The Gioi Publishers recently released General Vo Nguyen Giap: Cherished Snapshots, a photo book about late General Vo Nguyen Giap in Vietnamese, English and French. The book features an introduction by American writer, journalist and charity activist Lady Borton. The collection's 117 photos were selected from thousands of works by photojournalist Tran Hong, who is renowned for portraying Vietnamese Heroic Mothers and the General.
On this occasion, Hong spoke to Culture Vulture.
What message do you want to convey through the book?
Vo Nguyen Giap and Ho Chi Minh are the pride of Viet Nam. I feel it was great bliss and luck to live in the era of these two figures.
Behind these photos lies rich documentation. Some photos have a page-long caption providing information that readers need to learn. As a matter of fact, the photos with such long captions are not good ones, but I respect information that is helpful to readers.
Did the General know about the photo book?
When the cover of the book was completed, I felt satisfied [with the image of the General playing piano], something that is very ordinary. Lady Borton, a family friend, held the cover and said, "Mr Hong, even if you don't print this book, photos like this will surely give pleasure to the General and can make him feel better."
When did you start taking photos of the General?
It was 1973, when I started working as a reporter for Quan Doi Nhan Dan (People's Army) newspaper. Of course, my career was in its infancy so while I recorded whatever I observed and witnessed and took photos of him, they were unsatisfactory. He was such a great man.
I read many documents about the General, especially those composed by foreign authors, and met with war veterans and his comrades. Then I understood that Viet Nam was home to such a great person. There was no reason for a keen portrait photographer like me not to portray him through my lens.
I sought out my own approach. The closer I got to him, the greater attraction I felt. The attraction stems from his gestures and qualities. No matter what the circumstances, he reveals the best traits of a Vietnamese person.
During his 1,559 days in hospital, I was torn between two impulses. Should I go inside to see whether he is well? Or should I stay outside to keep his room uncontaminated by germs? In addition, I was conflicted about whether to take photos of the General. I felt great anguish at his state. However, if I did not photograph him, I would miss something. Eventually, I took photos of him, just for myself as a source of documentation.
When did you find it easiest and hardest to capture the General?
Passion comes first, followed by awareness of and sympathy towards the subject. The greater the sympathy between photographer and subject, the more successful a photo is. Standing in front of the General, I'm sure everyone would soon develop sympathy towards him. That's his nature. He had as strong an allure as President Ho Chi Minh.
Whomever the General got in touch with, there was a clear contact not between two people of different levels, but between two normal souls. This enabled the persons that he met to easily and comfortably express themselves, abolishing any barriers. This was when I found it easiest to photograph Gen Giap.
However, in general, nothing is easy when we have to reach the essence of things. When I showed him black and white photos, he asked me why I still stayed loyal to this type of photography. I told him, "Coloured photos are eye-catching and fashionable and may deceive viewers, but black and white photos are transparent and tell us the nature of things." He replied "Excellent, please remember to seek the depth of things, no matter whether big or small. If you fail to find the essence of things, you may underestimate them."
Gen Giap stayed in his army uniform throughout his life. He would not let me photograph him without his uniform. However, I wanted to portray him in ordinary clothes. This was the most challenging part. — VNS