Alexandre Garel Is Preserving Southern Vietnam’s Architecture…In Photos

Like a lot of love affairs, this one is complicated. “Saigon is kind of inhospitable,” Alexandre Garel laughs about the love of his life. “Noise, vehicle horns, bustle, construction, chaos…” he adds about daily trivial annoyances, before reminding us of his most important survival tip: “stay calm and appreciate the warmth and good humor of Vietnamese people…”

Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt

The 48-year-old French photographer also lives a double life. He’s based in Saigon, and has been exploring the city’s streets, people, and architecture since he arrived in 2011. “And other parts of Southern Vietnam besides Saigon too,” he quickly reminds us. But he spends the summers on the French Riviera – between Cannes and Saint Tropez – shooting events, and winters on the Caribbean Island of Saint Barthélemy shooting more of the jet set in their downtime. “I guess anything goes: portraiture, events, weddings…architecture,” he shrugs. 

“There’s great beauty here, you just have to search for it.” Photo by Khooa Nguyen

You couldn’t imagine a greater contrast, run-down, characterful Cholon and bronzed millionaires on the Mediterranean coast. “But there’s great beauty here,” he reminds us, “you just have to search for it – don’t hesitate to enter hems and buildings, forget Western codes of privacy and look around.” So far, his adventures in the more dilapidated sides of Vietnam’s towns and cities have led him to complete two books, including South Vietnamese Modernist Architecture with American architect Mel Schenck, and two more at the end of 2020, Yangon Portrait Of A City, and Saigon Portrait Of A City with Tim Doling.

“Which side of Vietnam does my work portray? I guess my own side.” Photo by Alexandre Garel.

Which side of Vietnam would you say your work portrays?

I guess my own side. I search out lots of colonial and modernist architecture and not conical hats and rice fields (which have been done and redone). Those images are also such a cliché. It felt obvious right away upon arriving that I needed to go in another direction – and I love architecture, my father was an architect, and so I was immersed in it growing up. Saigon’s awakened that in me.

Can you describe your photo style to someone who hasn’t seen your work…

My photos mainly focus on warm lighting and moods. I like to play with shadows and contrast, and of course to integrate architecture and people too when possible…

Which photographers have influenced you?

There are only a few photographers who inspired me. I’ll name them in the order of their impact on me: the immense Sebastião Ribeiro Salgado Júnior, Raymond Depardon, for his work in Paris, Robert Doisneau, and of course, Henri Cartier Bresson

None of them inspired me to pursue this path as much as my father. Sadly, he’s no longer around to appreciate my work…

Your @saigonsnaps Instagram has a strong following — how has that channel evolved for you so far?

I used to work for The Word magazine. And @saigonsnaps became an extension of what I was doing with them. They sent me on assignments around town. Naturally, I wanted to share my experiences and Facebook seemed to be becoming more and more commercial. Instagram was a more visual medium too, so it made sense to share my work there.

“My photos mainly focus on warm lighting and moods. I like to play with shadows and contrast, and of course to integrate architecture and people too when possible…” Photo Alexandre Garel

How would you describe shophouse culture and what are your favourite shots of shophouses? 

They’re not my sole architectural obsession, although I’ve shot a lot. Lots of them are in bad condition. The floors and interiors are often broken down — their soul is gone forever.

A good example of the more dilapidated version of shophouses was the one at 16 Phan Van Khoe, District 5. It was destroyed in 2016, but fortunately I had chance to shoot it before that.

Alex Garel’s shot of the now-destroyed shophouse at 16 Phan Van Khoe, in Saigon’s District 5.

How has your work changed since you first started shooting?

I started out as a street photographer; people, people, people. Vietnam opened my eyes. Not always in a good way — the pursuit of the destruction of historic buildings here has been dizzying and depressing. There was L’Eden, 213 Catinat, Bason Shipyard and soon Saigon Port and the zoo, the shophouses by the river and along Ham Nghi, villas in District 3. 

That focused my energy and my eye. The preservation of heritage through images.

The destruction of heritage buildings focussed Alex’s eye and energy. Photo by Khooa Nguyen at Saigon’s Chợ Đại Quang Minh.

Can you choose one image to represent all your photographic works in Saigon?

I’m choosing this image of the Bason Shipyard. The preservation of the shipyard presented a unique chance for the city to create an area of great historical interest; an opportunity that will never come around again. The 150-year-old dry docks, the workshops and the depot…all destroyed in 2016.

“The preservation of the [Bason] shipyard presented a unique chance for the city to create an area of great historical interest; an opportunity that will never come around again.”

What’s in your essential photography kit?

Today, I mainly photograph with Fuji camera equipment. The XPro3 for street photography, and the GFX for architectural and landscape photography.

What is the nicest thing people have said about your work? And the most confounding?

The most beautiful thing I’ve been told is to not stop. To keep preserving the history of Vietnam for future generations. And the most confounding? When people wonder aloud why I photograph “ugly” old buildings.

Who are your favorite local photographers? And what’s the scene like here?

Right now, I really appreciate the work of Olivier Apicella. He mainly photographs Vietnam using drones, a relatively new approach to the well-explored subject. I’d like to explore similar approaches in future…when I have time.

What three tips would you give an amateur photographer? 

Don’t be afraid to come into contact with buildings, people, anything. Develop your eye to be unique — don’t copy what others are doing, which is a trap lots of young photographers fall into. And never give up. Even when everything seems hopeless.

Alex Garel at Phùng Hưng Market, Chợ Phùng Hưng.

Finally, can you choose three shots that show your obsession with Southern Vietnamese architecture?

OK, for my selection I’m sharing some shots of Quy Nhon, at the leper colony there, and of a modernist shophouse in the city. And a shot of a marvelous modernist Cathedral in Hue.

#1 Quy Hoa Leper Colony

This centre, built in the 1920s during the French colonial era, has buildings that are a mix of colonial and modernist styles. And it’s completely safe and serene there. I love the place, so beautiful and quiet. As I shot I could listen to the songs of the waves and the breeze off the sea…

One of the buildings at Quy Nhon’s Quy Hoa Leper Colony.

#2 Phủ Cam Cathedral, Hue

I’m choosing a shot of Phủ Cam Cathedral next by modernist architect Ngo Viet Duc. Built in the 1960s, Ngo Viet Duc also designed the Reunification Palace. Outside are these twin towers topped with crosses, and the interior has these curves.

Phủ Cam Cathedral interior.

This is new work, shot using my Fuji GFX50S with Canon 17 and 24 TS-E lenses, for a photo book about southern Vietnamese modernist architecture. Nothing too academic. And it will be published at the end of next year.

#3 Modernist Shophouse, Quy Nhon

While most of the original shophouses are derelict or destroyed, modernist shophouses like this one I shot in Quy Nhon survive.

Modernist shophouses are generally in better condition. Modernist architecture was embraced in the south and their versions were more airy and bigger, perfect for larger families. 

Why am I choosing it? Because it’s unique…

A “unique” modernist shophouse in Quy Nhon.

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