17 Oct 2019
Hanging on the walls of The Watermark, Hoi An Beach Hotel, are intriguing portraits of Hoi An locals and other Vietnamese people. These are the work of photographers and intrepid explorers Alden and Trinh. Alden’s career has taken him from the film sets of epic blockbusters and now to the remotest corners of Vietnam whilst Trinh’s life in a small border town near Laos and Cambodia has made her curious about her homeland.
Tell me about your Vietnam The People project?
“Vietnam The People is a story-driven portrait photography project to document the people of Vietnam and their culture. We slow down to learn about their life and take pictures of them, working to capture their story and a portrait of who they are.“
“Spending time with the people and getting their stories in their own words, makes our photography much more meaningful”
Trinh adds: “This is one of the most meaningful projects in my life. My mission is to document the charming Vietnam, raise the awareness about our culture and share it to the world. I think my Vietnam is very beautiful with rich cultural heritage and amazing people; and I always want to share it with people around the world. Working with Alden - the photographer, is a perfect fit. We do it through photography and stories.”
‘An older ethnic woman, in her 80s, told us when she was little, granted her village now has electricity and cable TV, a road, running water, when she was little they were semi-nomadic. The house [where she grew up] had no walls, no electricity, it was on stilts, they wore barely any clothes, just a loincloth, and there were tigers in the jungle nearby. So they went from like Iron Age Europe to the Digital Age in one lifetime. She has seen all of that change in less than 100 years. That is so fascinating. Very few people in the world will ever see or talk to people like that. Once that generation has gone, they are gone.’
The American-Vietnam War is another key event that comes up. However, it is not mentioned as much as you would imagine.
‘When we talk to older people we do get into what happened during the war. In Hoi An, the countryside was totally flat. All the buildings had been flattened. The Americans wanted everyone in Hoi An ancient town. Those who were in the countryside or one of the Hoi An beaches were at risk. So we’ve spoken to people who lived under the ground or who went off into the mountains.’
‘I am close to a man called Hiển. His four brothers were killed by Americans in the mountains but he welcomes me like family. He’s an awesome guy…a lot of them, even though they were greatly affected by the war, are not stuck in that period. They are living life, trying to be happy. Their focus isn’t on the war. But my focus, to begin with (when I first arrived in Vietnam), was on the war. But, it’s doing the Vietnamese people a disservice to just focus on the war because it’s a small, very dark period of the history of an otherwise very rich culture.’
‘We’ll just talk to people,’ Alden tells me, ‘and learn about their culture. We’ll go with something or someone that’s interesting to us. If it’s a couple we’ll talk about how they met and fell in love, if its someone older we might talk to them about their experiences of war and then we’ll try to capture them through photography, with a picture that embodies a slice of their life. Sometimes we’ll drive around and just get chatting to someone. We’re also working to document the different ethnic groups in Vietnam.’
‘If the person we are interviewing is talking about their rooster, I’ll say let's include it because that’s part of the story and shows the person’s connection with the rooster or if there is some environmental element we’ll try and include it. We will talk to the person first. We don’t want to ever go and do invasive photography. We want to make them part of the process.’
Who is Alden?
Alden grew up thousands of miles away in L.A, California, where he pursued a career working as a visual effects photographer and on-screen photographer for the likes of Fox, ESPN, National Geographic, Sony and the Discovery Channel. Some of the names he’s worked with include Keanu Reeves, Steve Carrell, Adam Sandler, and Tina Fey. He also won an Emmy for a sports science program for ESPN.
‘I was doing visual effects and on set photography. I was also shooting plates. So if you have a blue screen – all those shots are done in a studio – but for example if you are shooting a scene in a car then that would be done in the studio and I would have to go to New York to get the Manhattan skyline to be dropped in at a later date.’
So why leave a successful career in Hollywood behind for a life of travel?
‘Some people assume I was trying to escape something!’ he jokes, ‘but I wasn’t’.
‘Since I was a kid I had this idea, I wanted to explore other cultures, other places. As people, we all have a desire to explore. Even when I was younger I was looking at different cultures working on documentary film projects in Japan, South Africa, Australia. But I wanted to dig a little bit deeper and I couldn’t do that. Back in 2016 in April, I was on a job in the Mediterranean and when it finished I continued to travel around Europe. I kept exploring and talking to people. That pushed me down the path to go and document people like I am doing now.’
‘Asia is the most different to the U.S. and Vietnam has a lot going for it. The friendliness and openness of the people, I can drive my motorbike to rural areas and get talking to someone and they will invite me in for dinner. The accessibility of the country, there is so much freedom[...]The culture is so different and unique, there are 54 different ethnic groups.
This focus on the people of Vietnam has led to Alden and Trinh winning a photography award focusing on Vietnam Heritage sponsored by Vietnam Airlines.
‘We left Hoi An intending to spend 5 days in one of the mountain towns [...] two months later and we were still driving around the most remote villages in Northern Vietnam, trying to document some of the stories of the ethnic groups. The rain and all kinds of landslides were happening. We went looking for this Alden with kids from the Phu La ethnic group one ethnic group, we didn’t know where they were based, we just asked people. So we head up one of the worst roads I’ve ever driven up. It’s super rocky, totally unpacked and sometimes the rice fields would spill out across the road[...]We finally find the village and we learn that the last time a foreigner was there was 3 years ago. It was a haven of culture. On the way back we decided to take a different route, there was a little donkey trail with a 500-foot drop into the valley.’
We submitted some photos to the Vietnam Heritage Contest and won the grand prize. They told me I was the first foreigner to win that award.’
About ‘Hoi An 360 - Photography Tours and Workshops’?
As well as their project Vietnam The People, Trinh and Alden also teach photography in Hoi An. They do exclusive photography tours focusing on the people and culture of Vietnam Hoi An 360 is one of the few companies where one can get technical expertise (from Alden) and at the same time have a certified Vietnamese Cultural Guide (Trinh). With her fluent English, Trinh helps foreigners connect with the locals on a personal level.
‘I feel like our project Vietnam: the People really goes hand-in-hand with teaching people photography... we sit down and encourage people to talk to the person they are photographing and get to know them, connect with them. Once they connect with them, their photos go to a different level. And that is the most important factor of people photography, Hoi An photography. And of course, we will then talk about the light and the technical stuff. But we focus on the people and I think that’s what sets us apart.’
But you don’t have to have a fancy camera to join in.
‘Your phone is more than adequate. We’ve had people do our Hoi An photography tours with a Go-Pro! People say photography is not about the camera and there is a lot of truth to that. I like to think of a phone as a fixed-length camera, although the new iPhone 11 has three lenses. With the phone, you can focus more on light, composition and it’s the camera you have with you all of the time so that makes it better.’
Pictures for The People is another project they are working on to print and deliver 3,000 photos to the people they photograph in Vietnam. “Photography is best when shared.” Is Alden’s motto for the project. “It really makes photography so much more meaningful when we return to find the person and give them a printed photo of themselves. Seeing them with their photo, laughing, smiling and sharing it with their friends and family, really fills my heart with joy. It’s probably my favorite part of photography.”