Vietnam: An Alternate View

By Richard Baker Back to


Sharp pictures, perfect exposure, great camera techniques, who needs them? I remember listening to photographer David Burnett relating a conversation he had with a French photographer. The Frenchman said something like this: “You Americans and your gadgets. You adjust the shutter, the aperture, the focus, the exposure then finally take the picture but you have nothing. We French do not worry about the shutter or the aperture or the focus or the exposure. We see the picture, we take the picture. When we are finished we have something, poor exposure, out of focus and all. But the emotion and feeling is there.”

I never forgot that story and I often think of all the great pictures that might ordinarily be considered terrible. Capa’s picture of the D-Day invasion comes to mind. Ghost images, not quite in focus, poor composition, of course badly developed and exposure suspect. Yet, seeing the soldiers trudging up the beach under fire, crawling over the sand, looking for cover where there is no cover, is the one image that fully represents the terror of D-Day, the one image that stands above the thousands taken that day by some of the finest photographers of the time.

A camera should be used for a specific reason, a specific kind of photograph. In ancient lands I believe in the look of ancient cameras and techniques. Not that I go trudging through the jungles or deserts with a view camera and collodion wet plates. What I want is the ancient “feel” and emotion of the lands and the people.

I use each of my cameras, the Holga, Holga pin- hole panoramic and pinhole Nikkormat, for specific reasons. They are all very simple cameras and require a different knowledge to be used effectively. The unsharp lens (or no lens) the vignetting, the blurry edges, the limited ability regarding light and light leaks and the ability to judge light without a light meter require skill and the ability to transform faults into advantages. The frequent roughness of the photographs emit true personality, a realism not found in more technical cameras.

Over the last five years I have mostly photographed in Vietnam. I love and respect the people and the country and to me nothing gathers feelings and emotions, or shows more respect like these basic cameras.

The Holga is used more than the others often because it requires less work. Photographing from a distance with a telephoto lens on a fancy new digital camera causes people to tense up, become self-conscious, even annoyed. The Holga has the opposite effect. No one takes it seriously. It is a plastic toy. I often show the camera to people before I start taking pictures, let them hold it, show them the tape holding on the back. They start to laugh and they appear in the photographs perfectly relaxed. Take someone’s picture with a Holga and they will remember the experience, laughing about the event with friends for years. Suddenly, no one is afraid of you because a toy intimidates no one. I like the vignetting of the camera and the soft focus is especially nice for portraits. Even though the pictures are occasionally out of focus, that is seldom a distraction.

Using the camera is simple, just point and shoot. Holgas originally came only in 120mm, but there are now several 135mm models and they come in many different colors. They are designed for ISO 100 speed film and are used on sunny days. There is an exposure switch to slow the shutter for cloudy days, but there is really very little difference. For darker days use 400 speed film. Some models come with a weak built-in flash. I always use a separate, stronger flash for better coverage. Focusing is done by lining up various icons on the lens. I always get better (or worse depending on how you look at it) results with the 120mm model. I have glued a filter ring to the lens for a sun shade and a clear filter with a smear of Vaseline around the edges to enhance the blur effects. To be safe, slap some tape on the back of the camera or it might open or fall off. You can also switch to bulb mode with a switch on the bottom.

The Holga pinhole panorama is just plain fun−without a viewfinder finding the subject and arranging a com- position is a challenge. The final print is often a pleasant surprise and nothing enhances a picture like surprise. The exposure is pure guesswork but easily mastered with a little practice. A good starting point is one second with ISO 100 speed film. Experience is the best way to learn with this camera. The shutter has no timer, just you, a cable release, and a watch or using “one Mississippi, two Mississippi, etc.” Because of the long exposure, a tripod might be useful. I just set the camera on something solid, a rock, a tree limb or the side of a building. The pinhole camera is a great way to capture photographs of ‘empty’ busy streets. On a dark day or toward evening take the pictures with a long exposure and everything moving disappears.

I use the Nikkormat with a piece of tin containing a pinhole taped over a drilled lens cap rather than the usual glass lens. I use it for very hazy pictures that give the images an almost surreal quality. Subjects seem to float through a mist. The images would be much sharper if I made the pinhole smaller but this is the quality I like.

All my personal work is shot in black and white. I am not smart enough to use color, except in commercial work. Vietnam is filled with color and they have more greens than any other place in the world, and the women’s clothing is brilliant. But I find color distracting and it adds one more element I do not need. Many photographers use color brilliantly. Not me. My eyes are always drawn to color first, rather than the image, and then color overrides the feel of a picture, the composition and the light.

Why don’t my pictures have captions? These pictures, as used here, are not documentary pictures, although they can be used for documentation in a different context. For me, each picture must stand on its own merit. The viewer may infer many things from them but in the end the photograph is what it is: a two dimensional graphic representation containing form and light that, if successful, will emit wonder and emotion. It stands before the viewer as a question, emotionally empowered—not to tell us something−but to evoke awe, query, belief or doubt. Such photographs should act as a question, not an answer.

What is true is what we think is true and the importance of whatever the image might convey cannot be placed honestly into words. The photographs stand as “potentials” on the verge of being something. But we are not sure what? Is the young woman smiling and why? Are these men fishing? Are they poor and need the food or are they just enjoying an outing with friends. Do they live on the boat or in the distance? Where is the river? What is exactly happening? The viewer’s mind is working. Little else is important.

Nothing evokes such wonder as these cameras, especially when shooting in an ancient and mysterious land like Vietnam. For most photographers, such cameras take them way out of their comfort zone. I say live a little. Go wild. Life, and photography, is often meant to be free.

About the Author

Richard Baker
Richard Baker dropped out of high school to join the Army Band. Wounded twice in Vietnam while serving as a point man with the 4th infantry Division Band, he worked as a jazz musician after the war and played with many groups including Mel Tormé and Woody Herman. After his daughter was born he took up photography at the suggestion of his wife (who claimed he took the worst pictures she had ever seen). He is the author of over one hundred articles and 14 books. A winner of the Ernest Hemingway award for short fiction and numerous photography awards, including International Photo Instructor of the Year by Russian Photographic Arts Council, he is the first American to have a book published by Gioi publishing, the oldest publisher in Hanoi. He will spend part of this year teaching photography to Vietnamese orphans.