Life - November 10, 2018 | 06:44 pm PT

American photographer’s debt of honor to Vietnam 

Long-time resident Justin Mott cannot thank Vietnam enough for welcoming him and showing kindness, and is now showcasing its splendors to the world.

Justin Mott is an American commercial photographer based in Vietnam. He is also a travel photographer and the resident professional photographer for Photo Face-Off, a photography reality TV show broadcast on the U.S' History channel.

His photos have been published on National Geographic magazine and the website of Hasselbald, the Swedish digital medium format camera manufacturer.

Mott is now working on a personal project, "As above so below", which aims to showcase the beauty of Vietnam’s nature and people to the world.

This is his way of saying thanks to the country that has shaped his life.

On the street during Hanoi's 1000 years anniversary.

The road to Vietnam

At 21 Mott moved to San Francisco from his hometown, Rhode Island. The excitement of traveling, moving to a city and having new experiences sparked a passion for travel in the young man.

He enrolled for a class in photography during his time there. This gave him an opportunity to further explore the city, meeting new people and experiencing a different culture. Photography became the passion of his life.

Mott said: "I get to travel and meet new people all the time. Thirteen years later I still enjoy it just as much as I used to."

Travel is a way for him to never "grow up" and get to know and photograph people. It enables him to constantly learn, to explore and experience new things; it gives him freedom.

"I loved the feeling when I just moved there (San Francisco). And I wanted that again. I got it when I moved to Vietnam. It was even more exciting, newer because it was a different culture, different people, a whole different country."

His first project in Vietnam was about Nu, a victim of Agent Orange. Saddened by the images captured by Welsh photojournalist Phillip Jones Griffiths of the aftermath of Agent Orange in Vietnam, he set out to investigate for himself.

That was the start of his long journey in Vietnam.

Ladies playing volleyball after work. 

During his early days in the new country he was greatly helped by Thuy, an English teacher. He recalls how Thuy invited him for dinner at her house the night they met.

She was the one who helped him find his first home, buy his first motorbike. She also assisted him on his project, communicating with Nu.

Mott's interaction with Thuy, with whom he still has a bond 13 years later, showed him how welcoming and friendly Vietnamese were. It played a big part in his decision to remain in the country.

"She’s like my Vietnamese mother... She was the first person to make me feel welcome in Vietnam. I think without her, I probably wouldn’t have stayed."

Since then he has been living in Vietnam, doing various kinds of photography: commercial, wedding photo shoots, photojournalism...

As Above So Below: a tribute to Vietnam

Though Mott does enjoy his commercial work, it is no longer fulfilling. The work is always done for someone else, meaning it feels like it is never from his heart. Now, at the age of 40, he wants to create his own legacy, something that he will be known and remembered for, something that represents who he truly is.

"I started my career with a personal project about Agent Orange. And since then I’ve turned it into work, commercial work. Just working, making a living and trying to get by...

"Now I’ve been here for so long, I have nothing to show. I have my work but I have nothing that is truly me."

He feels he owes a debt of gratitude to the country that has welcomed him in and let him build his life and career and a debt to himself creatively. The As Above So Below project combines both his passions in life: photography as a means of self-expression and Vietnam.

"So I think, ‘what should I do? What should the story be? Should it be somewhere else?’ But I thought ‘no, it has to be Vietnam. This is my home, I owe this country... I moved here, I’ve lived here, I’ve met people, people let me in their homes to photograph their grandmother, their kids. It has been such a welcoming country.’"

Through the project, Mott wants to showcase the diverse beauty of the landscapes, people and culture of Vietnam. He expects it to take three or four years to complete, but has not set a time limit for it.

Since it is all about expressing who he really is, he’s determined to capture the pure and real beauty of everyday life without or with minimal setting up.

"I’ve always done it quick, but this project is for me. Slow down and wait for the light to be how I want it to be. Slow down, work on portrait works and all of these different areas of photography. Slow down, think, write and capture the way I want."

Mott has opted for diptych-style photos, presenting two together, to tell the stories of Vietnam. As the style suggests, one picture will be an aerial photo, showcasing the landscape from above, and the other will capture what exists below on the ground.

The idea is to show the connection between people and the environment around them.

"Sometimes, the connection could just be the composition of the field, it could be as simple as this is where people work... or this is where they play on this land, this is their home.

"Sometimes it’s (because) I love the pattern here and I want to find something with a pattern that matches below. For example, the riverbed and the wrinkles of the rippled water and I connect that to a wrinkled face of someone old who lives off that land."

Another reason why he chose diptychs for his project is because it was a unique style and something he had not done before.

At the same time Mott wants to engage with audiences, make them think about how the photos are connected to each other.

Helping him with his project is a Vietnamese drone pilot, Nam. Mott directs what he wants in the picture and Nam flies the drone and looks at locations. Mott thinks it’s a great thing to have an American-Vietnamese collaboration like this.

Both men want the project to be a tribute to a dear mutual friend, Khanh, who died of cancer. He hopes that somehow this project will also be a legacy for Khanh and that Khanh’s daughter, who lost her father when she was just a few months old, can appreciate it.

"Khanh was on all of my Vietnam adventures with me. And he helped Nam get the drone working. He connected the two of us. Without Khanh, I wouldn’t know anything about aerial... I hope his daughter, when she grows up, will get to see and appreciate this, and remember her father and something special about him."

Mott said when the project is complete he will give the Vietnamese the right to use his images for whatever they want for free if it is for the purpose of promoting the country.

High hopes, big ambitions

A farmer spreads out peppercorns to dry in the hot sun at a plantation on Phu Quoc island, southern Vietnam. 

Though not finished yet, As Above So Below has already achieved recognition. One of its photos, an aerial shot of a farmer drying peppercorn, was chosen as the editor’s favorite submission of the week in National Geographic’s 2018 Travel Photographer of The Year Contest.

Mott hopes the project will be good enough for exhibiting not just in Vietnam but around the world. He wants to create something that will "make this country proud." He will love for it to be made into a book as well.

"I have high hopes... I want people to look at the book and say ‘Oh, I want to go to Vietnam.’ I want them to have it on their coffee table and really appreciate the beauty of Vietnam. It’s not to celebrate me. It’s to celebrate this country."

Since he has been living in Vietnam for a long time, he hopes to be named Tourism Ambassador for the country.

"I love selling this country to people... to come here and to invest, to appreciate Vietnam."

Vietnam’s tourism has been developing at a rapid pace in the last few years, and he thinks the country’s image has also changed.

In the past people always associated Vietnam with devastation caused by war, but now they think it is a country they want to go to and is safe, he said.

They are no longer going to just popular destinations like Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Ha Long Bay, and Sapa, but also to remote places to explore the true beauty of the country.

Food is another reason Mott thinks Vietnam is attracting visitors.

"People have gone crazy about the food. Now the world has grown an appreciation for Vietnamese food. Earlier people might have just known spring rolls, now (they) know bun cha, pho... It’s become a global cuisine."

Mott is proud that his work in the past, especially travel photo shoots, is helping spread the images of Vietnam to the world and making people want to explore the country. But he wants to do more.

"I owe Vietnam something. I want to be remembered as this photographer who understood Vietnam the best he could – the best an American could."

Story by Kieu Duong, Linh Nguyen

Photos by Justin Mott