My wife and I recently returned from an amazing 3.5-week adventure traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia. Our itinerary took us from the bustling capital of Hanoi to the glorious mountains jutting skyward from Halong Bay, then to the former imperial capital of Hue and the quaint festival city of Hoi An, on to the mountain retreat of Dalat and to modern Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and finally to the indescribable temple complexes at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. While it was wonderful to view the region’s gorgeous landscapes and fabled monuments, what made this adventure truly unforgettable for us was its many opportunities to interact with Vietnamese and Cambodian people from all walks of life: a Buddhist nun, an older couple whose homes were confiscated by the Communist Party, a former South Vietnamese soldier who survived the re-education camps and rose to become major of his village, eager students at Dalat’s rapidly growing university, former Viet Cong fighters, and ethnic minority hill tribes rarely contacted by outsiders.
Yesterday’s and today’s posts showcase some of my favorite portraits, some of them not yet previously published, featuring a wide range of people we met during our adventure. The portraits will be presented as a photo essay, but I will include brief descriptions of each and occasionally some commentary about how they were made. You can click on any of these images to view or purchase them and many more from the Vietnam and Cambodia trip. Yesterday’s post featured Part I, and today’s post comprises Part II.
A wonderful visit to village of Buon Chuoi, home to the Kho Chil ethnic minority. We were among the very few foreigners ever to visit this hill tribe area. Kids are great fun to photograph. The key to making authentic portraits of kids, as of adults, is to make a personal connection before starting to shoot. Get to know your subjects first, be playful and interactive, and only then take out your gear.
School was not in session due to parent conferences when we visited the mountain village of Buon Chuoi, so many of the schoolkids were playing in the courtyard. I captured this portrait of a girl with her little brother during a game of marbles.
Visiting the village chief’s home in Buon Chuoi Village. His wife, in her eighties, still passes most days by weaving while smoking her pipe. This is one of my favorite portraits from the whole trip, because it truly captures the spirit of the subject, offers a rare view into rural Vietnamese village life, is illuminated by lovely natural light, and represents a memorable and striking image.
Kho Chil boys run after our tractor as we descend from Buon Chuoi Village. Not all portraits need to capture a stock-still subject. This portrait gains its vitality through the boys’ motion, and its jaunty, slightly off-kilter composition adds to the sense of kinetic energy.
Dalat is much cooler than the rest of Vietnam. This mom and her daughter are dressed appropriately for the higher elevations. Busy backgrounds can distract from a good portrait, but here I mitigated some of the distraction by using a shallow depth-of-field and by applying a bit of post-crop vignetting during post-processing.
In the courtyard of the Linh Phuoc Pagoda, Lady Buddha observes this young woman checking her text messages. Good street photography is characterized by capturing just the right viewpoint, framing, and moment (what Henri Cartier-Bresson called “The Decisive Moment”) when the people and the space come together, and I believe I caught that conjunction nicely here.
A young Buddhist monk-in-training. Often, the person appearing in a portrait is more colorful than the background elements, but here the opposite is the case.
At Saigon’s Post Office, I asked this lovely young woman to model the traditional Vietnamese costume, the ao dai. I made no attempt through depth-of-field, supplemental lighting, or vignetting, to set off the model from the cluttered background. That’s because I wanted to feature the glorious French colonial architecture of the post office as much as the model posing before it.
Preparing to board our sampan on the Mekong Delta. The weather was overcast and rainy, so I used a slower shutter speed (1/50 second) and fairly wide aperture (f/4) to saturate the colors.
Ben Tre Village is famous for its coconut plantations. We enjoyed coconut meat, coconut milk, coconut whiskey, and of course coconut candy. I used a small amount of fill flash to fill in the shadows on the subject’s face and to help set her off from the background.
A stall-keeper at Saigon’s bustling central market. I used a fast portrait lens at a wide aperture along with a high ISO setting in order to soften the busy background.
Very interesting learning about the wartime experiences of these former Viet Cong fighters. They lived for years in the Cu Chi Tunnels, which they considered much safer than being exposed to US bombing and infantry attacks above ground. This portrait is effective because it captures the officer in a candid moment with beautiful available lighting and sets him against a solid colored background.
We visited a farm outside Siem Reap, Cambodia, where women still thresh rice by hand. The farm family’s six-year-old daughter stopped by to check us out.
We are welcomed to a small village outside of Siem Reap by this elder. I made an environmental portrait showing her in the context of her work weaving baskets. The image works very well because the composition is intimate and engaging, telling the subject’s story in a concise way, and because the simple solid contrasting color of the wall behind her offsets her colorful clothes in a pleasing manner.
Visiting the floating village of Mechrey on the huge Tonle Sap Lake. I made this image of a local family in their houseboat as we sailed by. By placing the family in the context of their home and daily activities, the image serves to capture a slice of life rather than to feature any individual member of the household.
A monk pauses to reflect outside the Angkor Wat temple complex. I spoke with him (using our guide as a translator) to make a personal connection and to obtain his permission to make the portrait. The contrasting colors and textures of the monk and the temple buildings, as well as the leading lines that guide the viewer’s eye from front to back, make this a memorable portrait. I made the image using natural light only and incorporated a polarizing filter to deepen the colors and add drama to the sky.
At a home-hosted lunch in rural Kravan Village, I made portraits of the whole family. Here is the oldest daughter, Lia, a flight attendant and gracious hostess. Classic portrait techniques applied here: make a personal connection first, use a fast prime 85mm lens at a wide aperture, and light the subject with the most beautiful light available in the situation.
I arranged a visit to a performance of traditional Cambodian Apsara dance. In the days of Khmer empire, only the king and queen were allowed to see these dances. During live performances, use of flash is almost always prohibited (and almost always rude), so use a fast prime lens, a high ISO setting, and a steady hand.
We learned about the traditional folding of flowers to present at the Buddhist Ang Chorm Shrine in Siem Reap. The young daughter of the flower stall owner folded these flowers herself. While a bit on the busy side, this portrait succeeds by capturing a riot of colors and an intriguing story.
Have you visited Vietnam or Cambodia? What were your favorite photographic subjects? Please leave your thoughts here.
Want to read more posts about what to shoot while traveling? Find them all here: Posts about what to shoot.
All of these photos and many more from Vietnam and Cambodia are available for viewing or purchase here: Vietnam and Cambodia image gallery.
Missed Part I of this story in yesterday’s post? You can read it here: Part I of this story.