in conversation with: VINH TRAN
Vinh Tran is a documentary and street photographer currently based in Vietnam. Vinh allows his photography to become his vocabulary, allowing the visual to become his words. Vinh’s first photography approach was in January 2015, when he bought his first film camera – the rangefinder Yashica Electro 35GT. Vinh took a tonne of photographs and he spent most of his money buying and developing films. Shooting film, at the time, was a therapeutic photography practice that helped him cured all of his anxiety. One day, unaware of who she was, Vinh read an article about Vivian Maier, the American street photographer, and was utterly astonished. Her story was so inspirational to Vinh and changed his life, a full 360 degrees since then. For Vinh photography has become part of his daily practice, carrying a camera all the time, taking images of everything and everyone. Photography has become an integral part of his life.
Firstly, tell us a bit about yourself. What was that moment that sparked your interest to pursue photography?
I was born and bred in Ha Tinh, a small city on the North Central Coast of Vietnam. Like any other parents in this developing city, my traditional-loving parents used to control my every single move. I was forced to follow their decisions, to study at a certain university, find secure jobs, and then get married. Basically, to live an ordinary live without taking any risk.
Most of the young in Vietnam have no choice but to go to universities that our parents think are "more prestigious," which would help us find promising jobs in the future. I was no exception. I majored in law, and I was lost by the time I graduated since I always have a tendency towards art, but I did not have any courage to chase my dream.
After I graduated from a Law University, I worked for several companies in different fields hoping that something I truly like would come up one day. But my days always ended up hopeless. It took me quite a few years to overcome the fear of chasing my dream all thanks to Vivian Maier’s inspiring story. It is not only about her images but also her life. Gosh, I wish I could hug her and tell her how much her story really meant to me. I realised photography has always been there with me during the darkest times of my life. I thought it was just a hobby initially, but it is the only thing that makes me feel happy. I asked myself: “If not now, then when?”.
Years of working different desk jobs came to an end eventually, I am going to Budapest this September to pursue another study, which is Photography. I am currently residing in Hanoi, Vietnam, and just patiently waiting for my Visa Approval to Hungary.
How did you first approach making the images in "Don't Wither Away"? What were your initial impressions when you started this project? What compelled you to document life in a nursing home?
I actually drafted quite a few projects first; then I talked to myself that my very first project should be something really connected to me, to my life. My project was born from my imaginary fear. One of my biggest fears in life is living without any objectives. A life without goals would be pathetic to me. I imagined if I was old already, too old that I could not accomplish a list of well-thought-out goals and have nothing to look forward to. That would be depressing.
One of my first impressions when I started this project is the connection between me and my subjects. They have their own unique stories to tell, which I feel so connected to in many ways. There were many times I asked myself: "How is it like living in a nursing home? Especially when you are an introvert who needs a personal space like 24/7? Would it be ok to live in a nursing home when you are a person with countless objectives and expectations?"… These questions led me to the project. I just dived into it to find out the answers.
*Editor's Note: Read Vinh's photo essay "Don't Wither Away".
What did you encounter as an outsider? What was it like to witness the interactions between the residents and staff?
There were some obstacles, of course. Not all of the people there in the Elderly Care Center are camera friendly. Seeing a young guy who carried a camera all the time was something not so comfortable to them. For the first few days, I try to interact as much as possible to build trust with them. They eventually treated me as if I was their son and allowed me documenting them freely.
Aged care nurses have a considerable amount of daily tasks to do so it is understandable that sometimes they cannot take care of the elders there properly. I saw them yell at the elders a couple of times or even force residents to participate in certain activities for easy management. As an outsider, I could not intervene in anything but try to chill the situation out by talking to the elders because they love having someone listen to them.
Talk to us about some of your other projects. For you personally, why are making these photographs important? What do you want viewers to understand through your images?
"Tranquil" is my ongoing project which aims to demonstrate the desires of individuals who wish for a tranquil and peaceful space where they can get away from the chaotic and suffocating society. It somewhat reflects my life, and it is my long-term project.
I think a great photo is a photo that can evoke emotion. And it is pleasing when your viewers say they are "in tune" with your images. That is my goal, to draw viewers’ attention to touching and meaningful photo stories.
My favourite quote: “Quiz: Better to fail as a poet or to succeed as an engineer?” - Lorenzo De Rita
Your work ranges from photojournalism to street photography, how do you define yourself as a photographer?
Frankly, I always ask myself "Am I good enough to call myself a photographer? Or am I just a snapper?" For now, I would call myself a photography practitioner. Shoot more, create more stories. I don't know, let time answer that.
Do you have any favourite artists/photographers?
Vivian Maier is my all-time favorite artist, of course! Her dedication to photography is extraordinary.
Irina Unruh, a documentary photographer from Kyrgyzstan. Check out her project "I am Jamilia”.
Skinny Siddhartha, a Vietnamese street and documentary photographer. I learnt a lot from his photos. And, Julia Fullerton-Batten, a German Photographer. Everyone loves her work "Looking Out from Within."
Does the equipment you use help you in achieving your vision in your photography? (What camera do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length?)
Yes, it does definitely. This topic is somewhat controversial, but to me, camera gear matters. I am not talking about some cutting-edge features like high-resolution, ultra-fast continuous shooting, dynamic range... But the best camera is the one you feel comfortable with, the one that makes you want to pick it up and shoot every day. For instance, I used to own a Leica M240; it felt great in my hand and made me want to go out shooting anytime I picked it up.
I have used a variety of cameras for the past few years, from film to digital. Most of my images were taken with the Leica M240 and Fujifilm X-T20. Currently, I am using the Fujifilm X100V for my street/documentary photography and Sony A7ii for my commercial work. Regarding the focal length, I would describe myself as "a 35mm person".
Do you prefer to work in black and white or colour? Do you spend a lot of time editing? What is your process?
It depends on the story I want to tell. Sometimes playing around with highlight and shadow would be fun, so I would prefer Black and White. But if the color needs to be toned out, then I would go for some color tweaks.
Editing plays an essential role in photography indeed. Usually, a bit of adjustment would be enough for my street images since I always pay attention to raw results. But It may take a couple of hours to modify photos that are part of an important project because I always like to experiment with different edits.
This is my recipe when I am editing: A good playlist -> Read and see five projects from any Photographers/Artist to boost my mood -> start editing.
The past year and a half has been tough on many artists. How have you been feeling through this time, both personally and as a photographer?
As an introvert, dealing with lockdown is not a big deal to me. It is just sad when lots of artists/photographers out there are mentally and financially struggling during this time of COVID. Some of my projects are temporarily suspended due to covid also. But I am so looking forward to my upcoming time in Budapest! I am an optimistic person who always looks at the bright side of life, so I do believe the situation will get better.
What are some of your goals as an artist/photographer? Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?
As a photographer, to be able to create photographic stories in satisfaction is to live twice. Hopefully, in five years, I can accomplish some of my ongoing projects and publish a photo book (or maybe more).
Are there any projects you are currently working on that you would like to let everyone know about?
There are several more projects that are currently just drafts in my notebook. For instance, I want to tell a visual story about me - as a free thinker and the relationship with my Buddhist parents and my Christian girlfriend.
“When I am not out photographing, I (like to)…
...to get lost in my train of thought. It always leads to some interesting ideas."