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Veteran photographer in love with Tây Nguyên

Update: April, 22/2020 - 08:41
Photographer Trần Phong

Veteran photographer Trần Phong was the first Vietnamese artist to be recognised as a Master of Photographer by the Photographic Society of America.

Last month he released a bilingual English-Vietnamese photo book titled Tượng Gỗ Tây Nguyên (Wooden Statues in the Central Highlands of Việt Nam). 

Việt Nam News reporter Nguyễn Bình interviews Phong about the book and his love for Tây Nguyên culture.

Why you did you still choose Tây Nguyên (Central Highlands) as the subject for your third book?

I have published two books on Tây Nguyên culture already titled Điêu Khắc Gỗ Dân Gian Jrai, Ba Na (Folk Wood Engraving of Jarai and Ba Na Ethnic Groups) in 1995 and Lễ Hội Tây Nguyên (Central Highlands Festival) in 2008.

The area has a rich traditional culture that involves cồng chiêng (gong), charnel houses, statues and costumes.

People from the region have a characteristic beauty which is natural and wild. During my career, I've been attracted by this beauty.

I have been working in the sector and I've had the chance to learn about Tây Nguyên culture. That's given me the passion to take photos of daily life in this region.

How long did it take you to compile Tượng Gỗ Tây Nguyên?

I began making the book in 1986. Two thirds of the photos in the book were taken from 1986 to 1990. I planned to publish the book about ten years ago but I did not have the chance to.

When I retired I had more spare time to select more than 300 photos of wooden statues, charnel houses and other related subjects for the book. It took me a lot of time and hard work.

I have taken nearly 1,000 photos of this subject, but these photos represent the statues of the Jarai and Ba Na ethnic groups. Different localities their own characteristics for their statues.

This may not be obvious to everyone. This book is themed "wooden statues", and I designed it myself.

Bilingual English-Vietnamese photo book Tượng Gỗ Tây Nguyên (Wooden Statues in the Central Highlands of Việt Nam). Photo courtesy of Trần Phong

How often do you go to the Central Highlands? Has it changed much?

I have gone on many trips to take photos, but it is becoming more and more difficult because the folk culture is fading away.

In the past, the Ja Rai group in remote districts like Ayun Pa and Krông Pa had many beautiful wooden statues and charnel houses.

We no longer have the opportunity to see the wooden statues with artistic value like many years ago. The charnel houses and statues have been modernised with cement, enamelled brick and steel roofs. Very few elderly artisans are left in the area and the wooden statues have gradually disappeared from modern life.

It is the same in Kon Tum Province's Sa Thầy District.

However, the two ethnic groups in Gia Lai Province's Ia Mơ Nông Commune in Chư Pa District and some villages in Kông Chro District are keeping the traditional lễ bỏ mả (tomb ceremony), charnel houses and statues alive.

But in my opinion, charnel houses and wooden statues don't hold the same folk sculpture values as before. The old artisans have left us and the young artisans have been affected by modern life.

Last year you won dozens of international prizes. Could you tell us about them?

The award-winning photos were taken in Tây Nguyên and other areas by the coast and in the northern mountains.

These photos picked up top prizes at international photo contests in Greek, Italy, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Australia, Singapore, Serbia and India. The contests were sponsored by FIAP and PSA.

During your nearly 40 year-career you have travelled a lot. Where do you want to go to now in Việt Nam?

Every year, I take a few field trips. There are many places in Việt Nam I have not visited yet.

Tây Nguyên has always been my favourite destination to take photos. I want to enrich my photo collection of this area. 

I take single photos and collections as well. I plan to compile another collection of Tây Nguyên.

At this moment I'm not sure, but I want to publish one more book. VNS

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