“I’m just a satellite floating through space observing and recording moments,” Duck Tran begins gently. His cool, calm temperament shows in his photographic work where he explores local and regional society, culture, and people…
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A trip to Japan changed everything. Before, Duck Tran was penned in by the walls and partitions of his office at the advertising agency he worked for. Plus there were long, draining hours of overtime and mundane tasks to battle through. Japan was new, but somehow familiar. And the culture captivated Duck Tran.
“So after that trip, I quit my job,” Duck Tran shrugs. And he immediately invested in his “new passion”: photography.
“At first, I just carried my camera around Saigon trying to truly get a feel for this city. After days and days of doing this, and as I began to forget my soul-destroying office life, I really started to understand Saigon and its charms,” he remembers. He discovered beauty in unexpected places and “in the simple things”.
“I was particularly interested in capturing the accidental and spontaneous moments of people’s lives here. And so for the first time, I came to understand ‘street photography’ by navigating through every corner of Saigon.”
Pretty soon he wanted more. His style moved towards documentary photography (where a topic or theme guides the work). And he started to travel more “to collect deeper stories about society, culture, and the human experience”. One photograph, in particular, signals the change: a picture of monks at Forest Monastery, Myanmar. “Myanmar is famous for its scenery, but I became especially interested in the differences in people’s lifestyles, customs, and even cuisine …”
Another key project around the same time was photographing and producing a documentary video about the ethnic Pa Then people’s fire festival in Quang Binh and Ha Giang. The work took months to set up, connecting with the festival participants and developing a deep understanding of the eye-catching event.
Duck Tran applied the same process for his “Flow” series set in a Saigon apartment building. “It was a small-scale project but I took the same approach — research, site surveys, developing relationships (in this case with the leader, the building guard, and others), then ‘drafting’ the idea and then editing it based on the reality on the ground. “Then the final step is selecting the images, from all the photos I’ve taken, then editing them and arranging them to tell a complete visual story.”
These projects redefined Duck Tran’s view of the world. “Especially about beauty,” he explains, “because a project might not appear to have a physical beauty, there can be beauty hidden deeper or in the story I can tell.” He admits his approach can be exhausting. “I am getting tired of being tired,” he laughs.
The hard work won him recognition from the Oppo & Tinhte Storytelling Photo Contest in 2019. Plus, on a more personal level, it’s helped him break out of his introvert’s shell too: “Photography has been a bridge that’s helped me connect to the world around me…” And, with a friend, he’s recently founded Wanderful Dreamers, a platform to explore photographic storytelling. He has a small studio in Saigon too, where he’s experimenting with conceptual work and product photography.
#1 Work Hard, Play Hard, Ninh Thuan
The first image Duck Tran has chosen was taken while he was researching another project about the Cham Kate Festival in Ninh Thuan. The province, between Phan Thiet and Nha Trang, has the country’s highest number of Cham people. The Kate Festival is part of the region’s rich cultural heritage. The month-long festival includes processions, ceremonies, and offerings and has the importance of a new year festival.
On his way to record part of the festival, he came across a field where ethnic Gia Lai people were harvesting rice, in Phuoc Ha commune. “What made me feel excited to stop was the contrast between the image of hard-working adults slaving under the afternoon heat, and the innocent, carefree children playing nearby.”
But Duck Tran admits he had to pay a price to capture the photo. “I waited and waited for the moment when the boy successfully planted the banana tree on the straw…knee deep in mud.”
#2 A Wedding in Chau Doc
Duck Tran’s second image also features Cham people. In this case ones living in Chau Doc, in the An Giang province of the Mekong Delta. “This set of photos helped me get into the final round of the Oppo and Tinhte competition. It also began my exploration of Cham people and culture.”
“So, by chance I wander into this village and a Cham family who had organised a wedding invited me in. The day was what’s called ‘daughter’s day’ – Cham weddings take place over two days. This day belongs to the women who cook and eat, and spend time together in the home of the bride.”
“I shot this moment when the eyes and facial expressions of the bride revealed her complex emotions, even though the ceremony was a very happy one. I felt that the bride was worrying about the future, and those thoughts mixed with the joy of the big day.”
The shot also contrasts the bride’s gorgeous traditional wedding costume with the two other girls wearing black scarves, “which reflects joy and sadness as the bride turns a page in her life…”
#3 A Starstruck Couple in Thu Thiem
A look back on Duck Tran’s best work wouldn’t be complete without some images of Saigon. Between trips around the country, the photographer still finds time to explore the city he calls home. “Actually, this one was a bit of an accident,” Duck Tran grins about the shot he captured near the Thu Thiem bridge project, in District 2.
“District 2 is a good example of the intersection between old and modern Saigon,” he explains. “There are still sidewalk cafes and bars, where local kids gather, between high-rise apartment blocks and buildings that are not so different from the ones across the river in District 1 like Bitexco Tower and the Vietcombank Building that’s in the middle of this shot. ‘
“I caught the moment a couple were still lingering over their conversation, sipping a cup of coffee at a roadside cafe, as around them people began packing up after sunset. I was waiting for some special gesture and fortunately the guy pointed his hand to the sky, maybe to show the girl a certain star. The shape of his arm mirrored the image of the building in the background…”
“I’ve chosen this shot because of the contrast between urban and suburban. And more specifically, because the lawn in front of the couple is covered by a white canvas, which looks like snow, making the scene strange and intriguing.”
Photos of Duck Tran by Khooa Nguyen