Passing the Baton in Vietnam
by Horst Faas

The Vietnam experience had formed a whole generation of photojournalists. Those who covered the war from Saigon and are still alive are ending their careers in the fading glow of what was often the high point of their journalistic life. Many have already retired. The photographer-soldiers on the Communist side have finally come out of the shadows. Their dead have been honored with exhibitions and books and those who survived can finally tell their tale.

Some of the best of a new generation of Vietnamese photo journalist and some very eager want-to-be photographers gathered in Ho Chi Minh City earlier this year for a rare opportunity to meet and learn from western photojournalists with extensive past and current experiences.

The old Vietnam War was barely mentioned. The state of the art of today's photojournalism was the topic.

The first international workshop on photojournalism was organized by the Indochina Media Memorial Foundation (IMMF) in cooperation with the Vietnam Association of Photographic Artists (VPA) and the Vietnam News Agency (VNA).

The IMMF was conceived in 1991 by British photographer and author Tim Page. He wanted to do something to mark the lives and deaths of almost 200 media colleagues, from many countries, killed or missing while covering all sides of the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos over thirty years, from 1945-1975.

The conflict in Indochina more than any other, before or since, highlighted the role of the media in war. For the journalists involved in the IMMF, the memory of lost colleagues has provoked a desire to support the development of good practice in journalism in the region where this piece of history unfolded, as well as a desire to put something back into the country where their professional careers were made.

The young Vietnamese photographers and their tutors - including two old timers who had been there during the war - were based at the Rex Hotel, conveniently in the center of Ho Chi Minh City which is marked by a large statue of Ho Chi Minh in front of the adjacent City Hall. The Rex was the headquarters of the U.S. military's information services, when this city was known as Saigon and the daily military briefings were called the "Follies."

Twenty-eight Vietnamese photographers took part - of average age of 30 and seven women among them - representing print media from across Vietnam, including the Saigon Times, the Vietnam Economic Times, the Vietnam Investment Review, Ho Chi Minh City Women's Magazine, the Vietnam News Agency and an array of local newspapers. There were also four freelancers, a rare breed in Vietnam. Already in the pre-selection of candidates for the workshop Vietnamese officials objected to freelancers who the IMMF had nominated and four had to be withdrawn and were subsequently replaced by staff from government controlled papers. "They are too free," one Vietnamese official commented. Of the 28, nine came from Hanoi, fifteen from Ho Chi Minh City and four from elsewhere in Vietnam, towns such as Hue and Dalat.

The tutors were James Nachtwey, an American, who after a career with Magnum now works with Agency VII; Gary Knight, a Briton, also with Agency VII; Elisabeth Gallin, a retired picture editor for Newsweek; Tim Page, a British freelancer out of Kent, England, Charles Dharapak, an American with The Associated Press based in Jakarta; and Horst Faas, a German, now senior European photo editor with AP in London.

Tim Page and Horst Faas were working in Vietnam during the war, Page from 1965 to 1969, Faas from 1962 to 1974. James Nachtwey, now 54, told the Vietnamese during one of his presentations that the photos he saw of the Vietnam war as a teenager, especially Nick Ut's picture of the napalm scarred child running down a road in 1972 inspired him to become the news photographer he is today, having covered wars and human misery for the past twenty years.

The Vietnamese were divided into five groups, each of which worked with the same tutor throughout the eight-day session. They went out on the streets every day, learning to experiment with photo angles, choose the right lens and, most important, find the telling image. They also were urged to challenge the worry of offending officials, while recognizing that is a legitimate concern in this one-party communist nation.

"There have always been authorities who were afraid of the picture," Faas commented during a session in which the students were shown noted samples from the history of photo journalism. He told his audience that one of the few issues the post-World War II occupying forces in his hometown of Berlin could agree on was that ordinary people shouldn't be allowed to wield a camera.

Originally the workshop's project was to cover news and current events in Ho Chi Minh City and work on a number of relevant photo essays. However, despite a score of newspapers, a myriad of magazines and Vietnam News Agency reports available on the Internet it proved impossible to set up a diary of upcoming events. All news seem to be a state secret - and despite being part of the workshop Vietnam News Agency would not reveal their daily events list of such pedestrian events as soccer matches, inaugurations, press conferences.

Vietnam remains a country where it is possible to find out everything happening in the outside world through the Internet or international television broadcasts, but little of he news around you. Nothing will happen as a news event or will be noted in print and picture unless authorities have consented that people in Vietnam should know. The lack of unrestricted and free information is a stark reminder that Vietnam is still one of the few countries ruled by the Communist party.

"The only way to get into print here is to have as many party members in the picture as possible," one Vietnamese photographer commented.

Thus handicapped, the workshop project, to which everybody contributed, set off to record *Eight Days in Ho Chi Minh City* under the managing editorship of Elizabeth Gallin. By the end of the eight days there was to be an exhibition of 49 of the best pictures taken during the workshop, and a 82-page digital picture magazine.

Vietnamese photographers still rely primarily on film and prints, with very few using low-grade digital cameras. Only one of the 28 photographers had his own laptop. For most Internet cafes are the points of access to the Internet.

Supplied by Canon, Epson and The Associated Press, nine digital cameras, desktops and six laptops gave the Vietnamese their first ever chance to experience digital photography, and all of them loved it. The photography of many showed marked improvements. Many had also never used long or zoom lenses - professional tools still a luxury and beyond the financial reach of most photographers and publications in Vietnam.

At the end some 14,500 images were exposed on Kodak 400 film, as well as some ten thousand digital images stored.

Evening presentations by he tutors confronted the Vietnamese with famous news photographs which many had never seen - only few photo books are available in Vietnam, although pirated novels and books about Vietnam and the war are available at every corner in downtown HCMC.

James Nachtwey drew a full house when he showed his portfolio of twenty years covering hellish places.

Charles Dharapak held several primer sessions on the use of digital equipment and Photoshop.

Horst Faas presented the Vietnamese one day with a tour de force show of the history of photojournalism and the use of photography in magazines. On another day he showed a rapid sequence of news photographs from the past hundred years that have become well remembered historical icons in the west, but were for the most part new to the fascinated Vietnamese.

Gary Knight explained how web sites and the Internet can be used as tools of today's photojournalism.

Tim Page, who has spent much time in recent years discovering and exploring photography of the "other side," the communist side of Vietnam, introduced Doan Cong Tinh who, born in 1943, is one of the few soldier-photographer survivors of the Vietnam war. Both showed the work and spoke of the experiences of the now old war photographers. But some in the young audience were skeptical."I know very well, how many of their pictures had to be posed as ordered by the commissars," one said.

This was the only time the war became a topic of discussion. Before the tutors first met with their young Vietnamese colleagues it was decided not to mention the war and our own war experiences - and the Vietnamese never asked. Born during the end-years of the war or thereafter, questions raised by the young photographers in forum discussions and in the many personal chats concerned mainly how to improve in the profession today and achieve a better life tomorrow.

A planned discussion about the problems and future of photo journalism that was to involve all photographers and tutors came to an abrupt end with a patronizing speech by one of the HCMC government news agency officials.

"Do not forget that we expect you to come out of this workshop according to our expectations. You must emerge as a better photographer for your country. Your photography will improve if it serves your country, it will be bad if it does not serve your country.

Some of you will come out of this workshop having enhanced your reputation with us - some will not. Talk amongst yourself and decide what you should be taking pictures of and of what you should not. You need not always talk to your tutor," he admonished the photographers. Nobody had anything to say anymore and the session ended.

The Vietnamese were more comfortable sitting with their tutor in small groups around a computer or a stack on contact prints. Their interpreters, too, were more relaxed and more forthcoming when they could not be
overheard by outsiders hanging about.

Many made. ample notes of what their tutors said. "Think with your head. Take (pictures) with your heart. Always follow your subject." Photographer Bui Buu Ha had noted down from James Nachtwey's remarks explaining how he works. Bui had the difficult assignment to produce an essay on the care for children with mental disabilities.

The workshop was called a boot camp with drills in the basics: The technical challenges were often overwhelming with the digital cameras and long zoom lenses most photographers had never experienced. For their newspapers most photographers usually just photograph head-on, with no special angles, no attempts to see a picture in a new, different way. The editors don't want it any other way.

During the workshop they were asked to compose fascinating frames, approach their subject from different angles, make use of dramatic available light and to penetrate into the minds or meaning of their subjects.

The tutors learned quickly what their students had experienced throughout their careers: The big hindrances to developing an individual photographic style is the worry of offending the sensibilities of the ruling establishment. Even a routine assignment requires a bundle of official permission papers. Taking pictures of about anything sensitive even in the streets, is forbidden or instantly challenged by the omnipresent eyes and ears of the government. Once the members of "Inter-Ministerial Inspection team 844TP" started to look through the photographs taken during the workshop assignments such as a look of the increasing prostitution in HCMC, the trade with young prostitutes between Cambodia and Vietnam and the Vietnam government's measures to stop it had to be dropped at the strong recommendation of these observers.

The Vietnamese photographers did not argue with the representatives of the political establishment. They did not complain. But they diligently worked around the groundrules and stay out of politics, with astonishing results.

"It was a great reward for me to see how within a few days often sullen photographers who had initially produced dull and unimaginative pictures picked up our ideas and suggestions and came back with attractive or meaningful images," said Horst Faas.

"During the war some of the best and most aggressive and at the same time sensitive photographers were Vietnamese," Horst reminisced, adding"Now I spotted many talents amongst our young colleagues with whom I would love to work with now."

James Nachtwey commented after the workshop: "We lit a fire there, and the cast of characters was all-time."

The last day and what was to be the closing ceremony of the workshop ended in confusion, with the distinct absurdity of a Franz Kafka novel. The plan was to exhibit fifty of the workshop photographers best pictures, discuss the 84-page magazine layout that had been produced as a computer generated layout (without texts and captions) and then present awards, mostly books on photography.

The "Inter-ministerial Inspection Team" had already vetoed several photos: that of a beggar, a picture of an old man in a houseboat and a few others for reasons only known to themselves. They were withdrawn.

For several days the chairman of the IMMF, Len Aldis, had patiently negotiated with them - until it emerged that the IMF's co-organizers of the workshop, the Vietnam Association of Artistic Photographers in Vietnam and Vietnam News Agency had failed to obtain an exhibition permit from the Ministry of Culture.

The remaining 47 pictures were on the walls, the buffet had been set up as well as the still corked wine bottles. An obligatory ribbon held the gathering crowd in the corridor. Still no word from the ministry. Then a surprising little ceremony with speeches in a side room during which Tim Page and Horst Faas were awarded medals bestowed by the Photographers Association for their work in connection with the Requiem exhibition project. Some of the students got up to present gifts to their tutors, and Nguyen Hoai Linh, the senior and one of the most talented among the photographers gave a moving "thank you" speech. With a twinkle in his eyes, directed at the tutors, he ended, "Let us not forget that it was the great Lenin who said "Truth is the Power of Journalism."

He later assured his tutor that Lenin indeed wrote that. The name Lenin triggered roaring applause from officials, photographers and all - and at least some wine bottles were uncorked. But the exhibition remained officially closed. While the speeches ended the document from the Ministry of Culture had arrived.

It said, "The exhibition of photographs at Rex Hotel does not have a license from responsible authorities and has not passed the required inspection stage by the responsible authorities. After hearing the report from the organizers of the exhibition, the Inter Ministerial Inspection team 844TP decided to suspend the exhibition. Etc."

Once this was public, the officials left and the Vietnamese photographers took their pictures from the wall and lined them up on the floor, leaning against the wall. One photographer took control of the computer and
projected the workshop magazine. Another wrote a sign "Private Party" and hung it in the corridor. The tutors watched in amazement from the door as the students took over the floor.

When the trays and bottles were empty many retired to a nearby bar and it became a long night. Many exchanged their E-mail addressees with the tutors, who have been busy since answering E-mail's with questions asking for counsel and advice.

One photographer took it a step further. Translating AP's Brian Horton's book 'Introduction to Photojournalism' he found a quote from Bob Lynn, a newspaper graphic consultant who said: "A young person should just shoot from the heart and the gut and shoot the pictures that he likes. If you are at a paper that doesn't appreciate it, then you have to move to a paper that does appreciate it."

The photographer added (the name is withheld to protect him): "The local newspaper I'm working for really doesn't appreciate what I tried to practice what has been taught at the IMMF workshop. I intend to quit my job and go freelance or work for other media agencies. " His tutor wishes him well.

View a Selection of Nine Photographs from
the Vietnam Photojournalism Workshop.

Write a Letter to the Editor
Join our Mailing List
© The Digital Journalist