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Slowing down: Building Relationships through Photography by Lee starnes

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Last week, I headed back out on the road with Pics of Asia for another workshop and tour in Central Vietnam. We expanded our tour this year from 3 days to 5 days and included stops in the former capital Hue, the ancient town of Hoi An, and their surrounding countrysides. One of my favorite tours of the year, we explore serene lagoons, energetic markets, dabble in street photography, witness incredible sunrises, and drink far too much coffee.

On our final day, we visited a craft cooperative where workers make handcrafted items from bamboo. Throughout the course of workshop, we talked over and over about slowing down and observing the surroundings before picking the camera up and snapping away. Upon entering the workshop, workers warmly greeted us, proudly presented their wares, and made fun of my Vietnamese. Men carved bits of bamboo before women completed the baskets. There were so many people at different phases of the process; it was a bit overwhelming to narrow it down to one subject.

Spending a few minutes walking around the workshop, it didn’t take long for it to become obvious as to what, or rather who, I wanted to photograph. Light dictates much of what we capture in travel photography, so as I came across a group of gentleman in a pool of soft light coming in from their left, it was a no brainer. Any one of these gents could have been a fantastic portrait, but one man in particular had a larger than life personality and I knew I had to know more. As I said hello, he grabbed me and asked me all the usual questions - my age, where I’m from, am I married, do I have kids… Upon the last question, I answered, “My dog is my child.” Apparently that was the funniest thing ever as he let loose a contagious laugh. We then sat down together and he showed me his craft. The cigarette hanging out his mouth, his calm, cool demeanor and the ease in which he carved the pieces of bamboo were all so photogenic - it was the impossible cool.

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It would have been quite easy to snap a single portrait and walk away. He was engaged, we chatted about life, work, and having a beer at the end of the day. The walls came down between us. Though I was happy with the first shot above, letting things unfold brought on the good stuff. He continued to work and chat with me as I tried to capture his process, different expressions, and little details along the way.

At the end of our chat, he shook my hand, placed his hand on my shoulder and wished me luck. I felt like I hadn’t “taken” anything; instead, I documented our time together. I also realized I was going to be spoiled for choice picking the one image I’d release out into the wild. Looking at them side-by-side, though, I soon concluded I didn’t need to pick just one. The body of work spoke much more than a single frame. Not only is the narrative more dynamic across multiple images, but I know the next time I get back to Hue, a warm embrace and a big smile (and possibly a cold beer) will be waiting for me. Scroll through below for the entire body of work.

This slow approach helps not only making more compelling images, but it also gives us a chance to break bread, form bonds, and give a piece of ourselves as much as the people with whom we come in contact give a piece of themselves to us. As travel photographers, it should be at the forefront of our thinking to not merely take photos, but rather make relationships and build bridges wherever our travels take us. The power of the camera as a unifying force and tool for telling stories has often been more meaningful than the resulting images from my encounters with so many unique people all over the world.

If you’re interested in pushing your travel photography to the next level and meeting some incredible people, we’ve got another workshop coming up in August and we’d love to have you explore central Vietnam with us. Head over to Pics of Asia to sign up and don’t miss out on some of the most picturesque areas of Vietnam.