HCM CITY The optimism of street children and working people that shines through despite hardship has been presented in a new photobook by the HCM City-based photographer Trần Thế Phong.
Entitled Cười (The Smile), the book features more than 100 photos selected from thousands of images that Phong took over the past 10 years. The publication is also his 10th photobook, celebrating his 30th year in photography.
According to the photographer, the idea of the book comes from an unexpected encounter with a fan from Switzerland.
“In 2014 I was in the central European country to exhibit my photos. A local dentist was impressed by a photo in my series The Smile and decided to purchase the photo.
“Surprisingly, when I showed him other photos in the collection, without any hesitation, he said that he wanted to buy all the photos. He said he was ‘haunted’ by the smiles of all Vietnamese people in those photos. Those smiles were more optimistic and energetic than he could see anywhere in the world,” Phong said.
After returning to Việt Nam, he started to pay more attention to taking photos that centre the smiles of people across the country.
“Those are the smiles of ordinary people that I met during my regular trips to every corner of the country. Although they smile for different reasons, all the photos present a common message – it is their optimistic spirit, their pure inner mind and simple happiness,” he said.
The Smile features only black-and-white photos – the kind that “always challenge any photographer”, according to Phong.
“Alongside adding a timeless, fine art appeal to the image, I want viewers to focus on the facial expression, on the smile and the look of the main object, without distraction from other factors,” the photographer said.
Within only a few days after its launch, all 600 copies of The Smile sold out.
Like his previous photobook projects, all the proceeds from The Smile will be used for charity.
“I am happy because, with just my photos, I can support many vulnerable people, including street children, disadvantaged children, and lonely elderly people,” Phong told Việt Nam News .
“For me, that [helping others] is the biggest reward.”
So far, the photographer has donated a total amount of more than VNĐ1.5 billion (US$65,000) to charity over the years.
Although The Smile sold out, the photographer doesn’t intend to print more as he wants to limit the edition.
‘Haunted’ by street lives
Born in 1969 in a slum area in District 4 in HCM City, Phong experienced many hardships in life when he was a small boy.
His parents divorced when he was only three years old and Phong had to start earning a living from the age of six. He sold newspapers, popcorn and lottery tickets, and worked as a shoe-shine boy to get by.
“When I was teenager, my job was to sell movie or football tickets on the black market. I also worked as a waiter in restaurants or cafés to feed myself,” Phong recalled.
After experiencing many ups and downs, Phong decided to make living with a camera.
He said when he was a newspaper boy, whenever he saw other children and their parents take a photo together, he always felt heartache.
“I then realised that photos can affect human feelings, that’s why I wanted to be a photographer,” he said.
Phong spent all his small savings to buy a cheap Russian camera and started to teach himself photography.
“To get experience, at that time, I just dared to take photos of my friends,” Phong said.
In 1998, when he became more confident with his photography skills, Phong started to pursue professional photography.
Two years later, in 2000, a photo by Phong depicting the inauguration of the Mỹ Thuận Bridge – then Việt Nam’s longest cable-stayed bridge, he won the gold medal of the HCM City’s Association of Photographic Artists, before winning the silver medal of the Việt Nam Association of Photographic Artists for the same photo.
The awards inspired him to devote himself to photography with a focus on street life.
“I used to be a street boy, I can’t forget the hard days when I had to struggle to make a living. So I have been captivated by the image of shoeshine boys or children selling newspapers, lottery tickets, who live on the street to stay alive,” he said.
“I feel like I find myself in them. That’s why whenever I see them, I am overwhelmed by emotions that urge me to capture their images.
“The children in my photos, despite their hardship, always smile. Their smile is to present their confidence in a brighter future.”
For Phong, a nice photo is the one depicting moments of normal life and it should present the tempo of current society.
Alongside street children, the hard lives of poor working people are also a favourite topic of Phong.
“The lives of those people are always hard and silent but they have their own beauty when it comes to photos,” he said. VNS