French photographer finds endless inspiration in VN

June, 16/2016 - 10:30

French photographer Sebastien Laval has become quite popular among photography lovers in Việt Nam, leaving his mark in several photo exhibitions and art projects in the country over the past ten years.

Beauty and richness: A photo taken by Sébastien Laval features Hà Nội’s railways and a shop at night.
Viet Nam News

French photographer Sebastien Laval has become quite popular among photography lovers in Việt Nam, leaving his mark in several photo exhibitions and art projects in the country over the past ten years.

Most recently, his collection of 30 photographs of Hà Nội and Huế illuminated at night were on display in those cities from April to May.

The "Hanoi 18h/6h Hue 18h/6h" exhibit evokes surreal perspectives of otherwise ordinary settings – quiet alleys, lonely railways and fluorescent-lit shops. Using a digital camera, and no dedicated artificial light, Laval took all his photos between the hours of 6pm and 6am.

They convey the eerie silence of nocturnal Hà Nội and Huế. People are almost completely absent, appearing in the frame mostly as shadows, but their homes reveal traces of life.

Visiting little houses in Hà Nội’s Old Quarter, the photographer accurately captured the narrow living spaces, with their cramped, sloping stairs and dark rooms heaped with clothes, saucepans, basins and baskets.

"I have always been entranced by the beauty and richness of the colours of Hà Nội in the deep shadows of the night," Laval says. "At night, the city has a poetic beauty."

“These images should inspire many of our guests to become more ambitious flâneur (city strollers) as they look out for the same sort of brilliant glimpses of this city,” said Franck Lafourcade, general manager of the Hotel Metropole Hanoi where the photos were on display.

Laval recently published a book of 170 photos taken in the former capital city of Huế, with Philippe Bouler, creator of  the Huế festival, writing the captions.

However, long before those events, Laval already made his name in Việt Nam with several other exhibits.

Preserving VN’s ethnic heritage

In 2006, he displayed his photos of the Pà Thẻn people at the Việt Nam Museum of Ethnology. In 2008,  50 portraits and scenes of the daily life of the Cơ Tu, Tà Ôi and Pa Kô ethnic groups living in Thừa Thiên-Huế Province were on display at l’Espace, the French cultural centre in Hà Nội. The exhibit was part of his long-term project of documenting the lifestyles and taking photos of the 54 ethnic groups of the country that he began in 2005.

As he witnessed the rapid changes wrought by development, Laval dedicated himself to capturing these unique traditions before they disappeared.

“In 1995, when I first came to Việt Nam, I fell in love with the country and have come back here very often since then. I told myself, that I have to take photos of ethnic minorities to preserve a photographic trace of those people who are the heritage of Việt Nam. The country has changed a lot, and I think that this patrimony will also evolve. I hope my project is an occasion for Việt Nam to preserve its heritage,” he said.

He was surprised by the changes in their residents’ daily life .

“I was struck to see that almost no traditional houses exist anymore. The people don’t wear the traditional costumes anymore. I think that it’s also the case for many other ethnic groups in Việt Nam.”

To take the photos, he lived with the ethnic groups.

“I stayed about ten days in the districts of Nam Đông and A Lưới in Thừa Thiên Huế Province.  I was with a guide. I spent many evenings and ate with them. They sang many songs to me. I keep a very beautiful memory of my time there,” he recalls.

“I am impressed to see that music plays a very important part in their life. Many of them are musicians and make musical instruments like flutes. The songs and dance are very important to them.”

Endless inspiration

“Việt Nam has a strange attraction to me, from the people to the history as well as the landscapes, says Laval.

Although he has travelled far and wide throughout the country over the last 20 years, the photographer from the Poitiers region of France admits that this country always surprises him.

I had the chance to discover the country in 1995 when I first came here with French journalist Daniel Roussel (former journalist of the newspaper L’Humanité) who knew Việt Nam very well, and who had many Vietnamese friends. One month travelling in Việt Nam from north to south was for me an unforgettable and extraordinary experience.”

“I was a young photographer at the time, it was a major culture shock," he said. "Việt Nam is a surprising country where everything is possible. Over the last 20  years, I have seen its evolution and development. Despite the changes, it remains a country with very strong and authentic values andunbelievable cultural diversity. I keep being inspired by this country.” — VNS
Preserving a patrimony: French photographer Sébastien Laval next to one of his photos depicting a family in Việt Nam’s northern mountains: