Minh Pham’s Photos Are Mundane And Magic And Mysterious

Unlike the other photographers in our series exploring Vietnam through the lens of local artists, Minh Pham is new to the game. “I’ve only been a photographer for a year,” he confesses. You’d never know. Minh’s images capture intriguing, sometimes bizarre moments that offer more questions than answers. But the photographer quickly downplays the uniqueness of his work. “I’m just a normal person who records things from everyday life,” he shrugs.

Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt

Even Minh’s most simple work, shots of lovers on their motorbike beside a lake, a cat framed by the circle of a bike wheel have an eerie, magical quality that recall the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Minh offers some other reference points. There’s the work of David Alan Harvey, who has the same kitchen-sink kind of quality as Minh, Brooklyn-born Bruce Gilden, and salacious Japanese street photographer, Daido Moriyama

Minh Pham shot in the kind of scenery he loves: flashlit, undeveloped, unkempt.

Clearly, despite his inexperience, the love of photography has taken a hold. “Right,” he concurs, “the more you learn and practice, the more you love it. If I can’t take pictures for a week, the desire starts to burn in me…” He still uses the same Lumix LX5 he bought a year ago when he took up photography.

If he can pin his style down to one genre, it’s street photography. “I focus on the visuals, and try to express some personal feeling or emotion in the frozen moments I capture,” he smiles. And that eerie quality is often thanks to his use of flash, his latest “obsession”. “I like taking photos in the late afternoon, at the time when the sun goes down and the darkness gradually sinks in. That’s a really emotive time for me…”

Minh is interested in everything, old toys, couples passing time, children playing…

Interestingly, Minh appears as passionate about shooting discarded toys and other detritus of our lives as he is shooting dating couples. “I capture everything that I am attracted to: people, animals, even things that have been thrown away. Each has its own kind of beauty…”

Minh has taken a lot spiritually from the pursuit of perfect images. “It really has brought me a lot of things: friendships within the photography community, and it’s provided an outlet when more commonly people like me suppress thoughts and feelings…”

Buffalo herd in Thu Thiem.

He’s especially drawn to the area of Saigon’s District 2. This part of the city has become an expat enclave with bars and cafés springing up almost daily. But beyond the streets full of boutiques the area spreads out connecting back to District 7 via Thu Thiem in the underdeveloped area over the river, and in the other direction out towards District 9 and Thu Duc. “I think I like that area the most because it still has old values…but they’re becoming eroded over time,” he explains. The district also offers some breathtaking views back into Saigon’s downtown with its growing skyline and towards the Landmark 81 building, which looms in the background of lots of Minh Pham’s shots.  

#1 Aunty and Uncle’s Grooming Ritual

A couple at sunset.

The first photo Minh Pham’s chosen is a simple domestic scene played out on a parked motorbike. “They often come to this place to pluck each other’s hair,” Minh’s laughs.

“I’ve seen them many times. This time I saw them during a beautiful sunset, away from the hubbub of the city, in a place called Binh Quoi – it’s a rare location that is in the city, but that retains the peacefulness of the countryside…”

#2 Children playing

“Children make great subjects [because] they’re totally focused on what they’re doing.”

“Children make great subjects,” Minh confirms, “totally focused on what they’re doing and oblivious to me taking photographs nearby.” 

“They also, especially at a young age, have this ability, maybe it’s because of their free-spirited imagination, to turn almost any object into a toy.” Here it’s these two heavy concrete construction tubes. The flash shows the air filled with construction dust – not that the children seem to care.  One stretches over the gap between the two pipes. Two girls look on, one at each end. 

“I think this spirit that the young children possess is a spirit that adults want to return to. I also like the way that the dust that is thrown up is lit by the flash and it looks like stars in the sky…”

#3 On the banks of the river

This “shot in the dark” of a fisherman with a bright golden fish in his net was taken in District 2.

“Rainy days and sunny days create very different emotions on the banks of the river,” Minh Pham explains. This shot of a fisherman with a bright golden fish in his net was caught in District 2, the area where Minh loves to shoot. “This guy had just caught a brilliant golden carp. This picture came out well – but it was literally a shot in the dark as in the low light I couldn’t discern if there was a fish in the net or not.” But the brightly colored fish against the green net in which it’s caught, and the dramatic sky that seems to be building to a storm, create a strongly emotive image.

Photos by Khooa Nguyen.

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