Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Vietnam expats world through photography

Through an expat’s eyes
Peter Pham originally came back to his native country for business but the snapshots he took on that trip changed his life.

He moved to the US at the age of nine and later became a computer engineer for IBM, but it seems that the real destiny of this 42-year-old Vietnamese is photography.

Peter Pham, whose full name is Pham Manh Hung, first returned to Vietnam in 1992 for a business project. But with things not going so well on the business front, he did some traveling, snapping tourist shots with an automatic camera. The strange images that he took home of Vietnamese daily life were engraved upon the expat’s mind. So began a photographic journey to the land of his forefathers.

“When I look back at those photos it calls up so many memories. At first, in America, I was a landscape photographer, but when I returned to Vietnam, portrait shots drew me in. I love it for the reality, without effects and unarranged. That’s why I just like wandering and chasing every natural moment of life,” Pham says.

Another work by Pham, “A cute smile” taken at the Nhat Le River in the central province of Quang Binh

Since 2002, Pham has been returning to Vietnam for the sole purpose of taking pictures. With photographic knowledge learnt from the Internet, books and his main occupation selling oil painting reproductions online, Pham’s view of the world is both familiar and strange.

Seeing the country through an expat’s eyes, Pham approaches his subjects from another angle - deeply sympathetic and respectful to the masses. “Having sold oil-painting reproductions for five years, I am really interested in that style. When I look in the working people’s eyes, I feel the joy, peace, innocence and happiness that go along with the hard work. I want to capture and share that feeling with the viewers. I have traveled many places, but there are several ones, such as Hoi An, Northern East, Highlands, Nha Trang, Hanoi and Ca Mau, that I want to visit again to get a better understanding,” shares Pham.

The result of Pham’s photographic journey around Vietnam is a full-color book called Duong ve va khoanh khac (Journey Home). At first, Pham planned to make the book for friends. But he was encouraged to publish it for general sale. Pham’s pictures also appear on postcards which have become one of the top sellers at Tribook bookstores and Phuong Nam’s chain of bookshops – 30 percent of the proceeds from their sale goes to charity.

“Coming back and settling in Vietnam for nearly a year now, there have been a lot of changes in my family’s life. I want to reflect that in my art. Now my wife and I are preparing the second book in the trilogy. This collection is like my awareness of my new life. I also want to make an exhibition. Perhaps it could tour galleries, and all the profits could go to charity. We want to do something small for my native Vietnam. But the problem is that my wife and I cannot handle everything. I really need some help and sponsorship to organize it,” Pham says.

Soul mate

In Pham’s photography career, his 29-year-old wife Ngoc Anh plays a very important role. Anh was the first to appreciate and encourage Pham’s talent. Perfectly matched in nearly every way Pham and Anh, also a US expat, decided to marry after a whirlwind three-month relationship. They shared a common yearning to return to Vietnam.

“She was working at a tour services company and I was the client. She was the partner I was seeking,” says Pham.

The couple enjoy their life together both as soul mates and business partners. Anh is the manager of finances in Pham’s business and always supports her husband to build his dream.

“This art business has a lot of remarkable and funny memories,” Anh said.

“I still recall when a Thai customer insisted on buying a picture of an old man standing beside stacks of canned fish. We felt it was strange, because it wasn’t a popular photo. Finally, I discovered the reason. By sheer coincidence that man was the sales representative of the canned fish product in my husband’s picture.

“Sometimes, I tell Peter that maybe he should change his style to satisfy his customers’ taste but his definitive answer has always been ‘No.’ I understand that photography is my partner’s passion and he has to please himself.”

“Do what you like” is the young couple’s motto. The husband and wife team have displays in the showroom of Nha Xinh, a famous trade name in Vietnamese interior decoration.

More of Pham’s photos are available on his

“Sad eyes,” a work by Peter Pham depicting a star fruit vendor in Hanoi