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Food photography not getting enough recognition

By Trang Nguyen, Long Nguyen   May 23, 2021 | 09:41 pm PT
Food photography is neglected in Vietnam and not utilized for tourism promotion though any entries from the country win honors in international competitions.

With his entry "Bua Sang O Cho Phien" (Breakfast at a Rural Market), Nguyen Huu Thong won first prize in the ‘Food at the Table’ category in the 2021 Pink Lady Food Photography competition (U.K.) and 2018 Smithsonian Annual Photo Contest (US), two of the world's leading awards recognizing the art and diversity of food photography.

He shot the photo in a morning mountain market in Ha Giang during the 2017 Lunar New Year. He woke up early and spent hours in a pho stall so he could observe and capture the best moment. It was cold, and locals came to eat hot bowls of pho. Thong considers food photography a perfect medium to capture culture and ambience.

Echoing Thong's opinion, Nguyen Thu Thuy from the Faculty of Tourism, University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University, told Thanh Nien newspaper: "We need to rethink our culinary strategy, including the use of food photography, otherwise it (the cuisine) would be wasted."

Girls enjoy che(sweet soup) in Hoi An, Quang Nam Province, central Vietnam. Photo by Viet Van Tran.

Girls enjoy che (sweet soup) in Hoi An, Quang Nam Province, central Vietnam. Photo by Viet Van Tran.

At this year's Pink Lady Food Photography contest famous photographer Tran Viet Van won first prize in the Street food category with a work titled "Enjoy" that shows people in Hoi An enjoying che (Vietnamese sweet soup).

He said: "I took this photo on December 30th, 2020, a lovely moment during the Covid-19 epidemic, when people were enjoying che on the street.

"In Hoi An, besides famous dishes such as cao lau (Vietnamese thick noodles), and Phuong bread, there is also very good che. The che shops in Hoi An are very simple and peaceful."

Van had also won the Pink Lady Food Photography award in 2019 for his ‘The Butcher's Breakfast.’

Vietnamese cuisine has become better known in the world over the past few years, with international chefs and prestigious food magazines praising several national dishes.

Tourism promotion

In 2019, CNN named Vietnam's pho among the world's 50 best dishes. Bun cha was also included on National Geographic's list of best street food in the world. In 2016, photos of former U.S. President Barack Obama having bun cha, a popular Hanoi dish of white rice noodles, herbs and grilled pork, at a local restaurant in Hanoi went viral, helping the eatery attract hundreds of daily patrons as a result.

Recently, a study released by New York-based foodie magazine Chef's Pencil showed Vietnamese cuisine was the world's ninth most popular on Instagram in 2020, reaffirming its rising popularity among food lovers.

A total 2.84 million #Vietnamesefood tags were posted on Instagram, the world’s largest photo-sharing network, during that year alone.

This shows photos could be a good envoy for popularizing Vietnamese cuisine and culture across the globe.

Although food photographers have won a number of international honors and introduce Vietnamese cuisine and culture to the world through their works, "there is no food photography contest in Vietnam," Van said.

Bua Sang O Cho Phien (Breakfast at a Rural Market). Photo courtesy of Nguyen Huu Thong.

"Bua Sang O Cho Phien" (Breakfast at a Rural Market). Photo courtesy of Nguyen Huu Thong.

Food photography can be used to promote tourism, especially since many localities in the country want to make cuisine a tourism product.

In March, authorities in Khanh Hoa Province approved a night-time food street comprising 20 mobile trucks along a beach in Nha Trang, a top tourist attraction.

Previously, Saigon authorities decided to open a food street on Ho Thi Ky in District 10, home to the city’s largest flower market. The southern metropolis has many food hubs like Bui Vien Street in District 1, Phan Xich Long Street in Phu Nhuan District, Vinh Vien Street in District 10, and Ha Ton Quyen Street in District 11.

Competitions to attract local photographers have been organized, though food photography has yet to come under the spotlight.

Last year, the Vietnam Photographic Artists Association and the National Administration of Tourism organized a travel photo contest. It received tens of thousands of entries, but only around two dozen food photographs were on display.

"It's true that there is a lot of potential for a separate food photography contest, but if we organize one, I do not think many works will be submitted," Vu Quoc Khanh, one of the organizers, said.

But Le Huy, a photographer who has won many international photography awards, said: "In fact, there are lots of good food photographs and good food photographers."

In the aforementioned tourist photo contest, food photography was not mentioned at all.

Dr Nguyen Thu Thuy said she supports the use of culinary elements to promote Vietnam's tourism.

"Food and food photography deserve to belong as a culinary heritage to promote the Vietnam travel industry. Furthermore, food photography leaves a strong visual impression."

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