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Long Thanh: photographing is like cooking with mastery

an interview by Elisa Chisana Hoshi

Long Thanh, you only take black and white pictures, why?

I believe in black and white and in the beauty of contrasts. For me, a better way to depict reality just does not exist. Black and white is simply marvellous.

When did you start taking pictures?

I was 13. I learned everything from my uncle, just observing him working and snooping around the back room of his shop. He had two photography shops and I learned everything there, no schools.

You live in Nha Trang, a small resort town on the Vietnamese seaside, far away from the capital Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

That’s right. I was born here, and here I have always lived and worked. Nha Trang is my home. I love its nature and its relaxed lifestyle. My family wasn’t wealthy, I was the eighth of eleven kids and I never went to photography school. My dad was Chinese, my mum was Vietnamese: she was beautiful. She had an exquisite and petite figure, just like my daughter. You will meet her, she lives in Saigon but today she’s here! My other daughter lives in Saigon too and looks much more like me. They don’t live with us. My wife and I live in this house that is now my workshop and which I love so much, I bought it from my uncle. It used to be his studio.

There’s a gorgeous old Vespa parked outside, in front of the studio…

She is one of my favorites! I love vintage Vespa, there is another one here in the studio too, have you seen that one?

I sure did, it’s gorgeous! You live surrounded by your pictures and your cameras, such an amazing atmosphere.

Yes. Each and every picture is a unique piece that I shot and printed. I love everything about photography. I love shooting and also developing, crafting the picture from A to Z. The problem is that here in Vietnam there is no photography material; we don’t produce anything of that kind. I have to buy everything from abroad: paper from the UK, the film from America – I use Kodak film since forever – and the chemicals from Germany. It’s getting more and more expensive; paper just went up in price. I’ll think of something. Luckily I have many friends that give me a hand to find all the material I need. That’s also the beauty of photography.

Do you always know when to shoot?

Before I shoot I need a particular feeling with my subject: every picture follows that particular feeling, an actual moment of complicity.
Behind every picture there is an unrepeatable moment.

I truly love your picture of the kid jumping from one buffalo’s back to another, through the river’s stream. When did you shoot that one?

That was in 1999, in a countryside village not far from Nha Trang, among the rice fields. It was early in the morning and I was walking along the river, carrying my camera with me. The kid you see in the picture saw me and smiled. All of a sudden he started to have fun: he jumped in the river and started to hop from one buffalo’s back to another, like they were river stones! He was having so much fun. And the funny thing is, the buffaloes did not seem very surprized at all… I bet he was doing that every day! Just incredible. I truly enjoyed taking that picture.

How about light?

Light is a crucial element, one of the most important ones in photography. I like soft light, the one that smoothly enlightens everything. That’s my style. That’s why I love shooting in the morning, just after dawn, and in the evening, right before sunset. I love that warm light, it’s rather special.

How is it being a photographer in Vietnam?

Here in Vietnam there aren’t proper photography schools. As I told you it’s very difficult to get the material necessary to shoot analogue photography. For digital it’s different, obviously. I often take part in photography competitions as jury, but I stopped participating with my own pictures. I’ll tell you why.
I have to admit that I have my own ideas and certainly don’t like some the trends of today’s competitions. I’m not a fan of showing off and of the savage use of Photoshop. I admire some of my Vietnamese colleagues, and I’m always happy to work with them: especially Le Hong Ling and Ly Hoang Long. They are young and talented, they really believe in what they do.
Concerning Nick Hut, and his world famous Pulitzer-winning shot, I’ve got something to show you. Look at this picture: that’s me with Kim Phuc, the girl of the original picture; I met her a few years ago in America. She told me some stories and really personal things about the picture and Nick Hut, some secrets that I cannot tell you. I made her a promise. (Author’s note: he actually tells me some of these secrets.)

What do you consider an original picture?

It’s a picture that comes after a lot of thinking and crafting. It’s somehow like a good dish of spaghetti: it has to be cooked with mastery. You cut the veggies, you handpick all the ingredients and finish up by adding some virgin olive oil and Parmesan.
A picture retouched with Photoshop is like the same dish of spaghetti, but with mayonnaise and ketchup. It can be tasty, you might like it… but it’s certainly not the same thing! They say that I’m old fashioned, but I’m not. I love new technology (Author’s note: while we speak he keeps playing with his iPad). Only, I’m a bit of a purist in photography. The digital black and white is not even close to the film one. It’s more of a monochrome.

You have an impressive collection of vintage cameras. Which one is your favourite?

I love all my vintage Leica but my favourite is this one. Wait, I’m going to fetch it for you, you really have to see it up close. It’s a Hasselblad SWC. A Zweiss lens and a Swedish body… she is my Swedish girlfriend!

I understand that you are fascinated by Europe, that you like good wine and good food. Have you ever been to Italy?

No, not yet. But my pictures have twice. First in Rome, during the Festival dedicated to Vietnamese culture in 2007, then in Lecco in 2009, the Galleria Melesi did an exhibit about me.
I’d really love to come to Italy and shoot the beautiful chiaroscuro of its roads. Italy and its lifestyle, the beautiful clothes, the amazing cooking, it all fascinates me. I’d love to depict your country through my style: in black and white!


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