These days it can be hard to tell what’s real and what’s not.
The rise of social media has enabled anyone with the technology to create, publish and distribute content to a wide audience at will.
And it seems this hasn’t gone unnoticed by the 12 photographers that make up Saigon Photowalk’s much-anticipated third public photography exhibition that officially opened on Sep. 18 at Common 9 Cafe in District 1 and continues through until Oct. 18.
While the main reason behind the exhibition is for the Vietnamese and foreign artists who are a mix of amateur, semi-professional and fully professional photographers to have their impressive work featured from their regular early Sunday morning photo walks, they also wish to share what life is really like in the hermetic alleyways and thronging markets of Saigon.
By all means this exhibition isn’t breaking any new territory as there have been many that have come before it.
But, it’s perhaps the timing of the event that makes it well worth popping along for a look.
COVID-19 has provided us with very few wins throughout the year, but it has at least given us a much-needed reprieve from the over-edited Instagram depictions of Vietnam’s biggest city through an often cringe-worthy Western lens imbued with heavy-filters focused on the cliched.
This exhibition is far from that.
The opportunity to showcase work something far more real and dedicated to the craft of photography has inspired 26-year old local Sang Nguyen to exhibit his work for the first time, something which he hopes will attract people who rarely get an insight into what life is really like in Saigon.
“We can only find real culture in poor neighbourhoods,” he says. “We can’t see it in shopping malls or luxurious developments. This exhibition is also for people who’ve been living here for 10 or 20 years, but rarely venture out from their comfort zones of District 1, 2 or 3.”
Sang, who grew up on a rice farm in Dong Nai province just north of Saigon and who has become one of the more recognisable faces of Saigon Photowalk, started taking photography seriously just five years ago when a friend who was upgrading his equipment, gave him a camera:
“I know it was a Canon, but I can’t remember which one,” the bright-eyed former front office receptionist now full-time photographer recalls. “It was one of those regular type cameras you take when you go travelling. I took some photos of some stupid things and they didn’t look good.”
His early shots were hardly the stuff of acclaimed Nha Trang photographer Loc Mai or the wildly successful Frenchman Rehahn whose works documenting Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups have catapulted him to enviable fame and fortune.
But Sang’s passion for travel and photography has ensured the development of his craft has come along in leaps and bounds since.
Indeed, five years on, he’s now working full-time taking photos at events, perhaps not his dream job, but after COVID-19 scuttled expansion plans for his burgeoning travel companion start-up business, he had few other options to earn an income.
And returning to the family farm wasn’t one of them, although he has great respect for what his family does.
“I don’t want to be a farmer,” he replies with a wry smile before playfully continuing: “I don’t think I have the talent for that! They’re very good at growing things.”
With a return to the farm not on the cards, Sang is at least confident that his travel companion concept has potential once international flights return, because until March this year just after they stopped, he had been fully-booked in 2019 right up until the end of this year.
“At first, I wanted to be a travel blogger, but there’s a lot of competition, and besides, I hadn’t come up with something unique enough,” he says. “And, I couldn’t do the same thing as everyone else, so I came up with the idea of being a travel companion, organising holidays for small numbers of travellers.”
But because it was a relatively new concept for Vietnam, explaining what the job entailed to his family and friends had its challenges.
“It’s a kind of new job I think, because I haven’t come across anyone else doing this,” he explains. “When I first started, people thought I was acting as an escort, but the difference is that escorts go with you for sex or something like that on a trip and just follow their client around. What I provide is basically like a concierge or butler service. I arrange the travel details for my clients and travel with them and take care of everything during the trip.”
Now that Sang has been grounded for most of the year and forced like the rest of us to explore neighbourhoods much closer to home, he’s been able to use the time to hone his skills during the photo walks each week and concentrate on the subjects he likes to photograph:
“I like culture and people – those are my subjects,” he explains. “I like natural scenes that aren’t set up, when you have to capture a moment that only happens once and if you don’t, it’ll be gone. I like that kind of thing because it’s real and when they smile down your lens, it’s a real smile that gives the image heart and soul.”
Saigon Photowalk’s third exhibition runs until Oct. 18
Common 9 Cafe is on the 2nd floor at 62 Tran Hung Dao St., District 1, HCMC
For more info about Saigon Photowalk, visit https://www.facebook.com/Saigonphotowalk
Words & photos by Matthew Cowan. Follow Matt on Instagram at @mattcowansaigon