On one of these last winter days, we visited Nguyen Huu Bao’s home on Hang Dao street. A veteran photographer in his sixties and a child of the Old Quarters, Huu Bao has received numerous praises from the press. Yet for a millennial like me, it is a rare chance to ever come into contact with both the photographer and his works. Before meeting with such a figure, it’s difficult to not hold prejudices that there would be romantic frames of antiquated houses and streets, taken by a soul leaning towards the bygones in the era when the city is constantly evolving; not even mentioning the generational and ideological gap. But once again, photography proves its magic of connecting people. From scattered stories, Huu Bao opened up about himself, about the Hanoi love stories he wanted to capture, the stories behind his two books Ky Uc Lang (Memories Of Village) and Ha Noi Dau Yeu (My Dear Hanoi), while insistently dismissing himself as a photographer.
[Huu Bao] I take photos for myself, not anyone else, and neither for competitions and prizes. No purpose whatsoever.
It’s funny to spell out, but my works accidentally coincides with the changes in society, and naturally becomes a story when sequenced. After Phuong Nam Publisher heard that Mr. Bao had an archive of old Hanoi photos, they came to me proposing the making of a book; I did not seek to publish one myself. It was then that I started organizing a huge volume of photos taken throughout decades, from 1978 to 2015. A huge mix-up from when there was no digital camera and color film leads to imbalanced quality. I picked and picked, till it finally came down to about 200 pictures. You can call it My Dear Hanoi Collection no. 1.
I shoot an image today but there lies in it a breath of Hanoi. I never raise my camera at flashy things, flamboyant clothes or skyscrapers… I look for the lyricism in the life of the working class, in the soul of the street vendors. Hanoi is only the context, my focus is on the people.
“Tôi chụp chính cái hồn vía của mình. Đây chỉ là những hiện tượng mà tôi chắt lọc để làm nên chân dung của chính mình.”
I’m not a nostalgic person. People keep saying Mr. Bao’s images conjure a bygone Hanoi, but that is not the case. For example, if you only take a picture of a gate of an old house, that’s nostalgic; but if at the door stands a girl in a modern miniskirt then that’s a different story. It reflects the moving of the bygones, in the people and in the space.
I always “jump” at shots, never setting anything up. But in fact, I have been shooting myself the whole time! I take pictures my own soul. These are only phenomena I distill to paint my own portrait.
Among 100 articles written about me, 99 get me wrong. One says I pull all-nighters to make work. But the truth is I have insomnia so I walk around the streets to take pictures at night, then I come back sleepy and go to bed. It’s not that I die for my art. No need to be a martyr, no need to mystify the work.
Photography to me is more about enjoyment than it is about responsibility. It’s simply a passion; and once it’s a passion every difficulty comes down to enjoyment. Don’t be misled. Who forces you to sacrifice, huh? Don’t pull it out to show off. I only know that this photo is beautiful or interesting, but I don’t care about your hardship. Some people keep complaining that that day the weather was bad or the buffalo had passed by before they could press the shutter… Don’t ever explain, you can’t once the picture is hung up.
Then the press keeps using the word “photography master” as if it’s nothing. Don’t call me a photography artist because I’m not an artist, don’t call me a photographer master because I’m not yet there. Just a photo-taker or at most photographer. Not that I’m hard to please, but we should be fair. Also you should be strict on yourself, don’t rest on your laurels when you receive too many praises.
The highest level of photography is to reach the many layers of emotions: happiness, anger, love, hate, the comic and the tragic. To take aesthetically pleasing pictures is hard, but not that hard. Principles such as the golden ratio, light, composition… make up only the outside, and should only be the means, never the end. Otherwise the photo is no more than a postcard. Back in the days I was inclined to aestheticize photography, but luckily now I’ve got it out of my head. I have a painter friend who comments on the strength but also the weakness in my photos, which is the centimeter-level precision that can only be possible in painting. But too much precision doesn’t turn out well. A man who speaks only ideals act in a monologue, you should stay away from such kind of person.
I want pictures to tell stories. For example, here I place two photos together. These old ladies love to go offering incense ceremonies, because they toiled in the fields and didn’t get to beautify themselves when they were young. Now the peasants can wear golden clothes and put on makeup. There is a detail that says the mirror in her is bought from a street vendor. Next to it is a photo of two young women, one is tapping lipstick, the other is fixing her hair through the car window.
This one, I want to focus on the sad eyesight of the nun. She holds a child that doesn’t belong to her, who knows if she follows Buddhism but still has not shaken off worldly concerns. Many people can read my intention. I highly value those who know to read photos. There are skilled folks who can do an “operation” on the photos and knows why they are beautiful. Then there are those who like photos by gut feelings. Don’t ever think less of simple and sincere people, because their emotions are so pure that their genuinity can startle us for once they speak their mind.
If you want to do photography, first pursue the profession, then the art. But personally I don’t regard photography as an art form. There is no photographic art, only artistic photography. I’m more inclined towards the idea that photography is a form of visual journalism with artistic elements. “Art” can only serve as an adjective, not a noun. That’s my own take.
Photography is journalism, realism combined with the photographer’s outlook on life. The question is whether or not the photographer has humanity. Shooting the same beggar, why do we feel the author’s empathy with his pain in one photo, but see condescending pity in another? Those can’t be articulated by words. Photography has its own language. I want to follow that path, don’t know if it’s right or wrong but it’s what my heart says.
Photography is learning to observe. I ride my motorbike slowly, ride my bike slowly, walk even more slowly – well, “occupational disease.” I always carry my camera when I’m out – not that I go out to take photos but I hang out carrying a camera. Let it all go. Before, whenever I went out I prepared and calculated well in my head, but not anymore, anything at anytime is life. Holding on to that desire, breaking down when you fail to achieve… But loss is inevitable. Getting used to that is not simple at all.