SHUTTERBUG: Nguyễn Á has released his newest photo book, Tinh Thần Việt Và Cuộc Chiến Chống Đại Dịch COVID-19 (Vietnamese Spirit and the Fight Against COVID-19). - Photo courtesy of the artist
With more than 10 photo books already published, independent photographer Nguyễn Á’s latest offering is Tinh Thần Việt Và Cuộc Chiến Chống Đại Dịch COVID-19 (Vietnamese Spirit and the Fight Against COVID-19). An overview of Vietnamese people from all walks during the pandemic, the 340-page book is largely dedicated to the doctors and healthcare staff who worked in dangerous conditions and made sacrifices to save patients. The HCM City-based photographer spoke with Thúy Hằng about how he has cultivated his passion for photography over the last three decades.
Inner Sanctum: Where did the idea for the book come from?
Staying abreast of the news is instinctual for me. At the beginning of February, when the coronavirus began to spread in Việt Nam, I started capturing photos on the subject without even really thinking about it. By chance, I was in Mường Khương at the time, a border area in northern mountainous Yên Bái Province, taking photos of border patrols, who ended up playing a key role in COVID-19 prevention, as a larger number of people cross into Việt Nam along any number of jungle trails.
These patrols are out all night, drinking water from streams when necessary, and live in military tents when back at base. On rainy days, when they can’t fire up their stone stoves, they have only instant noodles to nibble on. I admire these people very much, having witnessed the poor conditions in which they work and live. The hardships they bore brought a tear to my eye at times.
After taking photos of these patrols, the idea for a larger photo collection on the theme “Vietnamese Spirit” began to form in my mind and I began photographing other people to round out the concept.
From thousands of photos, I selected 400 for the book, which depict acts of kindness as well as the challenges and difficulties doctors, health workers, and others faced. The main photos in the collection revolve around the work and sacrifice of doctors and staff at hospitals in Hà Nội, HCM City, and central Quảng Nam Province, who did whatever they could to save lives.
A DISTANCE AWAY: People waiting for a COVID-19 test at the Lào Cai Provincial Military Command’s quarantine centre. The photo is among the 400 featured in Nguyễn Á’s new book. - Photo courtesy of the artist
Inner Sanctum: Are there any special memories you would care to share with us?
I remember every trip, every encounter, and every person I met. I can’t forget them. The day people finish their period of quarantine, however, I always found inspiring. This is when people tend to reveal their true emotions, and I wanted to capture those moments.
The night when Bạch Mai Hospital - the largest in Việt Nam to be identified as a COVID-19 hotspot - came out of lockdown on April 12 after two weeks is also an unforgettable memory. I waited out the front of the hospital from 8pm until 1am to capture the “historic moment”. I also felt a surge of emotion at the time.
I had a similar feeling when I captured the moment a new-born girl arrived in our world. Her young mother was in a quarantine centre in central Quảng Nam Province together with more than 200 other pregnant women, who had all returned to Việt Nam from Taiwan at the end of May.
I was also the only photographer with access to the famed British pilot, Patient 91, at Chợ Rẫy Hospital in HCM City. I paid five visits to the hospital over the course of a month to take photos of him. He was uncomfortable with my presence at first, but when I explained that the photos were to honour the ethics of Vietnamese doctors and healthcare workers, he let me do my job.
Inner Sanctum: You seem to travel here and there quite a lot. How much travel was involved in this project?
I took dozens of trips around the country, from Hà Nội to HCM City, from Yên Bái in the north to the Mekong Delta provinces in the south, from Quảng Ninh near China to Bình Dương near HCM City. I visited many places more than once. And sometimes I ventured out at night to follow unexpected happenings. I was always ready for the unexpected.
To be able to travel frequently and endure poor living conditions, I try to keep in shape. My hobbies are walking, biking, and working out. I don’t smoke or drink.
Good health allows me to engage in projects that not only require me to be constantly on the move but also take intense concentration, such as when I was taking photos for the book. One time I had to take an arduous voyage on a sea patrol ship through the Hoàng Sa and Trường Sa Archipelagos. I also experienced the hardship and exhaustion of coal mine workers when I spent a few months living and “working” deep underground with them at the Hà Lầm coal mine in Quảng Ninh.
AT WORK: Nguyễn Á photographed while himself photographing the British pilot, Patient 91, at Chợ Rẫy Hospital in HCM City. - Photo courtesy of the artist
Inner Sanctum: How do you maintain your passion and enthusiasm for photography?
It has been 32 years since I first became acquainted with photography and decided it would become my career. After a few years of photographing models and scenery, I realised that beauty is not only created by make-up or by picturesque landscapes. I can see the beauty of hard labour. Through encounters with the disadvantaged, I have found a beauty of spirit and effort to overcome obstacles.
The more I travel, the more I see the country as being beautiful and the more I realise that every second of life is worth living. Each beautiful moment comes from blood and sweat and the intelligence of people in different occupations. I hope my photos can preserve such moments.
Inner Sanctum: How did you manage to finance your book without a sponsor?
I never think about the cost. The only thing that drives me to engage in what I do is my passion.
Of the 13 photo books I have published, three were done on order. Fortunately, those deals gave me enough to pay for the printing of the other books. Other costs I cover from photography services and one time I even made money from selling a house.
I always believe that once I devote myself to a particular endeavour then opportunity will come. And then I plunge into new challenges.
Inner Sanctum: Many people say your photos give them a positive vibe and reveal your effort and labour. What do you see?
Whenever I look at my photos, it feels like I’m meeting these people again. I can recall the feelings I experienced when I photographed them, which I found was a new source of energy.
I have learned a lot from the people I photographed - the effort of the disadvantaged to overcome obstacles, the creativity and enthusiasm of young volunteers, the passion for research among scientists, the determination of soldiers to protect their people and country. They give me endless motivation. VNS