Reflecting on the Epic Hanoi to Sapa Week-Long Workshop

I’m currently at the airport in Hanoi trying to reflect on the epic week-long workshop my friend Eric Kim invited me to co-host with him. The participants came from all over – LA to New Orleans to Tasmania to locally in Hanoi. The workshop would take us through the rustic streets of the Old Quarter in Hanoi up into the mountains to the village of Sapa and to the famous Sunday Market in nearby Bac Ha. We experienced each other’s company for the better part of each day and shared in the rich culture and foods of contemporary Vietnam. The logistics (food!) was oragnized by Eric’s wife Cindy and our local photographer instructor Ha Chu Viet just took the workshop to the next level. He is probably the most inspiring and talented street photographers in Vietnam.

For me, it was simply an opportunity to give myself some time to practice while helping others see differently. I wanted to get back into the rhythm of street photography while honing some of the more tangible skills I’ve learned over the last few years. In our busy everyday lives, it is sometimes difficult to devote time to roam the streets and take photos, so having a group of enthusiastic photographers taking a full week off to improve
their craft was something special to be part of. I would really like to share some of my personal takeaways from the week.

Practice Does Not Make Perfect

A basketball coach from elementary school once said: “practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” This is something that has stuck with me all these years and I’m a firm believer in practicing various techniques until you’re competent enough to add it to your photography toolbox, which you can reach into when needed.

I’m a wedding and commercial photographer as a day job, so I feel pretty confident in my abilities to take environmental portraits on the streets. I didn’t have much interest in doing that on this trip. Many street and documentary photographers will know the name Alex Webb. He is the godfather of layering multiple subjects into a frame creating visually pleasing compositions with emotional depth. It’s a popular technique used by many street
photographers, and one that I’ve been trying to use more of in my own work. It’s also a technique that takes a lot of practice and a way of seeing things beyond your immediate subject.

After working on layers for most of the week, I discovered two important things. Firstly, layering images for the sake of layering (or without an element of emotion) does nothing for the photo. It is simply composition for composition’s sake. Secondly, layering done right can add a depth and complexity to your photos that I feel is harder to duplicate than
images that are more minimalistic. That said…

Simplicity Does Not Mean Boring

Because an image has a simple composition or is ‘easy’ to take, it does not mean it is boring or that it can’t be beautiful. Some of the most striking student projects were minimalistic but full of interest and emotion. I believe strongly that content trumps form – the idea that what is in the photo is more important than how well it is composed or how pleasing it is to the eye aesthetically. I have this saying: “you can’t take a bad photo of a burning monk,” which illustrates this point. No matter how poorly composed or exposed an image of a burning monk is, it will still be a powerful photo because the content of the image is so strong. Conversely, a perfectly lit photo of a bowl of pho will always just be a bowl of pho (albeit a delicious one).

What’s Right for Them May Not Be Right for You

I have this friend back home named Jonathan Castellino who creates the most sentimental images of what I find are mundane objects or spaces. I love his work. He’s one of the best photographers in Toronto as far as I am concerned. I often even take similarly framed images of the same scene as him while out on our walks. The thing is, even though I may photograph the same thing as Jonathan, it doesn’t mean that these photos are right for me to share as my own.

Another example of this was a student photo from the workshop. He took a beautiful minimalist photo of a solitary tree encased in fog. It’s simple and beautiful. I’d probably buy a print like that to put up in my home. I also probably took a similar image at some point on this trip. The thing is, it isn’t right for me at this stage in my life. Not all images we like are right for us to take (or share) and not all images we take are right for others to enjoy.

Sharing is Caring

As a co-host for this workshop with some fundamentally opposing views to Eric, I felt it was important to subject the participants to ‘alternative facts’ (sorry Ms Conway). Unlike Eric (and many other workshop participants), my preference when photographing the streets is not interact much with the people or to massage the scene. I personally feel that images loose a sense of authenticity when the scene is manipulated in a certain way. That is just my view, not right or wrong – just alternative.

Being a more solitary photographer than Eric, I found it somewhat difficult to convey my approach to street photography in terms of how I see and when I decide to take a photo. I think the most valuable bits of onsite teaching was when students looked over my shoulder to see how I would frame scenes or when they would simply observe me working. Being an introvert, I am not the best at projecting myself to guide large groups but do enjoy the more intimate moments I had individually with everyone.

Perhaps the most joy I got from teaching was reviewing everyone’s images after each day and offering my critique on their three best photos. I think that this 1:1 time also helped the students better criticize their own images.

With the workshop coming to an end, my hope is that the students take the things Eric and I have to say both with heart and with a certain grain of salt. I believe that you can take bits and pieces of advice, technique or philosophy from a photographer without having to buy into their entire way of being.

I can’t tell you how happy I am to have had the opportunity to not only help teach, but to learn from each of the participants. The relationships formed over the last week will last a lifetime. I am already plotting how I can get to Louisiana to have some beignets and boudin! A very special thanks to all of the students – Amit, Andrew and Lyn, Belen, Brother Darrell, Connie and Rick, Don, Jay, Shannon, and Tim. I am so proud of all of you! Don’t crop!!! 

Note about photos: all images above were taken with Fujifilm X100T using Classic Chrome film simulation, edited in camera and exported without crop. Go Team Fuji!

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