Cuong Tran On Street Photography, Saigon Hem & Photographer Friends

Photography enthusiasts in Saigon are not unfamiliar with Tiem Ca Phe Saigon Hem, a little cafe located deep inside an alley on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai street. Just celebrating its first year running, but Saigon Hem has become an integral part of the local photography scene. Its energy and openness are perhaps what makes the name of Saigon Hem, where the a small flame of photography is ignited and inspires a new generation of young image makers. One of four Saigon Hem’s owners is Cuong Tran, an IT programmer turned street photographer.

Portrait of Cuong Tran. © Huy Nguyen

How did you pick up the camera? What motivates you to take photos so frequently while having your own family and a full time job?
I’m an IT person. For the past 10 years, I have been working with HP brand and there are many opportunities to move around. Sometimes during those field trips I would get bored, so I started taking photos, to keep memories for myself first. After landscape and flowers, I moved on to street photography, and later on documentary photography. Why do I still have time to shoot? I think besides one’s day job, we should do something else to contribute to the society. Some choose charity, some choose activism, personally I choose photography to raise awareness about certain social issues.

Can you share more about about your series documenting the changes in District 2? 
I live in district 2 and commute through Luong Dinh Cua street 8 times everyday, so I naturally start taking pictures of the area. I witness firsthand the fast urbanization in the past 3 years, from the clearance of Binh Khanh market, the disappearance of old ferry boats, to the construction of Saigon river tunnel. With a camera in hand, I would not miss an opportunity to capture these events. After taking pictures of trivialities, I went inside construction sites, residential areas and hamlets where workers from other provinces live to document how people still cling to the land across the river. A lady at my mom’s age lives in a flooded area, she has to wade through water whenever the rainy season comes, but she refuses to move because she is not satisfied with the compensation policy. In another ward, a little girl around 5-6 years old keeps following me whenever I come to take photos, I intend to give her a compact camera so she can capture the surrounding. 

© Cuong Tran
© Cuong Tran

Is the series your turning point from street photography to documentary photography?
It is not because of this series alone. I already grow out of street photography already, it is like a game that one gets bored after playing for a while. I know the streets like the back of my hand so I feel less excited. I still enjoy going out and watching people of course, but without the intention to take photos. The street photography scene is now saturated and visual tricks keep being repeated. Maybe because of its popularity in big street photography forums and the generally favorable reception from the audience, many people prioritize taking photos for others and not themselves. Having said that, I also know a few young people who have a fresh view of street photography, they even bring the very definition of street photography into question. Their approaches evoke more emotions, stories and result in less “perfect” pictures.

Later on, I care more about documentary photography because of its capacity to tell a coherent story. Its source materials are always developing along with the current affairs, so documentary photography can always renew itself. It goes without saying that pictures often speaks about their photographers, but this is particularly true to documentary photography. As a matter of fact the photos have to report correctly what happens, but my personal mindset and political standpoint are reflected in the very subject matter. For me, a good photo is one whose value increases as time passes by, which after many years you would want to keep.

© Cuong Tran

So what is photography to you now?
To me it is still a game, something I do for fun. I still keep the habit of carrying a compact with me everyday, shooting whenever, wherever I can, in the morning when I take my kids to school, in the afternoon watching demonstrations on the street.

I am considering working on a series about our drinking culture. Vietnamese people are one of the heaviest drinkers in the world; in 2015 we spent 3 billion $ on drinking beer alone, not counting beer food or alcohol. Drinking is fun of course but there are consequences. My job requires me to drink and network, and when I’m drunk, the only thing I could do is sleep.

If it’s a game, you will have fellow players yeah?
Photography has given me a lot of innocent friendships. They are a diverse group of people, from those of my age to those 20 years my junior. To get along well, the most important thing is equality, meaning you have to respect and listen to one another, and not dismiss one’s opinions for no reason other than that you are older than them. It is a two-way exchange, I myself have learnt a lot from young people.

© Cuong Tran
© Cuong Tran

And are those photographer friends a reason why Tiem Ca Phe Saigon Hem is opened?
Before opening Hem, there are about 10 people in our group, we would go out to shoot then hang out at cafes everyday. The first reason to open Hem is that sitting at our own cafe is more convenient so I, Diep Ban Tan, Duong Thai Tan and Nguyen Ngoc Hai have worked on it. When it seems to run smoothly, we start organizing photography-related activities, like casual exhibitions, book displays and talks. We have shown photos by Nguyen Khanh, Chu Viet Ha, Saigon’s photojournalist groups, Khang Duong Da Lat, [email protected],… so that our customers can take a look at unique bodies of work.

I am glad that today Hem has become a gathering place for photography enthusiasts. Recently, I’ve come to know a group of about 20 people who are very passionate and willing to learn about street or documentary photography, and they choose Hem as a place for hanging out, showing new work, and sharing ideas and information. I and Vietnam Hardcore Street Photography have just had a talk organized by tinhte forum. Some VAPA photographers, our seniors, start visiting Hem and they love it. Besides playing for ourselves, we shall play with others and let others play with us.

© Huy Nguyen
© Huy Nguyen
© Huy Nguyen
© Ngo Quan

Cuong Tran works as an IT engineer and regards photography as a recreation. He co-founded Tiem Ca Phe Saigon Hem and manages Vietnam Street Photography group.

Connect with Cuong at Facebook and Instagram.