The Digital Journalist

Hanoi Photo Workshop Report
June 2005

by Steve Northup

Editors Note:

IMMF Workshop Director Horst Faas was stricken by a blood clot on his spinal cord on the eve of the first day of the IMMF Workshop in Hanoi. The other members of the faculty, including Steve Northup, took over. Following is Steve's report to Horst, who is now hospitalized in Bavaria.

Dear Horst,

I'm sure Gaby (Sommer) and Charlie (Dharapak) have done a full and complete job of describing the workshop. In short, it was one of the most wonderful and intense times of my life. Everything worked. There were obstacles to be overcome; the greatest was our loss of you. I think each of us went forward thinking "this is for Horst."

Probably the best way to start this is to try and remember the short speech I gave on behalf of the tutors at our closing ceremony. I started off thanking the Government of Viet Nam, the VNS, the IMMF, Canon, and the AP for all of their support. And then I went on to say this:

"The idea behind this workshop was pretty straightforward. The IMMF would gather a collection of seasoned news photographers and editors from around the planet, bring them to Hanoi, assign them five or six photographers, and let them teach. Well, it didn't quite work out that way. We were gathered up, all right, and assigned our classes, and then they taught us. They taught us the strength and beauty of the Vietnamese people. They taught us the resilience and flexibility, the grace and elegance of the Vietnamese people. They showed us the verdant wonders of the land, the wonders of the food. And they taught us how to cross the street." (No mean feat in Hanoi, where the pedestrian faces an onslaught of motor scooters in a phalanx of 10 to 12 across.)

Bottow row: Richard Vogel, AP Hanoi, tutor; Tim Page, tutor; Nick Ut, AP Los Angeles, tutor; Gaby Sommer, tutor. Top row: Jim Caccavo, tutor; Sheila Brown, IMMF coordinator; Chikako Yatabe, AP Senior Photo Editor for Asia, tutor; Charles Dharapak, AP Washington, tutor; Steve Northup, tutor.

Photography by Phan Huu Nghi
The tutors, from six countries and four continents, bonded right away. I think one of the many reasons for the success of our venture is that the students witnessed the mutual admiration and respect the tutors had for each other. We really bonded, and it showed. The class witnessed this, and took it as example for their own classes. My gang formed a family, spending what little free time we gave them as a group. They cared for one another, and learned from one another. I sent them out on individual assignments and I would also round them up and send them out as a group, often going along to see how they reacted together. We had some grand outings: a ballet school, a trip along the Red River to visit the pottery-carrying sampans, and the families who lived on them. We visited a pottery-making village, and a Confucian temple. We spent time in the rice paddies, and in markets. Mind you, this is not quite the ideal time to visit Hanoi. It was blazing hot, in the high 90s, and so wet that a shirt was good for about half an hour. But no one complained, or even seemed to mind.

A number of lovely images come to mind: our gang of tutors, after a hard, long day of teaching, gathered together in the late dusk, sitting on the sidewalk on tiny chairs, drinking the milk from fresh coconuts, sharing our day as the life of Hanoi swirled around us, enjoying each other's company. I fondly remember loading my crew onto a tiny sampan for a trip up the Red River to a village of houseboats. All seven of us. There was about a 3/8-inch freeboard, but we made it. And the memories of going out for a 7 a.m. bowl of pho, Vietnamese noodle soup, with my gang, all on motorbikes. Being a passenger on a Hanoi motorbike is like being in a huge, swirling school of fish. Traffic here is one organism and it's Brownian motion in its truest form. In almost a week in the country I never saw a single incident of road rage. They get along.

Steve Northup edits his group's work after a morning of shooting.

Yet another memory: Each of the tutors presented a picture show and brief lecture on aspects of their work. When it came time for Gaby Sommer to address the crowd, she showed fine images and then gave a list of truly helpful hints. How to stand in a pack and not be pushed around. How to push back. What to wear, what to carry. And then her final bit of advice: "Sometimes you are going to be standing waiting for a picture for three or four hours. Always pre-pee." This drew a puzzled look from Chou, our great interpreter, and general fixer. "Pre-pee," Gaby restated, an elegant woman who looks like Lauren Bacall and sounds like Marlene Dietrich. "Ah," said Mr. Chou. "Pre-pee" was issued in Vietnamese. First there was a small titter among the assembled, then a wave of laughter. They got it, and will well remember it. And will always pre-pee.

Gaby Sommer, left, Steve Northup, center, and Charles Dharapak, right, are seen editing the workshop participants' pictures.

In short, everyone got better. The Vietnamese did, we did. It was a time all of us will always remember, an opportunity for which we shall always be grateful. We learned a lot. If I could make any changes in the next one, they would be few. More women photographers. There were only two. And, PLEASE, Mac computers. As a left-handed dyslexic technopeasant, Macs have been my best friend. There is a special place in hell for PCs. And a special place in all of our hearts for Charlie Dharapak, of the AP's Washington bureau, and maker of some of the best photos of President Bush I've ever seen. Charlie not only shouldered a full teaching load, but he made the whole computer network system work, and keep working - all while taking even more time to patiently teach several of us Apple fans how to cope with the insanities of the PC system. He did a yeoman's duty.

Lastly, another list of thanks. To Horst Faas, who, even from a hospital bed in Bangkok, supplied the will and strength we all needed to make this thing work. To Sheila Brown and Peter Rimmer of the IMMF. To the wonderful people and cameras of Canon. They really do make the best stuff, and they do it themselves. Everything in your Canon was developed by them, and they have a whopping R&D budget. To the Vietnamese News Service. But most of all, to our students. We all made wonderful memories. And they have the pictures to prove it.

© Steve Northup

As a UPI staff photographer, Steve Northup covered the Vietnam War in 1965-66. He also worked for the Washington Post and in Time magazine's Washington bureau. A Neiman Fellow at Harvard in 1973-74, Steve is now retired "sort of." He teaches at the Santa Fe Photo Workshops and in Guatemala for Art Workshops in Guatemala. And he runs his own workshop each year in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.