A random pair of legs poking out from rows of seats, men gazing through binoculars at a local market or a simple joining of hands. These are some of the everyday scenes that Vietnamese street photographer Chu Việt Hà manages to use to create his often complex, sometimes ambiguous and whimsical street photography.
In this interview, we wanted to step behind the curtain and find out more about Chu, his work, what makes him tick and what he hopes to achieve with his work.
Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Chu Việt Hà and I’m a street photographer based in Hanoi, Vietnam. My real name is Ha and I was born in Bac Ninh Province but graduated from the Architectural University in Hanoi, where I now live and work. By day I work in a construction corporation here, but about 4 years ago I picked up a DSLR camera and started taking images of Vietnamese street life to learn how to use it. I’m fascinated by the pace of daily life here and from there I started to develop my street photography.
What does ‘street photography’ as a genre mean to you?
For me, street photography can be categorized as any type of photography done in the public realm, from parks to the streets themselves, or even public transport – anywhere is the street photographer’s playground. The main subject for the street photographer is always going to be people or things related to people. As a result, what really makes it different from other genres is its openness, and as a street photographer, you also have to be open-minded towards your subjects and the images you might create.
The images reflect the photographer, their ego, their personality, who they are as a human being. All of those things make me love street photography. To me, photography is a passion and helps me to bring balance to my life and to reveal things about the people I see. However, photography is not my main occupation - in fact, I am a designer. I think this influences my photography; I’m elaborate with my composition and light in the same way I am with design.
Your images have a lot of layers, is this something that’s developed over time? Is there anything you do specifically when shooting to achieve this?
Every individual has their own style and records life in their own way. After a lot of time experimenting myself I discovered that I really like to incorporate lots of layers to my images of the streets. I tend to observe fast. First I notice the subject I want for my image, usually doing something that interests me. Second, I look at the context and see whether there are other interesting components to the scene which complement the subject. Thirdly, I consider the surroundings and chose a clean frame to honour my subject.
You’ve previously said “street photography helps me understand myself and my role in society better” - tell us more about that.
I find it very easy to get lost in my mind and my negative thoughts, but I discovered street photography was a great way to combat this. Street photography allows me to interact with so many kinds of people in society from the richest to the poorest. When I photograph, and talk to people I get to know their lives better. This opened my eyes to how multidimensional life is and helped me understand who I am better in relation to the world.
It’s clear from your YouTube video that you like to get close to your subjects and interact with them. How do people respond to you and how does this influence your images?
People mostly don’t react to my presence. If they do react, I often stop and have a little chat, I approach them positively and we talk and have a joke or two about it. To me, having a camera on the street is a job, I want to spread that joy around with the people I want to shoot. Sometimes I deliberately startle my subjects because I want to capture their expression, but after I’ve taken their picture I always stop to talk to them about my reasons for doing it.
You’ve cited influences such as Alex Webb, Henri Carter Bresson and Robert Capa. How do you think your work has been influenced by these masters?
It’s clear in my photos that I like to get very close to the subject I’m shooting. When I’m shooting on the streets I want to be a part of the life I’m photographing, not be a bystander simply recording and not understanding what he sees. I must approach my subjects and get closer, as close as I can, to make the shot. Later, I read about Robert Capa’s “If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough,” mantra, which I now follow as my guiding principle. Henri Carter Bresson taught me the value of the “decisive moment”. With my street photography, I also always enjoy capturing exciting split-second moments, moments that happen once in a lifetime and are never repeated. Finally, I love the interplay of light and colour, so I am continually inspired by the way Alex Webb captures this so well.
If you had to pick one project or image of yours that you think best portrays your style which would it be and why?
This image I took in the Dong Xuan Market is the best example of my photography style. The market always has a huge amount of activity which is great for the photographer to exploit. However, you need to be very sensitive to the environment and be clever to take images here, if you can’t be discreet It’s hard to take good photos. Here you can really see how I try to follow Robert Capa’s ‘get closer’ ethos. I got so close that the subject is raising his hand at me. I was also fascinated by the position of the light, which divided the scene into different, interesting pieces. The last layer to the image is the colour, which comes from the beautiful afternoon sun on the walls.
Your images are very striking and use colour beautifully, but you do also shoot in black and white. How do you make a decision about whether an image should be black and white? Do you do this before or afterwards?
Taking black and white photos makes the final image more focused and emotional. I feel like black and white photography is more difficult than colour, because you must balance the light and the dark, calculating the black and white in the picture. After I’ve shot some images I often go with my original instinctual feeling about whether a picture will work better in colour or monochrome. Sometimes, like for images with simple backgrounds you need to emphasize the subject’s expressiveness, which works in black and white. However, sometimes the backgrounds are too complex for this, and black and white makes the picture too messy. With this decision, I also consider the architecture and light sources that can influence the composition of the image and take attention away or draw it to the subject. I always shoot in colour because I shoot digital and I need to take the shots quickly, however I often have decided in my mind before I take it if the photograph will be black and white or colour.
If you could give one solid piece of actionable advice to an aspiring documentary street photographer, what would it be?
Go and shoot, a lot. But don’t just think about the final image you’re taking. Take time to really live, enjoy the moment and the people you interact with. Let yourself be a part of the story that you bring to the viewer. Also, take pictures with heart, that mean something to you. Don’t worry about or depend on social networks, they will only hold back your development.
If I was coming to Hanoi to do street photography, where would be your top recommendations to places to go?
When you come to Hanoi, there are still many old streets where people do traditional jobs which are of great interest to travel photographers. In Hanoi there is such a lively atmosphere and the lives of the people is always interesting, so wherever you are in the city there will be exciting things to shoot. However, you cannot ignore my favourite place, the Dong Xuan Market. One of the oldest markets in Hanoi, on sunny days there are endless photographs to take here. Another market worth visiting is the Long Bien Night Market, which is open from 10 at night until the morning. There is so much here to see if you dig beneath the surface. And of course, if you come to Hanoi remember to get in touch with me for a coffee and we can go and photograph my city together.