Saigon Diary #6: Trip to Pulau Bidong, Switching to Black & White, Thoughts on Digital

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Sorry guys, it has been a while since I last updated my “Saigon Diary” series. A lot has happened since the last time we talked. During that time, I taught a week-long Saigon street photography workshop, I traveled to Malaysia and visited Pulau Bidong (a refugee camp where Cindy was born). I also took a week-long trip to Singapore, where I did a free talk for Fujifilm Singapore, did a 3-day weekend workshop, and now I am back home.

I am only in Saigon for another week and a half, then Cindy and I are heading to Hanoi for a weekend. Then after that, we are traveling to Seoul and Tokyo (teaching an intro workshop in Tokyo), then Cindy is heading home. After Cindy heads home, I’m teaching a workshop in Hong Kong with Gary Tyson, then teaching a workshop in Sydney and an intermediate/advanced workshop in Melbourne.

Not sure where I can update you guys– but will try to skip around with my thoughts.

Reunification Palace / Saigon

During my week-long Saigon workshop, me and the students shot in the reunification palace. I took a series of photos on the top roof (where there is a famous shot of people evacuating Saigon via helicopter, during the ‘fall of Saigon’):

Evacuation of CIA station personnel by Air America on the rooftop of 22 Gia Long Street in Saigon on April 29, 1975.
Evacuation of CIA station personnel by Air America on the rooftop of 22 Gia Long Street in Saigon on April 29, 1975.

At the roof, here is a series of images I shot:

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One technique I use in street photography is looking for an interesting background, and waiting for the right person to step into the shot. They call this the “fishing” technique. You set up your camera, and wait for your fish (subjects) to enter your image.

So I saw the helicopter in the background, and nice silhouettes of people entering the scene. I then saw this one boy, and started to photograph him. In the frame outlined, I like the drama of the shot– and the story it suggests. Perhaps the kid is wanting to fly away and leave Vietnam? Perhaps he “missed his flight”? Anyways, I like the idea of keeping the story open-ended, so my viewers can make up their fun little story:

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Trip to Pulau Bidong Island

For the last 5 years, Cindy has been trying to revisit Pulau Bidong, a refugee camp in Malaysia where she was born.

During the fall of Saigon, her family fled Vietnam and ended up at Pulau Bidong. They were part of the “boat people” — who faced dangers during their trip such as pirates, disease, and even shipwrecks at sea. Fortunately, Cindy’s family made it safely to the island. Cindy’s mother was pregnant with Cindy during the time.

My manager and good friend Neil Ta actually was born in the same refugee camp. This is how I actually first met Neil. Cindy was searching how to visit the island, and came across Neil’s blog post on visiting Pulau Bidong. He gave her lots of tips on how to visit the camp, and eventually I got connected to Neil (the power of Facebook).

Anyways fast-forward, and through Cindy’s contacts we were able to meet Anuar Ngah, a local tour guide who took us there. In-fact, he made a documentary of the whole thing, you can watch it below:

It was a very emotional journey for Cindy– but at the end of it, her words really rang with me. Cindy told me how at the end of her trip she was quite happy — to see how regardless of all the pain, difficulty, and suffering that people on the island endured, they were able to build a sense of community and flourish from this difficult time in their lives.

Here are some of my snaps from the trip:

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Changing from color to black and white

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Currently for my trip in Saigon, I am shooting it all digitally on the Fujifilm x100s and XT-1 with the 27mm f/2.8 lens. I decided to shoot the project digitally, so I could produce this ongoing “Saigon Diary” and share some behind-the-scenes images with you. My ultimate hope is to give you some insight on how I think about my photos, and show you all the bad photos I make as well.

To be quite frank, I’m not satisfied with any of my photos in Saigon. I think they’re all weak. In any other situations, I wouldn’t show the photos publicly. But once again, I wanted to make this process as transparent as possible.

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I started to think about my images– and the most meaningful ones I’ve taken of are of Cindy. I think this is because I have an emotional attachment to her, and the photos I produce aren’t just of interesting moments on the streets. The photos of Cindy are personal to me, and that is what ultimately creates meaning for me.

The other day I had a mini-epiphany: I don’t really like the colors of my digital work as much as my color film work. I think the Fuji cameras produce the best colors out of any digital camera I’ve ever seen– but I still prefer the look of Kodak Portra 400 that I shoot on my film Leica.

I still think there are benefits of shooting digital– the convenience, being able to share on-going work, and take snapshots of my everyday life. I think ultimately I want to continue shooting both digital and film.

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I think I’m going to experiment with something new: just shoot all black and white on digital, and only color on film.

I prefer this approach for two reasons:

1. I like the way my black and white digital work looks

I like having the control of post-processing my black and white files to look the way I want them to look. I’ve made some new Neopan 1600 black and white presets for Lightroom 5 which you can download here.

I still ultimately prefer the look of ‘real’ black and white film over digital black and white. But the “look” of my digital black and white looks good enough for me.

2. I like the way color film looks

Once again, I prefer the look of Kodak Portra 400 over digital color.

Part of this is also because post-processing digital color is a pain in the ass. I’ve made loads of Kodak Portra 400 simulation presets on Lightroom 5, but they never look as good as the ‘real thing’. So why screw around with Lightroom? There are too many variables for color channels, hues, and saturations which gives me a headache.

I find when I shoot color film, it is easy. I just shoot it, send it off to Costco where they develop and scan my film for only $5 a roll. It’s almost like shooting with a digital camera without an LCD screen.

Regrets of “Saigon Diary”

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Looking back at my work, I think I am going to ultimately publish my “Saigon diary” series as all black and white. I prefer the emotion and mood of black and white (at least in digital)– and I want my “Saigon diary” series to be less sociological, and more emotional.

I think when I went into my “Saigon diary” series– I thought that I would be able to make some sort of over-arching statement about Vietnamese society. However, only 2 months isn’t long enough to do that. I had certain ideas for subject-matter to photograph in Vietnam (young kids being addicted to cell phones, cafe culture) but honestly it isn’t working.

I will ultimately go with the Japanese approach of a “stream of consciousness”– where I just photograph anything that interests my eye, and photograph it without discrimination. Then afterwards during the editing phase, I will try to create some sort of story or narrative afterwards.

Fujifilm exhibition in Ha Noi

I just gave a free talk at the Fujifilm Saigon office this weekend, and was supposed to exhibit 10-15 of my photos. Unfortunately they weren’t able to be shown, as there were problems getting the images printed in time. However fortunately they will be exhibited at the Fujifilm office in Ha Noi. I am also giving a free talk there as well.

Here is a shortlist of my favorite images from the trip so far. I’m going to edit this down a bit later.

The reason I chose these images is that I wanted to get a sense of mystery, stillness, and ironic beauty. They aren’t strong individual images– but I think they work together as a set. I like the flow of images, and the overall somber emotion:

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Fujifilm Saigon Presentation

Here is a slideshare of the presentation I gave for Fujifilm in Saigon:

You can see the presentation here.

“Maybe” Photos

Here are some “maybes” I might add to the exhibition. Haven’t decided yet:

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Shooting digitally vs shooting in film

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I think I have a strange love/hate relationship with digital.

I love the freedom of digital– I can shoot without restraint. I photograph anything which interests me. But then, editing is a pain in the ass– I have so many photos to look through.

I love shooting film in the sense that I don’t feel rushed. I let my shots sit and marinate for a long time. I still have 150 rolls of Kodak Portra 400 I haven’t processed yet– and ultimately for some reason, the photos I shot on film make me happier and more fulfilled.

As mentioned earlier, I am going to finish out of my “Saigon Diary” series in black and white digital– with my free Lightroom 5 Neopan 1600 presets.

Reflections on Saigon

Hard at work, studying Vietnamese
Hard at work, studying Vietnamese

I have really loved my time in Saigon. I think to me, Saigon is the “Paris of Asia.” The coffee is strong and inspires creativity, the cafes are relaxing and have great wifi, the food is amazing, and the cost of living is really inexpensive (by western standards). I have been quite productive in terms of blogging while here, perhaps thanks to the great vibe of the city (and once again, the coffee here is amazing).

I have made some great friends while here, and my improvement in Vietnamese has been dramatic. I can now have a basic conversation in Vietnamese (around the level of a 6-year old) and can order food (and coffee) with ease. It has been enormously rewarding to learn another language (now I know English, Spanish, Korean, and a bit of Vietnamese). I feel more spiritually connected with Cindy now, and am glad I can communicate with her family in their mother tongue.

Cindy and I will end up living in Saigon for a year in the future– when she is in her dissertation writing mode. I am looking forward to that time, to better explore and understand Vietnam.

“Only in America”

On an unrelated note, I am starting to publish some photos that I’ve taken in America in 2013– which include while living in Detroit, my time spent in LA, and through my road trip across America. I am going to slowly release them over the next few weeks to Facebook, Tumblr, Flickr, Google+, and Instagram.

This project is going to be an on-going exploration of the American landscape– through the people and places I’ve been to. It is inspired from Jay-Z’s “Somewhere in America” song– in which one of his last lines is “Only in America”:

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If you want to catch up, check out all of my “Saigon Diary” posts.

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