18 years. In 1990 he built a houseboat with his wife and first son on the small farming island beneath Long Bien Bridge, where he has lived since.
The pictures above capture what is probably an insignificant amount of his character. I’d like to hear a palm reader’s interpretation of his life, past, present and future. I know the upturned palms portrait is quite an overdone one, but sometimes a cliche or two can be important to a story. We’ll see if it lasts.
After meeting the other day with some fellow photographers here in Hanoi, I was forced to start rethinking the larger narrative behind an urban farming story I’ve been working on. With this in mind, I headed out beneath Long Bien Bridge a few days ago to make some more pictures, using our collective dialogue as a jumping off point.
These are by no means the answers to any of the questions that were raised that day, nor are they solutions to the many problems with the story. They’re just images from a fun day of walking around, taking photographs. More visual therapy than anything else. Sketches for things that I hope to see next time. The story for now is a bit elusive and cold. It needs to get more intimate. Inside houses. Portraits. Families. Effects. Etcetera.
Just a few more test shots from one of Hanoi’s New Urban Areas. Basically glorified and scarier pre-suburbs, but with larger buildings and wider roads and a lot less people. These places offer a stark contrast to the general chaos of the capital. I’ll be working on a more long-term project in these areas for the next few months, hopefully employing some new techniques and going back to some old equipment in the process. We’ll see how that all turns out soon enough. There are a lot of things I need to find here in order for this to come out the way I’m envisioning.