Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Faces of Vietnam (part 2)

In my last post, I showed you the highlights of last month's trip to Vietnam, documenting the humanitarian work of NGO "Hearts for Hue".  In this post I'll talk about the behind-the-scenes stuff, including equipment, technique, and what it's like to work with Photographers Without Borders.

In order to be considered for an assignment with them you have to first become a member; I was one for two years before I approached them about shooting for one of their advertised projects.  Several interviews ensued, and six weeks later I learned I had been chosen.  There's a fee to participate; plus travel expenses.  I was responsible for all of that.  Fortunately I've been able to offset some of those costs thanks to the generous donations from people like you, my dear readers. :-)

"Use your highest-quality, full-frame camera!" they said, and so I brought my Sony A7R III and a variety of lenses, plus a backup for everything because I know how things go.  Here's a picture of what I brought:

When you're on assignment you have to take a backup for everything, which made packing light a challenge. But I wasn't counting on going everywhere on motorbike. About one third of this (including my fluid-head tripod for video) stayed at the hotel.
My PWB representative also advised me, "To get the narrative we're seeking, pretend you're shooting a commercial for the A.S.P.C.A."

Hearts for Hue provided a packed itinerary for my 12-day trip, giving me just two Sundays off.  They took very good care of me; providing a very nice hotel and transportation everywhere.  They even bought me meals sometimes (although I was officially on my own for that).  Each day I was escorted to a project, was introduced to the program beneficiaries by a translator, and generally was given free access to anywhere and anyone I asked for.  

In addition to documenting the improvement in the lives of the program's participants, I was tasked with shooting "B-roll" video and doing interviews with key individuals.  I brought lapel mikes and shot in 4K.  

Interviewing the project coordinator for the Motorbike Book Club.

Interviewing one of HfH's beneficiaries, the woman with no arms described in the previous post.  The translator is out of frame.
Each day I'd shoot about 500-600 images - that number tended to be higher with visits to kindergartens since expressions can be so fleeting.  In sites with grownups, I'd learn their story, ask to be shown around, and I'd try to capture what I saw.  Sometimes I'd ask people to pose; sometimes I'd say "Pretend I'm not here"; sometimes I'd ask them to show me their pigs (and then pose :-) ).

As is my standard working practice, I shied away from candids, although I did succumb to one or two on occasion.

Like this one, taken during a rainstorm.

Or this one.
No model release needed here. :-)

As many of you know, your camera's exposure meter (regardless of brand) makes the assumption that you're shooting an average subject.  And it "knows" that an average subject reflects back 18% of the light that hits it.  I'd say the vast majority of the subjects I shot had less than 18% reflectivity.  And so I had to underexpose a bit (usually -0.7 stops; sometimes more) in order for the image in my camera to look the way it did to my eye.

I achieved the correct exposure using one of two techniques:  The first was just to use the exposure compensation dial, and turned it until the Live View image looked right to my eye.  In other instances, I used the "Spot AEL Toggle" function (which I had assigned to a button beforehand)  – this function switches to spot metering and locks the exposure at the press of a button.  In the field, just before I shot I'd put my subject's face in the center, hit the preassigned button, recomposed and took the picture.  A perfect exposure under non-average conditions!  All roads lead to Rome; as either technique produces the same result.  But I find in time-pressure situations the Spot AEL toggle function is faster for me.

Nothing says "poverty" like underexposing by 2 stops. (On the other hand, this actually IS how it looked to my eye.)

Another subject which reflects back much less than 18%.  If I had kept the camera on "Auto" it would have come out overexposed.
So for the entire trip I would essentially shot all day and then cull and tweak my favorite images at night.  In the old days that would take me weeks to comb through everything once I got home; however one of the [few remaining] benefits of Facebook is that it forces you to quickly scan your thumbnails and post only the most compelling shots and stories.  No longer do I examine each image for nuanced things like expression - if it's a great shot the thumbnail will leap out at you.  (Actually, that's how photo editors used to select slides out of a light table's worth of competing images.  So things don't change.)

So each day would be filled with shooting, and each night would be filled with emptying memory cards, making backups, picking maybe five favorite shots of the day to post to Facebook, and then trying to get some sleep.  By the time the trip was over, my best images had already been identified.

How I went everywhere.  Motorbikes comprise about 95% of road traffic, and have a top speed of about 35-40 mph.

Here are some other shots I took which were outside of the official assignment but I still think are interesting:

Beijing has bicycles; Vietnam has motorbikes.  I stood in the middle of the street to get this establishing shot. :-)

Pagoda of the Celestial Lady Buddhist temple.  I had to come by here a 2nd time when the skies weren't cloudy.

Shoes outside a Buddhist classroom.

Inside a Buddhist classroom.  Learning active and passive phrasing for English sentences.

Very Michelangelo‎-esque since Buddhists believe God is inside every one of us.

Oranges are green here.

Wanna feel like a millionaire? Exchange $100 for Vietnamese currency.
Everyone in the U.S. knows about Pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup. What you may not know is that most of the time is pronounced, "Fa". Which makes me wonder how this Southern California restaurant got past the censors.  (Thanks to my friend Kevin Gershan for this image!)

Guerilla Street Portrait Photography

The Hearts for Hue office was too small for conventional portrait lighting, so we took these staff portraits on the street. (Yes, I know it looks like a sidewalk.  Cars and motorbikes traverse this path, so we had to work fast!)  Thank goodness for the RX-10 IV's insanely fast flash sync speed, which can make daylight background look like night! These shots were taken at 11:00 AM.

How it looked to the eye.

Set the camera to manual, and set the exposure to underexpose the ambient light tremendously.

Turn on the flashes with paper modifiers and fire away.

The final result!

Once I returned home, I immediately assembled an 8-page article for Cameracraft magazine, and then I had 10 days to deliver video and 400 edited and tweaked images, complete with embedded captions, names, copyright info, and keywords to Photographers Without Borders.  Then the frenzy of the holidays commenced, and now... well, I now I can slow down for six minutes. :-)

So would I do it again?  Absolutely!  This project embodies many of the things that make photography a worthwhile pursuit for me: I get to explore new places, meet people I would not normally get to meet, get a fresh perspective on life, and bring the story home for others to experience.  I definitely prefer this kind of travel to, say, being a tourist on a cruise ship.  The icing on the cake was the fact that the folks at Hearts for Hue really appreciated the work that I did - now they can use my images in their future fundraising communications and website.

Postscript - One Year Later

It's been over a year since I was in Vietnam.  In addition to lots of stills they can use for fundraising, I also produced this short video which provides a convenient overview.  (Make sure you watch it until the very end!)

Shout Outs

I would like to personally thank the following donors for their generous contributions of $100 or more to help offset my costs for this project:
  • George Payerle
  • Kathryn Martin
  • James Modrall
  • David Friedman
  • (Plus 2 donors who wished to remain anonymous)

Two More Things

1) The next Friedman Archives Seminar will occur in Las Vegas on Friday and Saturday, April 26 and 27, 2019.  Sign up early for a 10% discount!

1.5) The Copenhagen seminar has been postponed until September 2019.  Email me if you'd like to be on the notification list.

2)  I'd love to do more trips like this, and that can happen with your help.  So, if you liked my work and the mission of Hearts for Hue, my fundraising page is still open for donations  Any raised funds in excess of my goal go directly to Hearts for Hue.

Until next time...
Yours truly, Gary Friedman


  1. Many thanks Gary, it was extremely interesting being taken along with you on your adventure

  2. Holy mackerel what an interesting blog post! Great photos, sounds like you were busy but also sounds like a fun assignment...

    I'm particularly interested in the portrait shot you took in daylight! Fascinating!

    Marvelous work pal

  3. Thank you Gary!
    Lovely, touching and inspirational images.

  4. G'Day Gary. My wife and I love this story, and want to thank you for sharing it.

    You have been a great source of support and learning on my photography journey, and this is a small token of my appreciation for your teaching and your humanity!

    Kindest Regards Bryan

  5. Having had a career in humanitarian work internationally, especially in education, and having also visited Vietnam. I was particularly appreciative of your photos and the stories they told. Many thanks.

  6. Hello Gary,

    thanks for your photo reportage in Vietnam with Sony Equipment.

    The colors are beautiful, almost like taken with Kodak Kodachrome.
    My wife and I were very happy about your photos.

    Unfortunately, life, joy and misery in your photographs are very close.

    With the three photographs 1. “Miss Hanh with Pig”, 2. “Miss Hanh with Dog” and 3. “Room in Turquoise” you are playing in the champions league of photo reportage like Steve McCurry and others on same level.

    The whole photo series testifies your enormous empathy and your humanity, which makes the viewer bear the misery of reality today - unfortunately still without a happy ending yet.

    Your qualities as a photo reporter for difficult topics are remarkable!

    Best regards
    Stefan Winkler

    1. A heartfelt "Thank you" for all of the compliments!!

  7. Did you ever use a tripod on the trip? It doesn’t seem that this kind of trip lends itself to tripods. - David

    1. I used the small tripod for video and some nighttime shots (none of which ended up in the blog posts.) I had larger tripods but they never got used. That's the way things go.


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