Vietnam: Its Children's Snapshots
It's 2 a.m. on a Wednesday night and a 10-year-old Vietnamese girl marches herself into Allez-Boo, a popular tourist bar in central Saigon. She carts around a large leather briefcase, so large, in fact, that it's almost bigger than her. Propping it up on as many tables as possible, she displays numerous brands of cigarettes. "Buy smokes?" she asks firmly. The customers politely decline or wave her away, but she lingers at the table a few extra moments in case one changes her mind for reasons of charity, compassion or other. Two other children poke their heads through the bar's shutter windows, hawking their gum and postcards. Within minutes the headwaiter yells and shoos away these "Bui doi" - Children of the Dust, as society so cruelly labels them.
On the other side of the tracks is 18-year-old Truoc Lam, a talented photographer. She left home at an early age for a city shelter to escape the abuse of her stepfather. She, too, may have been headed for a life of selling cigarettes on the streets but she found Street Vision, a program that nurtured her natural creativity into a livelihood. Lam's photos have appeared in exhibitions in Saigon and Hanoi, and in March 2000 she travelled to Switzerland to display her work at an international photo exhibition. This was the first time Lam had left Saigon, let alone Vietnam.
Street Vision is a program that teaches marketable skills to street and working children by placing a camera in their hands. Government statistics indicate there are approximately 15,000 children living and/or working on the streets of Saigon alone. Their reasons for leaving home are varied but the majority of cases are due to poverty, broken homes, neglect, abuse or exploitation by parents or guardians. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam (pop. 74 million) is one of the poorest countries in Asia with an estimated per capita income of less than $300 US per year. Vietnam does not have a welfare system. Working children are significant breadwinners, contributing up to 30 to 40 per cent of the family's income, so many are forced to drop out of school to help their parents earn money. Many flee the rural provinces by train or bus for Saigon (pop. five million), where the possibility exists to create a new life.
England's Anna Blackman founded the non-profit, non-governmental Street Vision on her second visit to Vietnam in May 1998. During her studies in anthropology and development at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, she travelled to Vietnam in 1995 to conduct research on street and working children. Says Blackman: "The people, the children and my work that year impressed upon me an inescapable desire to return to this country of intangible beauty and strength. I wanted to give back something concrete, and the skill I had to offer was a knowledge of photography and a strong belief in the value it could be to street children."
The project runs two beginner photography courses a year for about 40 street children, ages 12 to 19. Once the students have proven their skills and confidence with automatic cameras, they advance to single-lens reflexes. Over the weeks, they express themselves visually through their photography and write accompanying personal narratives. Themes tackled are everyday Vietnamese life, landscapes, friends, favourite places and activities. In particular, the program focuses on street life - the students' previous experiences on the street and the children who remain there. Some of their photos capture smiles and rays of dancing sunlight, while others reveal life's ugliness - the misery, shadows and desperation - that they know only too well. Student Truong Van Phuoc, 18, says: "I take photos of miserable children who do jobs of all kinds to earn money. I think they should all have the chance to grow up in better conditions to ensure a brighter future." At year's end, bursaries are awarded to five students to continue more advanced photography classes.
Today, the local Ho Chi Minh Child Welfare Foundation (HCWF) manages the project, under the direction of Nguyen Duc Dung, a former social worker. Back in England, Blackman and Tiffany Fairey established PhotoVoice in September 1999, a non-profit organization that teaches photography to marginalized groups of people around the world. It has created projects in Nepal with Bhutanese refugees, with HIV+ women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and with young refugees in the United Kingdom. And based on the Street Vision model, these initiatives help these groups to raise awareness about their lives through photography and to generate income through worldwide exhibitions, quarterly newsletters and the sale of prints, calendars and postcards.
For the second half of the Street Vision program, international volunteers teach English to the students. During a trip to Southeast Asia in fall 2000, New Zealander Jacqueline Wilton, 32, volunteered at Street Vision for six weeks. She gave English lessons five days a week, accompanied the students on photo shoots around Saigon and, most importantly, became a friend to the children. Karaoke and many an afternoon at the public swimming pool sealed the bond between them. "These children live in city shelters, and some of them have never enjoyed a proper birthday celebration, and yet they are wonderful spirits with such admirable qualities," says Wilton.
Street Vision has received tremendous support and sponsorship both within Vietnam and abroad. Over the past few years, Saigon, Hanoi, Boston, London and several Australian cities have held exhibitions of the children's work, raising considerable funds through the sale of their prints. Street Vision even caught the attention of Prince Andrew who opened its third photography exhibition in Saigon in March 1999. PhotoVoice is currently publishing a book, Street Vision Students in Vietnam, which features 80 to 100 of the students' images as well as an introduction written by world-renowned foreign correspondent and documentary maker John Pilger.
Street Vision's philosophy is to train participants to document their lives with the camera, thus gaining a voice in the global community, and to enable them to find paid work in a related profession. These students are truly gifted and bursting with promise. One such star is the beautiful Truoc Lam whose photos are exceptionally soulful and possess incredible composition. In spring 2000, she participated in a photo exhibition in Geneva, displaying her work in the company of middle-aged photographers from all over the world. Lam prefers to shoot in black and white, she explains, as it focuses one's attention on the subject's face without the distraction of surrounding colours. The other students admire Lam as they see the opportunities that photography offers her, and Lam, with her positive attitude, enthusiasm and modesty, is an excellent role model. "I've used my photos to draw attention to children younger than me who are still on the streets," she says.
Cha Quang Ha, 18, is another success story. He never met his father and his mother died of a disease when he was a child. From sleeping on a park bench in Saigon to living in a shelter, Ha was introduced to Street Vision. Today he works as a fashion photographer for an ao dais designer in Saigon. The job also provides him with room and board. A number of students have also been trained in documentary filmmaking and short animation course.
When you look at these photographs, remember that as you stare into the seemingly objective sights of Vietnam, you are actually looking at segments of the very real lives of these children. And in sharing their photos with you, the youngsters hope you will reflect on the lives of the homeless children in Vietnam.
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Published on 9/13/02