vietnam

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.

Climbing for Charity: Fansipan by Lee starnes

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Over the past few weeks we’ve been raising funds for Saigon Children’s Charity as we prepared to climb northern Vietnam’s Mount Fansipan, Indochina’s tallest mountain at 3,143 meters. The time finally came to make good on our commitment and headed up to Sapa to start our journey this past week. We started the trek at Tram Ton, Vietnam’s highest pass at 2,100 meters, and arrived in high camp 12 kilometers and 6 hours later. A bit slower than the 1 hour 37 minute record some alien apparently conquered the journey, but we were proud and excited none the less.

The first day took us up through alpine forests, across creeks, and over some rather slippery boulders as we chased our H’mong guide (who I am convinced is part mountain goat) to 2,800 meters. As we climbed higher, we finally made it above the cloud line, which meant better visibility, but also a nice little drop in temperature to around 8 degrees Celsius. Not exactly what we’re used to down in Saigon, but thankfully we had toasty sleeping bags and plenty of clothes. A little bit of local rice wine to warm us up didn’t hurt either.

The next morning we woke up to clear skies and an incredible sunrise. Patchy sleep didn’t deter us and we got on our push to the summit around 6:30am. The morning climb over Fansipan’s adjacent peaks was by far the highlight. Views of the valley below, the red flowers of the Rhododendrons on full display, and glimpses of the peak through rolling clouds all made the seemingly endless steps feel secondary to the cause.

As we neared the summit, we entered into the temple complex that winds itself up to the peak. As we navigated the myriad of statues, temples and stairways, the clouds rolled in reducing visibility to near zero creating a mysterious gauntlet to weave through. Though we couldn’t see much more than a few meters in front of us, it was still such a fulfilling moment seeing that marker through the mist at the top of the mountain.

There are 4 ways to the top. 3 trails of varying lengths and difficulty and the cruisy 20-minute cable car from Sapa. I’m not going to lie, I was relieved to take the car down after a strenuous day and a half hike, but I did chuckle hearing those who thought the 600 stairs from the cable car to the summit deserved a medal.

If you’re a photographer planning on heading up to the roof of Indochina, I’d suggest packing light. Just to give an idea, I probably packed a bit too much as I took my Sony a7iii, both my Batis 18 and 85 as well as the Zeiss 55 in a Mindshift Backlight 26. I used the rest of the bag for clothes, a rain kit, and snacks. No tripod, I probably could have gotten away with leaving a lens or two behind, but hindsight is 20-20, yeah?

And finally, If you’d like to donate to the cause, we’d really appreciate it, and I’m sure the kids in the Mekong Delta benefitting from these funds would as well. The money we raise goes to building and repairing schools in some of the poorest areas of Vietnam.

Catching Up: Dalat over Xmas. by Lee starnes

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Over the past few weeks, as you may have noticed, I have been a bit off the radar. Partially voluntary and partially by sheer logistics. The lunar New Year, or Tet as they say here in Vietnam, brought a much needed respite and a bit of digital detox was in order. I’ll have plenty of images up here in the coming days (Indonesia was incredible!) so check back for those. That said, I had such a backlog of images and I wasn’t quite sure where they would live, so I’ve decided to use this space to show some of those.

Over Christmas, we headed up to the highland outpost of Dalat, around 6 hours north of Saigon. Historically, Dalat served as a getaway for French colonialist due to it’s cooler weather and “European” feel. French villas, pine trees, lakes, and crisp evenings made this place a slice of home I suppose. These days, while Dalat is still known for its cooler temps and outdoorsy activities, its also the home of where most of the organic produce is grown in Southern Vietnam. Farms dominate the countryside, and little food stalls seem to be every few meters.

While I love Saigon, it was literally a breath of fresh air getting up into the mountains. Here are just a few shots from the weekend. Those of you who live in Saigon, where is your favorite weekend getaways? We’re always looking for new places to explore, let us know in the comments below!

Saigon Punk Chronicles : Year End Fest - The E Killer, District 105, 7Uppercuts, Razor Leaf, Stupiz Kiz, Tariot by Lee starnes

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With the lunar new year approaching, First and Last Records held their year-end fest showcasing nearly their entire roster as well as the Singaporean melodic hardcore outfit, Tariot. To begin, DIY shows starting more or less on time here in Saigon blows my mind. With everything else here being 'time-flexible', and the habitual lateness of punk shows in general, this punctuality is noteworthy to say the least. High fives for that. That said, maybe I’ve become accustomed to things starting more. whimsically. So, unfortunately, I missed The E-killer. Next time, fellas.

The rest of the line up was a mix of pop punk, moshy breakdowns, melodic hardcore and a rather hilarious pop punk cover of 'I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.' The place was packed with over 200 people. Hats off to Soma Art Cafe for cranking the AC to keep it from turning into the usual sweatbox we’ve all experienced at shows in the past. Stage dives, high fives, and ridiculous sing alongs made for one of the most fun shows I’ve been to in a long time.

If this is your first time visiting the site, documenting the punk scene in Saigon is a part of a long-term project of mine and some of my favorite shots can be seen here. Make sure to keep frequenting the page for updates in the future. You could even subscribe to the RSS feed if you’re feeling fancy. Now on to the images.

District 105

7Uppercuts

Razor Leaf

Stupiz Kiz

Tariot

Since you made it this far, feel free to share this to social, comment, send good vibes or gifts and I’ll see you at the next show.

Saigon Punk Chronicles : Koteka is the Reason, District 105, 7 Uppercuts by Lee starnes

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Saigon in the past year seems to have really started building a DIY punk scene. As some of you know, back in the States, I was predominantly a music photographer, and when I moved to Saigon 5 years ago, there wasn’t much of a scene, or at least I didn’t see or hear about it. Needless to say, I’m stoked to have the ‘core and punk shows to go now.

Last night, locals District 105 and 7 Uppercuts welcomed Indonesia’s Koteka is the Reason to Saigon. 7 Uppercuts started everything off with their mix of pop punk with District 105’s beatdown hardcore following up. Mosh friendly with Pantera harmonics. Shred. And rounding out was Koteka is the Reason and they destroyed. Street punk - fast, loud and full of circle pits. Make sure you head over to their sites. Give them a listen and go mosh in your living room.