1,000 Years Young
By Bill Clarke
This October marks the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. Canadian photographer Greg Girard, who has been living in and photographing the architectural evolution of the city of Shanghai, China since the 1980s, was recently invited to Hanoi to document that city for a commemorative publication. Magenta Publishing for the Arts, which published Girard’s first monograph, Phantom Shanghai, will also publish his photographs of Hanoi this fall.
Girard and Magenta Magazine Online Executive Editor, Bill Clarke, corresponded by e-mail about the Hanoi project throughout July.
BC: Where did the invitation to shoot in Hanoi come from, and what were your initial thoughts about it?
GG: The invitation was presented as a seemingly innocent question at a lunch in Hanoi last year: "Why don't you do a book about Hanoi?" The Canadian Ambassador, Deanna Horton, hosted the lunch, and she introduced me to someone who had seen Phantom Shanghai. He said that he wished Hanoi had something similar. As 2010 is the millennium anniversary of the city, he said that it would be a perfect time.
At the time, I dismissed it as a polite if unrealistic suggestion — too little time, where would the money come from, etc. Soon after, I was invited to meet again with this gentleman, a Hanoi-born, US-educated businessman. He said he hoped I would seriously consider the idea and asked what it would take to start a project of this sort. I went away and thought about it, and decided that apart from his approving a budget for photographing and producing a book, it would have to be a book that would be "out in the world". In other words, not a vanity project, but something distributed and offered to the general public through the normal channels. If I could find a publisher that is. Fortunately, Magenta agreed to be part of the project.
BC: Had you been to Hanoi before?
GG: I first visited in 1991, when there were only three hotels in the city that accepted foreign guests and there were almost no cars in the streets. The sensation of being in a place that was architecturally frozen in time, the early 20th Century, was especially powerful. Of course, as much as one might admire the preserved nature of the place (more ignored than preserved), decades of war and relative isolation exacted a huge cost in terms of the country's development as a whole. I went back several times after that but I certainly couldn't say I ‘knew’ the city.
BC: Since this is a commissioned work, how much freedom did you have to shoot whatever you wanted? How do you go about gaining access to locations?
GG: There were no restrictions and no vetting of the photographs. If anything I tapped into my primary sponsor's knowledge of the city, and his memories of growing up there, to give me ideas and help find locations. I also hired a local assistant who works for a foreign news agency to help me gain access to homes, shops and various rooftops. So, it was a combination of doing my own research and the randomness of wandering around and finding places, knocking on doors in some cases. Meeting people over the weeks I spent there I would often ask about ‘their’ Hanoi. It was pleasantly surprising and very instructive to discover how many people had favourite streets or buildings or hidden corners of the city. Hanoi's residents are very romantic in that way.
BC: Hanoi was the capital of French Indochina for most of the early 20th Century, so it has a distinctive architectural heritage that combines French and Vietnamese styles. Is this what you wanted to capture, or were you looking at Hanoi in the same way you do Shanghai, as a rapidly modernizing city?
GG: Hanoi is rare in Asia in that, although it certainly is changing and modernizing, it seems to have been able to do that without destroying the original scale of the city. Period buildings are disappearing but, in many cases, a new building of the same narrow, low-rise size replaces it. This is particularly true in the Old City. So the texture of that is something I wanted to show. But, more than the buildings, what I wanted to show is what this particular modernity looks like. In this developing and relatively poor country — especially the northern part — the relative abundance of colonial-era buildings means that they were, and still are to some extent, the raw material to work with. How they are used, often in ways never intended, is sometimes the subject of a picture. At the same time, I wanted to show that a relatively young demographic populates these buildings, this city. So, there are comparatively more pictures of people in this book than the last.
BC: You mentioned Hanoi’s decades of war and relative isolation earlier. Vietnam certainly has a fraught history, especially in the 20th Century, with its occupation by the French, and then the Japanese during WWII. And, of course, there’s the Vietnam War. Are these aspects of Hanoi’s history that you wanted to capture in your photographs, as well?
GG: As dark as Hanoi's history might be, and to whatever extent it exerts its pull today, the people who are old enough to remember those events you mention all shared in very difficult times that ultimately resulted in the country's independence. National suffering was more evenly distributed than in some conflicts, such as the Vietnam War as waged from the American side, where an economic underclass fought and died far from home. In any case, whatever ghosts the city still has, the overwhelming sensation is one of optimism and energy, and a romantic and hard-won attachment to life. Still, to use a phrase I applied to Shanghai, time has indeed flowed hard through the city.
BC: What are some of the similarities and/or differences between Shanghai and Hanoi? Do each of these cities present their own unique challenges in trying to portray them, photographically?
GG: Certainly, one difference pertains to the relative size of the two countries: Vietnam simply does not and will not matter to the rest of the world in the way that China does. Having said that, almost nowhere else does either. One thing I did realize, though, was that although the size and population of Shanghai and Hanoi are so vastly different, the area of each city that one actually uses are probably very similar. Apart from Shanghai's relatively small core, which is where the former foreign concessions were located, the rest of the city looks much like any other large city in China. And, unless one is commuting, one doesn't really need to visit the city's outlying areas. Hanoi also has a dense central core that forms the heart of the city. So, the size of both cities’ ‘hearts’, as it were, are similar in size.
The challenge in each case was to make photographs that were engaging to viewers whether they had lived in the city all their life, were visiting for the first time or had never set foot in the place.
BC: Could you share a bit about your photographic process?
GG: In the case of Hanoi, I wanted to combine pictures that were spontaneous — from the street or wherever — with more studied, deliberate ones made on a tripod, using long exposures. Being in a new place or, rather, a place I didn't know so well but was very much inspired and charmed by, it seemed perverse not to try and communicate the excitement I felt. I did end up making a lot more pictures of people in the street or in shops, than in Phantom Shanghai. I used both medium and large format cameras on this project. One key factor was the very limited time in which I had to make the pictures. I allowed 60 days of photography over an eight-month period, so there wasn't really any time to wait for any ‘right’ times. I just tried to be out there, looking at the city and making pictures as much as possible.
It must seem dull to watch a photographer make pictures, or listen to him or her talk about making them. I shoot on film, so part of the excitement comes when I get the film back and see what I did — or failed to do. I have to confess that I get excited when someone lets me onto a rooftop or into their home to make pictures. This isn't the stuff of high drama. It's really just about putting in the time, and being persistent and sometimes lucky. But, I do want the pictures to be interesting and even exciting. I'll admit that.
BC: Did you develop a fondness for a particular area of the city or a particular aspect of life there?
GG: I roamed all over the city, day and night, on foot and on the back of a motorcycle. As much as I like the way the city looks, it is very touching to see so many young Hanoi couples sharing private moments in public places — by the lake or in cafes — oblivious to the world in their little bubbles of intimacy. That stays with me as much as anything.
Greg Girard’s Hanoi photographs will be show at the Hanoi Studio Gallery in late October, and will be shown at his Canadian galleries, Clark & Faria in Toronto and Monte Clark Gallery in Vancouver, in 2011.