Shadow Followers: The Video Documentary
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.
Project Documentary (July 2008, 13:30min, 55MB)
Click below to watch.
Creative societies may not save us
but show us how to survive.
— Robert Desnos
What would happen when people took photographs who never used a camera before?
15 participants were asked to photograph what seems noteworthy to them.
Have you ever arrived at a foreign town and wondered what it would be like to see through the insider's eyes? What would the world look like? What stories would unfold?
Instead of taking photographs yourself you would ask local people to take pictures of what they personally found noteworthy.
In autumn 2007 we tried exactly that. We handed single-use camera's to 15 individuals in Bao Loc, a small mountain town in the tea and coffee growing region of Southern Vietnam.
How do images from locals differ from those an outsider would take?
We wondered what would happen when people took photographs who never used a camera before? How would the images differ from those an outsider would take? What would they reveal about themselves and their world that an outsider could never capture? Beyond these questions we were most interested in building a connection to 15 local people and to their families and homes.
The project relied on a well-conceived concept with clear intentions
The project took place at the end of the rainy season.
As part of a community-based artist residency we ran the Shadow Followers
project throughout one month. It was October, the month that marks the end of the rainy season...
The project relied on a well-conceived concept with clear intentions that could be easily communicated and that allowed for certain flexibility.
Son LeNgoc was my indispensable interpreter, fearless motorbike pilot and cultural bridge builder.
Most important was the collaboration between myself, Markuz Wernli Saito and the Saigon-based artist Son LeNgoc who became my indispensable interpreter, fearless motorbike pilot, cultural bridge builder and "partner-in-crime" over the course of the project.
60 single-use cameras were donated along with photo processing which allowed us to give a total of 4 cameras, one per week, to 15 participating parties.
Inviting random people to an open, creative enterprise outside of institution, work or family is very unusual in Vietnam
We made sure to include old and young, different ethnicities, and various walks of life.
In the first week we tried to find and invite our participants. We were looking for 15 very different perspectives from within Bao Loc, so we made sure to include men and women, old and young, and different ethnicities, from various walks of life. We approached tea farmers, street hawkers, market vendors, school boys, canteen chefs, artists, security guards, coffee plant workers, college students, grandmothers, fertilizer dealers, and gold fish owners...
Most of the people we approached met us with friendly curiosity.
In order to meet people there needs to be a common ground, no matter how small. So we got talking with people over coffee, buying an egg, asking for directions, hanging out on the street corner, or complimenting a mother about her 7-month old baby. Most of the people we approached met us with friendly curiosity. The fact that Son speaks a Southern Vietnamese accent and I am European helped us avoid historical and political issues for the most part...
Right upon arriving we went to the park-side coffee shop whose owner, Mr. Banh, became our first participant. Even better, he took us took us to a village of an ethnic minority we would never have found on our own where he introduced us to an undiscovered photography talent named K'Boi.
We were interested in what Bao Loc town looks like to its own people.
Inviting random people to an open, creative enterprise outside of institution, work or family is very unusual in Vietnam where all cultural activities undergo a strict screening by the authorities. Despite this we introduced ourselves as artists interested in discovering what Bao Loc town looks like to its own people.
The careful explanation regarding the camera's use was often the first act of bonding. In return for receiving the camera and photo prints we asked three things from our participants:
1) Take a photo every two hours between sunrise and sunset.
It was our intention to make the camera a part of daily routine and to give the outcome a time-based consistency.
2) Make sure the sun is in your back while photographing.
Pointing the lens in the direction of one's own shadow helped prevent the photos from being overexposed and gave this project its name!
3) Write your comments in the provided notebook.
Keeping a log was meant to keep track on time, place and reflections for each photograph.
Before we parted from our newly initiated photographers we made sure to have an appointment with them for the following week.
The individual meetings provided opportunity to gradually grow our relationship to our participant's experience and routine
The growing series of images provided for conversations on things close to our participants.
Each of the 4 following weekends we crisscrossed the spread out township to reach and revisit all of our participants — it was almost like a camera delivery service.
The individual meetings provided opportunity to gradually grow our relationship to our participant's experience and routine through the growing series of images and our conversations on things close to them.
Depending on how well the participants were able to follow the rules we guided the dialog.
Depending on how well the participants were able to follow the rules we included in our conversations a bit of redirection: The diligent photographers had our full admiration;
The technically (or otherwise) challenged received supportive advice; And the oblivious participants were asked how they might get more involved.
People from different backgrounds who normally would never get to know each other suddenly find themselves in a common effort
At the final exhibition every photographer selected the photos they wanted to show to the public.
On week 5 the project concluded in a final exhibition where all 15 participants met for the first time. Every photographer selected the photos they wanted to show to the public.
They placed the prints in relation to the time of capture: grouping the photos in a lounge type of installation that served as a timeline and allowed the audience to compare the range of photos taken at a particular time of the day.
This event brought all Shadow Followers and their families together. This way these people from different backgrounds who normally would never know each other suddenly find themselves in a common effort that allows them to meet and have conversations.
We were impressed by how much dedication our photographers put into the Shadow Followers project
15 participating parties are asked to photograph what seems noteworthy to them
A camera can be intimidating to oneself and others. Not only was the manual rewinding required was unfamiliar but others needed to get used to taking pictures as a part of their daily routine.
Over time the participants found their own ways to get around that:
Mr. Banh simply shared the camera with his assistant at the coffee shop when he got busy. Mrs. K'Oanh partnered up with her younger neighbor Co Thuy since they usually work at the same tea plantation.
The two high school boys Duong and Thuan didn't feel comfortable photographing at school. So they settled on capturing situations around their student home.
Many participants needed to get used to making photographing a part of their daily routine.
Others made the assignment into a group effort, be it with their families, neighbors or coworkers. Mrs. Tran and Mrs. Le Thi utilized their work place
as a kind of observation deck since both ladies run a street-side shop, witnessing as people and traffic pass by and mingle.
Overall we were impressed by how much dedication these photographers put into the Shadow Followers project. Other than our pastry baker Mr. Anh who got too busy everybody stayed on till the end.
We were truly amazed that 59 of 60 distributed cameras were safely returned for the photo processing and about 1800 images exposed. This proved some skeptical voices wrong that
predicted that many cameras would get lost or sold...
Duong was unlucky to have his camera stolen in week three.
Only Duong was unlucky enough to have his camera stolen in week three: The story goes that a drunk man strayed into Duong's living room at night and snatched his camera... Most residential houses in Bao Loc have no locks on their doors.
People photograph for different reasons
We tried to bring our participants into an active position where they decide for themselves how much they let the camera into their lives and what they want to photograph.
In our weekly meetings we reminded them not to take photos on our behalf but whatever was personally relevant to them. That's why we stayed away from judging the pictures presented to us.
Rather, we took the prints as a reference point that gave a sense of what's important to our participants.
People photograph for different reasons. Naturally the proud parents and grandparents were inclined to depict their loved ones — while neglecting the two-hour rule and shooting away in the park on Sunday afternoon...
K'Boi's photographs of domestic life show a unique sense of togetherness.
K'Boi, a young artist developed a great affinity for documenting the daily routine in his family and neighborhood K'Boi's photographs show a wonderful sense of togetherness.
College student Tram captured images mainly at her school where preparations for teacher's appreciation day were in full swing.
The colors in many photographs show shades of green and earthy tones; the colors of tea and coffee plantations. The mountains are in fact not just a landscape but also a work place for a majority in Bao Loc.
We also included three workers from a large coffee refinery since it was harvest season and all streets were lined with tarps of drying coffee beans.
The father of K'Li Ang Va got suspicious in the beginning that Son and I were using his son to spy on his family.
We had an intriguing experience in the family of K'Li Ang Va, a teenaged boy who was encouraged by his sisters to participate. But when we came back in the following weeks
we stumbled into lengthy debates with Ang Va's father who got suspicious that Son and I were using his son to spy on his family...
After weeks of diplomatic work the father finally took the camera himself and evidently had a lot fun striking Tarzan poses with his colleagues...
Enabling somebody to frame their own experience and to create their own images can be very empowering
The cameras passed through many hands, so did the pictures.
Looking at the photo prints taken in the previous week usually turned into a group experience. The cameras passed through many hands, so did the pictures. It was a great way to be introduced to our participant's wider social circle.
The photos became a means for many involved to find appreciation and reflection on their own lives: In circumstances where many work day and night to sustain a very modest standard of living.
Many of our participants became hosts and shared much more than refreshments.
Towards the end of the project many participants became our hosts. They not only shared refreshments with us but stamp collections, personal poems, favorite music, working tools, ethnic clothing, and personal concerns about their family and society.
We were even invited to attend K'Boi's afterschool program and Phuc took us on a walk to her favorite vista near her house.
Returning to our weekly visit at K'Boi's house.
Sitting together in the living room of our local photographers also gave us insights on the things not captured in the images... At times the cameras certainly did interfere
with the regular life of the Shadow Followers
. But surprisingly enough most requested to have one used and empty camera returned to them to keep it as a souvenir...
Images spread joy, help to unite, to trust, and strengthen self-recognition and confidence.
Can Images Change the World? Images spread joy, help to unite, to trust, and strengthen self-recognition and confidence. Enabling somebody to frame their own experience and to
create their own images can be very empowering. Imagine if many more people around the world could tell their own personal stories through images. We would then have a chance to see the world through their eyes. Go a step further and imagine the possibilities if these Vietnamese photographers could come to your town and take images of what intrigues them...
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