Jul 3, 2008

Can talk the hind leg off a coodie

That#39;s an expression my grandmother used to describe someone with loquatious talents. That certainly applies to my guide Dung (pronounced "Young") who is able to engage anyone in passionate conversation. I'm into the second half of this project, traveling the Ho Chi Minh Highway shooting portraits of adolescent boys. Dung has been invaluable in helping me recruit kids and in making them feel comfortable, although I had to reiterate my request about a dozen times before he finally understood what I wanted. I didn't even attempt the "why". In his defense, taking pictures of teenage boys is not exactly a common activity for visitors to this area.

We've had the best luck approaching parents and first getting their permission, after being invited in for tea or water of course. Unlike New York, everyone here is happy and gracious about being interrupted by surprise visitors, and especially by a Westerner I would guess. Approaching boys in a group larger than three usually doesn't work; not only are they less likely to acquiesce, but their pose changes to one of false bravado when their friends are looking on. We came across a soccer game of 16-year-olds this afternoon that fed my fantasies of coming away with a Vietnamese adolescent version of Rienke Djestra's bullfighters. But when they finished their game and I started to gesture towards them with my camera, they scattered like mice. Afterwards I kicked myself that I didn't think about outright bribery; I haven't fully absorbed the "anything to get the shot" creedo.

When it does work, the kids here in the countryside have a vulnerability that makes for powerful portraits. This area is too poor for many people to own cameras, so these boys have almost no history of being told to smile when they pose; instead they're naturally authentic and serious. Their innocent soulfulness is a great counterpoint to my disquieting experiences of shooting in the jungle last week.

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