Just recently, I had the pleasure, along with several other great photographers, of being interviewed and featured in a new online photography magazine called F8. Its inagural issue was just published last week. If you have a chance, head on over here, and give it a good read. I think it looks great, and features a lot of great images and imagemakers. Below are a few of the pages featuring my images, and the text of my interview follows at the bottom.
Hello Quinn. Where do you live right now and what brought you there?
For the past several years I’ve been based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, or Saigon as I tend to favor calling it. I get the question a lot about how I ended up here. Sometimes I’m not sure myself, but technically I guess the answer is pretty simple. While living in Korea a few years ago, I came down to Vietnam on holiday to visit a friend. I think from those first moments here, something about the country and people have just captivated me and kept me here this for long, and I guess for the foreseeable future too.
Tell us a little more about you, about your job. How do you define your photography? What message do you want it to transmit?
Currently, I’m the photographer for an English publication here in Saigon. That allows me to learn about ad shoot interesting things in the city, and while I do enjoy it, frankly food and event photography are just not where my passions lie. The type photography I enjoy the most is learning about and documenting the lives of all who call this part of the world home. The stories here are nearly endless, and to me, there is just something inherently fascinating about interacting with, and capturing people who live in very different conditions than I spent most of my life in.
You’ve travelled a lot all over Asia. What countries or places have personally marked you the most?
That’s another hard question. I have been able to see a decent amount of Asia since I’ve lived here, but I still have a lot more to go I think. Each place to me has its own character, beauty and reason it enchants me. If I was forced to chose somewhere, I would have to say one place is Mongolia. I visited there on two trips in 2007 and there is just no other place on Earth like it. So vast, so empty, but with some of the most fascinating people in the world. The second would have to be Cambodia. Its short distance from Saigon has allowed me to cross borders on quite a few occasions. The Khmer people are incredibly warm and open, and the wide open country side landscapes are just stunningly beautiful. I’m traveling to Myanmar in a few weeks, so who knows, I may have a new favorite place soon.
Often, children are very important in your photos. What do you try to give them with your work? Do you want to show your public their situation and also to give these children a word to say something?
Yes, I guess that it was I hope for. I work with less fortunate kids here in Saigon very often, and have always enjoyed being around children because they are so full of life and energy. When I first started photographing, I would shoot a lot of kids, for one, because I was drawn to the way they saw life; with naivety, almost magic in their eyes, and secondly because they were generally easy subjects. I have sort of realized this in my photos, and have started challenging myself more by not making as many photos of kids, though of course, there are almost always doing something interesting, and I still shoot them when the scenes are right.
You usually take your photos in black and white. Do you think that you give more strength to its content?
Yes and no. I think if there is no strength and emotion in the photograph to begin with, then just making in black and white is not going to put it there. For me, some photos are best in black and white, and some are best in color. Admiring great black and white photographs is what has really drawn me into this passion for photography, and they will always be a significant part of the way I see the world. Recently, I’ve been trying to challenge myself with more color work. For me, every color captured must add something to the frame, so it’s a bit more of a challenge to compose for this, as well as to process to put each color in harmony with the others.
Now you’ve got two photography books published. Tell us, how was the experience? Do you think that is a good work option for a documentary photographer? And, do you want to publish more books about your work?
Those two books I made in late 2008 when the self publishing services were becoming popular. Basically, I’ve always enjoyed looking at great photo books, and wanted to try one for myself. My first one was made with very little idea of layouts, text or anything, and looking back it now, it’s probably a bit of a bore to flip through. Live and learn I guess. My second book I made with all the photos I had of children from several recent trips to Cambodia. I spent a lot more time on the layout and flow of it, and though I perhaps like it a bit more, looking back now, I think I’ve learned and grown a lot as a photographer since making it, and maybe the images don’t speak to me as much as they used to. I think going this self publishing route can be great for those with little budget and great images and stories they want to share. However, I’ve found that it’s perhaps a little more difficult to sell a book like this online. They are still slightly costly and once you add in a bit of a profit, the price may tend to make people a bit hesitant about buying a book of photos they’ve not yet physically seen and perhaps from a photographer they’re not familiar with. But I guess a photographer with great images and marketing skills could overcome this easily and produce a very successful book. I have wanted to make another one recently, I’m just waiting for the inspiration and story to come together again.
In your series of photographs “Behind Open Eyes” you show the indoors of an orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City, fit out for children with physical and mental problems. It’s a very hard series that made me think a lot about how many innocent children suffer. This question may be a bit personal so you don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to. Did this feature affect you emotionally? When you arrived home, didn’t you feel the need of crying or expressing in any other way the anger this situation causes?
Phu My Orphanage is a place very near my house that I try to visit when I have time. Actually, I haven’t visited for a few months now, so perhaps this will be the impetus that will help me get back there soon. To answer your question, yes, spending time there does affect me emotionally. I don’t see how it couldn’t affect anyone who spends time with the children there. Though perhaps I view things a bit differently that some people might. Of course it’s a terrible tragedy when an innocent child has their ability to live stripped from them before they even have a chance. However, as I understand life, suffering is just an integral part of human existence, whether we like it, or accept it or not. From the dawn of time, until it’s end, there will always be people suffering through their life. Some are able to overcome, but as in the case of many of the children at Phu My, their condition will remain basically static, and their prognosis for improvement is very bleak. Accepting this is perhaps the hardest step. However, once it has been, and you are able to see the children for who they are, and what they will be, you’re able to deal with the situation for what it is. The scenes here play out in similar ways in probably nearly every country on Earth. Suffering children are of course not exclusive to Vietnam or Phu My.
In your series “A Life Collected” you show people in Cambodia collecting pieces of garbage to survive. Do these kinds of situations make you look at life differently than people may typically do?
Similar to the answer above, yes these situations I photograph do make my view the world in a different way. Living in South East Asia has very much changed many of my ideas about what we actually need to live. I think I used to be quite materialistic, as many Americans are brought up, believing you need a constant stream of new products to survive. Since I’ve been exposed to the rest of the world, a lot of my ideas have changed. Of course we do need to buy things, and in this profession, most of the things we need are not exactly cheap. For me, it’s been about realizing what I really need, versus what I think I want. When you find people living on just a dollar or two a day, and you see the happiness that emerges from their soul, it should make you stop and think about what’s really necessary and what’s not.
Right now, you’re working on the photography project “Streeteyes”, related to children who live in the streets in Ho Chi Minh City. Tell us about this project, how is it developing? Which aims do you want to achieve?
I conducted the project late last year with the boys I work with on a daily basis here. They live in a shelter in downtown Saigon called Green Bamboo, and either come directly from the streets as runaways, or from homes and families that just don’t have the resources to properly support them. I’ve spent a countless amount of time with them during my stay in Vietnam, and all of them are very close to me. I wanted to think of a way that I could introduce them to photography, and see how they would view and capture this city we live in. At first, I had grand ideas of teaching them all about exposure, aperture and all the other technical knowledge we photographers understand. Once I realized this might be too much theoretical knowledge, and not enough photos to show for it, it dawned on me that the Holga would be perfect. It requires basically no upfront know how, yet is able to capture great images when pointed at the right things. Myself and a few others had upcoming plans for an event where the boys showcase their artistic skills in hopes of raising some money for the shelter and their families. Starting a few weeks prior to the event, I accompanied each boy on a walkabout around a random part of the city, giving only one instruction; shoot what you find interesting, but reminded him there were only eleven frames (one frame was used for a self portrait of each photographer). Each came back with photos of things they were fascinated by, in a city they’ve always known. A selection of each boys photos were printed and displayed at the exhibition, and all of them were sold, which raised some money directly for the kids and their families. Overall, I was happy with it’s success, and working on plans for a continuation, or otherwise new chapter of it soon.
Sometimes you work with medium-size cheap analog cameras such as Holga that don’t have a high quality of the focus or the lens. Do you like the spell produced by the imprecision of these cameras?
Oh yea, I love my Holga! It really can produce magic if you let it. There are times when I just get digital fatigue. So much worrying about all the technical things you have to constantly be aware of if you want to make good images sometimes does my head in. When I pick up a Holga, all that is gone and I see very different photographs than when I’m using my dslr. Setting your mind free to not have to worry about camera settings can be good therapy I think if you’re ever feeling jaded or uninspired. Not to mention the images it can capture are just beautiful in their own special way.
In your serial “Ghosts of S21” you show people who were executed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. How was your personal experience when you saw a place where so many barbarities were committed?
Yea, it’s hard to sort of reckon with. I also visited Auschwitz in Poland a few years ago, and the things you think about when you see sites like these are just mind boggling. Though there have been many examples in the past and present of humans treating each other with such coarseness, I still find it nearly impossible to understand how we can do that to each other. The way I deal with it I guess is to think that if there is such pure evil in the world, then there must also be pure good in each of us too, and that’s the part of life where I want to spend my time.
Finally, which projects are you getting into over the next years?
I’m always looking around for things that would make good photographic projects. As of now, I have a few things in mind, but I’m still searching for a bigger, overall theme to tie them together.