NGO DINH TRUC / Photography

New Vietnamese photography
Abby Robinson

Once upon a time yet not so long ago, if a Vietnamese photographer wanted to have a viable career in his homeland, he had to be a member of the Vietnamese Association of Photographic Artists (VAPA). Joining the VAPA- with its two main branches in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi- meant participating in frequent competitions where the parameters of creativity were in many ways predetermined by long standing conventions.


By profound changes under the 1986 political policy of Doi Moi (Change Anew) meant Vietnam was no longer so isolated. Foreign photographers (other than journalists) not only visited but began living and working in the country. And Vietnamese photographers started traveling to the West.  In 1996 Bui Xuan Huy, a member of the Ho Chi Minh City VAPA, became the first Vietnamese photographer to study in the United States, winning a six-month scholarship to the prestigious School of Visual Arts. During his stay in New York City, he was exposed to ideas and techniques that had not yet made their way to his country.  His camera of choice at that time: a cheap plastic Holga.  By advancing the film only slightly after each shot, he made densely packed, chaotic, surprising, and funny panoramas. They were very different from the tightly composed, quiet 35mm black and whites he’d made previously. His colleagues back home found both his Holga use and new photographs mystifying.


Back in Saigon, his work switched from the pastoral to the urban. At that time, aside from shots of night traffic streaming by the Rex Hotel or those celebrating industrial growth, photographers were not making pictures of the city.  In 1997 Lam Tan Tai, Secretary General of the Photography Association of Ho Chi Minh City and Deputy Secretary General of the VAPA, set up the Photographic Research and Development Center. The Center established a photo department- the first in the country- in conjunction with the Ho Chi Minh City Culture and Art College. Tai asked Bui Xuan Huy, to teach the first class from 1998 to 2001.* Huy, now one of Vietnam’s premier commercial photographers, proved to be a gifted, inspirational and dedicated teacher; his 2001 class, with its unconventional curriculum and open-ended critiques, had about 38 students; five graduates meet with him still.  The work of these avid young men continues to expand the purview of Vietnamese photography in exciting and unexpected ways.



During what the Vietnamese call the American War, most Vietnamese photographers were dedicated and committed North Vietnamese or Viet Cong journalists.  Post war, they set up and staffed the VAPA. Although there is no longer a political agenda and most of the old guard are either retired or deceased, VAPA members are still expected to focus on the beauty and integrity of the country. Calling a photograph dep (beautiful) is the highest praise; personal style- or for that matter any idiosyncratic determinant- is of little importance. Photographers stated aim is the portrayal of doi thuong (daily life) but their concerns are less personal than societal; notions of daily life are tied to their depictions of what for them remains the true, immutable, and eternal Vietnam. With life changing at a rapid clip in the cities, that means making pictures of the countryside.


Vietnamese photographers don’t put together bodies of work like their Western counterparts. Most Vietnamese photographers are engaged in confirmation rather than exploration. Rather than investigate a particular topic, they assemble a composite portrait of the country: a photo of a Phan Rang sand dune with one, two  or three young women in traditional dress walking across its peak; an artistic array of fishing nets and/or boats; an elderly person with a wrinkled face sometimes alone, sometimes holding a very young child; a beautiful young woman in an ao dai standing next to a tree (preferably in Hue’s Citadel); a water buffalo with a young boy on top either reading a book or playing a flute; a group of women in conical hats harvesting rice; a Hmong group in tribal costumes in and around Sapa.


The arrangement of forms in an image is also consistent. That which is important is immediately evident; the viewer’s gaze is clearly directed. A sense of order is built in, the image uncluttered by competing interests.  By and large the golden section rules and the outlook is essentially romantic, often nostalgic and fundamentally symbolic.



With this as background it’s possible to examine the work and concerns of Xuan Huy’s five ex-students and see how Vietnamese photographic tradition provides both the support and the springboard for their innovations. While they are as reliant on and respectful of their photographic past and their homeland as any Vietnamese photographer, they do not view the past as sacrosanct. They have, however, set off, with passion and wit, in a number of new directions.


All five live and work in Saigon and all were born in the 1970’s- Lam Hieu Thuan, Nguyen Tuong Linh, and Ngo Dinh Truc in 1973, Buu Huu Phuoc in 1976 and Bui The Trung Nam in 1978.  This generational shift is relevant; while these men certainly share a sense of place and a love of country with older photographers, their lives have been steadily shaped by rapid change and by peace.  For them, the countryside no longer symbolizes or sums up the nation.  They are definitively products of an urban environment and their work is made almost, if not exclusively, within Saigon’s borders. The city is Vietnam to them.


They investigate specific aspects or places in the city, exploring them thoroughly and over time. They gravitate to the particular rather than the general or the metaphorical- a departure from the working methods of most of their countrymen.** While their subject matter may be narrower, their geographic range is ultimately wider. There is more freedom of travel and increased opportunity to study abroad now. Here too Bui Xuan Huy set a precedent by receiving a residency fellowship to live and work for a month with other international artists at the Vermont Studio Center in the Unites States. Bui Huu Phuoc attended this past spring and Bui The Trung Nam is scheduled for Spring 2007.


Plus there’s the Internet which gives easy access to information and an array of new opportunities.  Although these Vietnamese photographers show their work in Vietnam, they know that their audience is no longer solely their countrymen. Lam Hieu Thuan, Bui Huu Phuoc, and Ngo Dinh Truc received the City of Melbourne’s Young Artist Grants and Bui The Trung Nam has had shows in Rome and Phnom Penh and an upcoming one in Montpellier, France.  Nor is it an accident that Bui Huu Phuoc and Bui The Trung Nam are two of the three Vietnamese photographers represented in the Noorderlicht 2006 photo festival in the Netherlands.*** The show, Another Asia, from September 10th through October 29th, includes the work of 63 photographers from 21 countries. The group is also hoping to publish a book so their pictures can reach an even wider public.


Lam Hieu Thuan now works in his family’s business of an small electrical wiring factory but he spends all of his spare time photographing. He comes straight out of the tradition of photographing daily life yet his pictures are unlike his more established VAPA cohorts. His series Sai Gon-Everyday and Tenement House show real people- not emblems- living their lives in everyday surroundings that show a lot of wear and tear.  The pictures are poignant, tender, and mysterious rather than uplifting and edifying. Thuan is clearly entranced and delighted by the ordinary and is content to let the commonplace speak for itself.


Lam Hieu Thuan, from Tenement House Series, Saigon, 2005.
Thuan’s framing is also a deviation from classical Vietnamese work where the image is usually planar. A Vietnamese version of Garry Winogrand, Thuan enjoys juggling photographic spaces. The viewer’s eye ricochets from the background to the foreground. The frame is divided into zones; the “action” usually occurs in the foreground, the mystery in the background. Given his delicate interplay between color and shadow, one is not always sure what’s going on in the light and anything is possible in the dark. It is this open-endedness that makes his work distinctive.


Lam Hieu Thuan, from Tenement House Series, Saigon, 2005.
After his studies at the Ho Chi Minh City Culture and Art College in 1998 and 2001, Bui The Trung Nam went to Arles, France and graduated in 2004 from the esteemed Ecole Nationale Superieure de la Photographie. Now employed at the Institute of Exchange Culture with the French (IDECAF) in Ho Chi Minh City, he works on individual photography projects and coordinates shows of French and Vietnamese artists/photographers.


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Bui The Trung Nam, from the South of Cholon Series, Saigon, 2005.
His latest work, conceived in early 2005, is an in-depth study of Cholon, the old Chinese quarter of Saigon. His investigation grows out of his intense sense of place: the way layers of history are superimposed on the streets. His work melds his Vietnamese sensibilities with his French photographic training. The symmetric- and hence traditional- organization of his shots reveal the contradictions of Ho Chi Minh City by capturing the chaos of the present along with the entrenchment the past.


Bui The Trung Nam, from the South of Cholon Series, Saigon, 2005.
Even his portraits, especially those of women, deconstruct the traditional and then build on it. Young and beautiful women are conventionally placed in the center of the frame. But they are not in ao dais nor are they romanticized. Rather than being the embodiments of Vietnamese womanhood, they have distinct personalities and are, therefore, a far more complex depiction of contemporary femininity.


Although Nguyen Tuong Linh studied photography at the Ho Chi Minh City Culture and Art College, he persists in calling himself “an amateur.” 


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Nguyen Tuong Linh, from Jobless Cafe Series, Saigon, 2005.
The famous photographer Robert Frank contends all photographs are self-portraits.  Self-portraiture, however, is not a genre practiced by Vietnamese photographers but Linh’s portraits in this series come quite close.  Linh, who works as a freelance photographer, shot Jobless Café at the sidewalk coffee shop he patronized while he too was unemployed.


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Nguyen Tuong Linh, from Jobless Cafe Series, Saigon, 2005.
While portraiture has certainly had its place in Vietnamese photography- and pictures of workers too- Linh’s choice of subjects and the snapshot aesthetic he employs is atypical.  First, his image making combines old and new; he works in old-fashion black and white yet shoots digitally with a small Contax. Second, instead of only showing workers’ nobility, he’s chosen to highlight their vulnerability. Attention is paid to faces, clothes, and gestures. Every subject is a distinct individual, “I want my children and their friends when they grow up to have real insight about people’s lives in this time,” Linh says. “After showing my subjects their portraits, I have many chances to talk to them and to understand many things. I became more human when I shoot them.”


Bui Huu Phuoc
, Thomas Ruff-like but with a sense of humor, worked as an identity card photographer. In addition to the “official” photo taken from the shoulders up that he was required to take, Phuoc would shoot a second picture (unbeknownst to the subject) showing the whole body.  The difference between the official and unofficial views, between the way a person presents him/her self versus the unguarded view, are revealing and often comic.


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Bui Huu Phuoc, from ID Card Series, Saigon, 2003.
Official documents and the photos that accompany them are an important element of Vietnamese daily life. But Phuoc upends this custom in his novel approach and explores the notion of “face” both literally and figuratively as well as traditionally and unconventionally.  He adds an element that rarely appears in Vietnamese work- irony.  The headshot of a man in his tie and crisp buttoned-up shirt is belied by the unexpected shorts that appear in the full figure image. A serious looking woman turns out to have her arm around her young son. Phuoc winds up undercutting a totally formal technique plus narrowing the gap between private and public. He has also managed to ingeniously blur the disparity between commercial and personal work. While this is increasingly common in the West, it isn’t the case in Vietnam.


Ngo Dinh Truc
has a commercial photographic practice that specializes in interiors and also blends the commercial with the personal. Unlike Phuoc, he works with the metamorphic content of pictures though not in the traditional sense.


Ngo Dinh Truc, from Idle Talk Series, Saigon, 2005.
What truly distinguishes him from his peers and predecessors is his unprecedented use of text. Vietnamese photographers only employ text to title their images. A proper title can make all the difference between a mediocre image and a prizewinner. This form of text is so vital that a recent photo show- one properly vetted by The Ministry of Culture and the VAPA- was shut down because the titles were not on the wall at the time of the opening. Without accompanying words, proper interpretation of the images was deemed impossible.


Ngo Dinh Truc, from Idle Talk Series, Saigon, 2005.
Truc, however, augments ready-made images- either his own or those appropriated from others- by adding a block of text. The words in his Idle Talks certainly guide the viewer in looking and accessing the image but they by no means function as traditional titles or even captions. Truc is at heart a storyteller; he free-associates to tell tales where the past is incorporated into the present. Truc isn’t interested in descriptions or identifications or didactic instruction. He uses words not to describe, identify or instruct, but to infuse his visuals with atmosphere, nostalgia, wonder, history and longing.  Truc needs the old to produce the new; his source materials go back in time so that his output is fresh.



Vietnamese photographers have always demonstrated tremendous ingenuity and commitment. Bui Xuan Huy’s five ex-students are amongst the latest and most talented limbs of strong family tree. They have managed to employ their creativity and curiosity to successfully and inventively meld tenets of Vietnamese image making with some from the West. They certainly honor Vietnamese photographic conventions yet tweak them to create photographs that are completely and uniquely their own and which peacefully co-exist with those of their VAPA compatriots. It will be interesting to watch their careers develop and to see how, in the time-honored tradition of teachers passing down knowledge, how they, like their mentor Bui Xuan Huy, help change the photographic landscape of their country.



*The department disbanded in 2001 after Lam Tan Tai’s death.


**There are other Vietnamese photographers who do delve deeply into a topic. Doan Duc Minh, also from Ho Chi Minh City and a contemporary of Bui Xuan Huy’s, for example, has been photographing people disfigured by exposure to Agent Orange for a number of years. 


***The third Vietnamese photographer is Dinh Le who left Vietnam as a child. He grew up and received his photographic training in the United States.  He now splits his time between Saigon and L.A.



Source: New Vietnamese Photography, Abby Robinson, page 86-91, Asian Art News Volume 16 Number 5, September/October 2006.