Together with interpreter Le Ngoc Son I invited 15 local people in Bao Loc (Lam Dong, Vietnam) to take photographs every day of things they found noteworthy and important, using single-use cameras.
In October 2007 I initiated this participatory project intrigued by the question of how each person looks at the world in unique ways. Consequently our participants came from many different walks of life, including a 16 year old boy who dropped school to help his family in the tea and coffee fields, a middle aged egg vendor from the central market, the young mother of a seven month old baby, or the dignified grandma who runs a combined coffee shop and gasoline stand on Highway 55.
Building relationships with participants over four weeks:
 Invite encounters on the street to an unusual game.
 Have photos and notes taken, 6 times a day.
 Swap cameras and view photo prints in weekly meetings.
 Host a photo lounge with everybody in the end.
Mrs. Tran runs a fertilizer shop and participated because she has a great outlook onto Highway 55 from her storefront.
My interpreter Son and I would simply approach people that we encountered on the street, market place, or in cafe shops and invite them into our game as we named it. In many cases people took the time to listen to our explanations and got interested. In one case Mr. Ban, the owner of the coffee shop on Bao Loc's central bridge, introduced us to a young artist named K'Boi who belonged to an ethnic minority and as it turned out had an outstanding talent for taking photographs.
A documentation driven by process and participants
Mr. Nguyen owns the Binh coffee shop in the center of town where we met him over cà-phê.
Participants were asked to photograph every two hours and to write observations in small notebooks, and then to meet with the artist and assistant to exchange information, receive a new camera, and talk about the photographs from the last week. The process of weekly meetings focused on building and sustaining strong relationships and commitment among participants.
Miss Le Ngoc received the camera thru her mom and brought the camera to school, documenting preparations for Teacher's Day.
Since we realized this project in rural Vietnam we not only got connected to an individual participant but usually got involved with her or his family and neighbors as well. In the case of the 16 year old boy the father of this ethic minority family wouldn't let us talk to his son in the first two weeks because he suspected that this project was an undercover surveillance plot. It took long and engaging conversations in order to build trust. In the end the father got personally involved and claimed the camera for himself to take, as he described it, photographs that are as close to his life as possible.
Visual manifestations of selfdiscovery
Mrs. K'Oahn is a young mother who belongs to an ethnic minority and decided to partake together with her neighbor Co Thuy.
Interesting to note was the progression that visually manifested in the photographs taken. In the first week or two, many participants had to get acquainted to the camera since it was the first for most of them. But as the technical confidence grew the number and quality of the images improved significantly. Some of our tea and coffee farming photographers got adventurous and took the camera into the plantations high up in the mountains, into school yards and living rooms. This collective photo documentation project found its culmination at the big Bao Loc Project party.
Tam is a high school student who share living quarters with other students since his parents live too far away from school.
We created a simple lounge environment in the warehouse of a coffee warehouse that was the invitation for all 15 participants and their families to meet for the first time, and to share their images and experiences. After four weeks some had accumulated up to 120 images from which they chose themselves which to show to the public. The large scale platform that we prepared for the exhibition had an allocated and marked up timeline so that the photographs taken at the same time of the day would be presented next to each other. This allowed the audience to compare what different participants in the same two-hour period of time were photographing. It paralleled 15 different perspectives on life in the township of Bao Loc.
Giving and taking
Quynh is a college student who approached me in Mr. Binh's coffee shop wondering about my nationality. Next thing she became a Shadow Follower...
What remains after the project has concluded and all photographs were returned to their creators? On our last round of visits at the participant's homes we saw many photographs of this collective documentary popping up on cupboards in living rooms or redistributed (de-appropriated so to say) to the people and neighbors in the pictures, leaving the photographers not without a good sense of pride and contentment. Besides everybody involved will carry memories of congenial exchanges over photo prints and drip coffee.
Shadow Followers was realized within The Bao Loc Project
and curated by Sue Hajdu from a little bla blah
. Hosted by a local coffee refinery a dozen Vietnamese and foreign artists realized projects and workshops working with and within various communities and emphasizing processes over objects. The playful as well as artistic efforts concluded in a public cultural festival on November 25, 2007 — something very unusual for a rural Vietnamese town.
This project was generously supported by Pro Helvetia
, the Swiss Council for the Arts, and made possible with the cameras and photo processing of Fujifilm
and International Minh Viet Co. Ltd