Places - March 20, 2021 | 05:10 pm PT

International appreciation vindicates Vietnamese lensman's passion

The only Vietnamese photographer to collaborate with National Geographic, Tran Tuan Viet says he’s pursuing a passion, not a job.

Tran Tuan Viet says he "feels happy standing behind the camera and proud when the stories about Vietnam through his photos are well-received internationally".

In June 2017, the 38-year-old photographer shot into the limelight after his "Making Incense" appeared in Visions of Earth, a column of the prestigious National Geographic magazine (NatGeo), which is published in 40 different languages globally.

Six months later, Viet made a name for himself again as one of four Vietnamese to win a gold medal at the ninth edition of the International Art Photography Contest, with "Swan," which captures the swirls of a ballerina. The same year, 20 of his photographs were featured in NatGeo’s Photo of the Day column.

Viet's success continued in 2018 when "Buddhist Prayers" was chosen from among 1.2 million photos as one of the 70 most beautiful photos of the year by the NatGeo photography community. This was the only one from Vietnam in the list.

The photo was later published in the National Geographic Almanac 2020. Later, "Making Incense" won the tourism category at the Smithsonian Annual Photo Contest in the U.S.

"Making Incense", "Buddhist Prayers" and "Swan" are three of the most well-known works by Tran Tuan Viet. He has tattooed the specs of these photos on his right arm.

He recently contributed over 1,000 photos for the Google Arts & Culture project - Wonders of Vietnam. This is part of Google's support program for Vietnamese tourism during the Covid-19 pandemic, promoting the beauty of the country and its people to international tourists.

It was fate

Viet believes it was his fate to become a photographer, because it was not something he had considered taking up, either as a hobby or a profession. He was an architecture student at the National University of Civil Engineering and later worked in the field of information technology.

It was in 2007 that he got to know photography for the first time and he found that it helped him combine his passion for art and his job.

"Folk Game", taken at the Mui Ne dunes near central town Phan Thiet, won first prize at Fun 2020, an Agora photo contest. Tran Tuan Viet donated his prize money to Vietnam's Covid-19 fund.

Viet says he spent over seven years developing his own style after trying to focus on specific genres like portrait, landscape and street photography. In 2015, when he felt he was fully prepared, he began to pursue his passion for photography seriously. He chose to stick to a storytelling style, which was still new in Vietnam then. This is also the year he joined the NatGeo Your Shot community with more than one million photographers.

A Cham girl with different eye colors due to the heterochromia iridis syndrome. The photo by Tran Tuan Viet was shared by the National Geographic photography community in June 2020 and later won Eyes2020, an Agora contest.

"I lived in the countryside as a child. Maybe that’s why I like to photograph things associated with Vietnamese culture and traditions. And because these are the things that appeal to foreign photographers and editors, my photos have been well-received," he says.

Viet also thinks that the accuracy in expressing stories is the reason his works garnered attention from NatGeo.

After the NatGeo Your Shot community closed in 2019 and switched to Instagram, he was one of the first 40 photographers invited to contribute on their new platform, which has now attracted over five million followers. The photos submitted to NatGeo are required to have originality, detailed description and expression of the story. During his years in the community, Viet had a series of Vietnamese people and landscape photos voted best of the day.

"When my work was first published in such a renowned magazine, I felt really honored because my dedication was being recognized. I also felt proud when the stories in my photos on Vietnam are well-received internationally."

Tran Tuan Viet's "Sewing Net" was shortlisted as one of the most striking submissions by the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (Ciwem) for its Ciwem Environmental Photographer of The Year 2019 award.

Even if one is pursuing a passion, the path for them is not smooth. Towards the end of 2018, Viet fell into a deep depression due to work pressure, with many sleepless nights and constant negative thoughts. In early 2019, he began undergoing treatment for depression, but discontinued it a few months later when he got a work offer from Google Arts & Culture.

"I fell into depression because of photography and I also got rid of it thanks to photography. As soon as I was able to do what I like, my negative emotions were somewhat lessened."

A 'fanatic'

Viet describes himself as a photography "fanatic." He cannot remember how many times he traveled across Vietnam and went to different regions just to take a few photos despite not being paid for the efforts.

In 2019, he went to Quang Binh, Quang Tri, Hue, Quang Nam and Da Nang in central Vietnam in scorching summer heat with temperatures that shot up to 40 degrees Celsius. He was tortured by awful migraine, but he was so eager to take photos that he just kept going and going.

"Balance", with six workers on high voltage electrical lines, was taken in 2017. Tran Tuan Viet says moments like this don't usually repeat themselves.

One of the moments of those days that he particularly remembers is a photo of six workers on electric wires. To capture that moment, it took him six times of going back and forth between Hanoi and neighboring Bac Ninh.

Then there is "Buddhist Prayers", a photo that captures the scene of hundreds of Buddhist followers praying with floral garlands and colored lanterns on the Quan Am Bodhisattva Buddha Day in 2017 at the Dien Quang Pagoda in Bac Ninh.

When all other photographers had left for a drink, Viet stayed back and asked the monks to let him stand behind the great statue of the Buddha to take the picture.

"I patiently waited not only to capture a beautiful moment but also to witness a ritual from start to finish, to get a better understanding and put more soul into the photo."

Viet’s most recent trip was to Son Doong, the world's largest cave in Quang Binh Province. The tough terrain made it difficult to take a good photo, but he got "lucky" in capturing a moment of sunshine and raindrops at the same time.

"I can see that most of the great photos in Son Doong are taken by international photographers. I want to prove that the Vietnamese photographer can also capture the beauty here, so I will continue to visit this cave many times."

"The photos that deserve to be honored are creative ones that can convey real value"

Viet believes that awards do not determine the success of a photographer. He also feels staged and unauthentic photos will not bring Vietnamese beauty closer to the world and also constrain the photographer's creativity.

"In the past, I have also taken photos like those. But I have realized that only when I am honest with myself and respect the truth that my work has more value and recognition. A beautiful photo is not enough, what's more important is the story it delivers."

Tran Tuan Viet's "Wedding Cake" captures a very rare moment of sunshine and raindrops inside Son Doong Cave.

Viet finds photos that express beauty, positivity and inspiration are the ones that match his own outlook.

"Many people have said that my photos are a bit sad but peaceful and I think this is true, considering my anti-negative personality."

He said comments and praise from those who love photography and the desire to travel around the world are the driving force for his passion. He also wants to present a beautiful Vietnam to the world.

Viet's most recent work is "Colorful Work", taken in November last year during his trip to Ba Vi National Park on the outskirts of Hanoi. It entered the final of the 18th Annual Smithsonian Magazine Photo Contest.

"A worker prepares a hot air balloon during a tourism festival in the park, 48 km west of Hanoi. The preparation for the 18-meter hot air balloon took more than an hour to complete. I spent many days during the festival getting up around 5 a.m. and traveling more than 100 km each day, waiting for this moment."

This year, Viet plans to make a book that includes his best works and take part in the Xposure International Photogrpahy Festival in the UAE, where internationally renowned photographers and photojournalists will gather.

He will also continue to travel all over Vietnam to create more spectacular photos, especially in Quang Binh, the cave kingdom.

"Colorful Work" by Tran Tuan Viet.

Story by Lan Huong, Hoang Nguyen