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The power of photography lies not in creating a beautiful image, but in telling a story!

Interview with Viet Van Tran

1. Please tell us something about your background and your art journey so far.

I come from an intellectual family in Hanoi. My father, Tran Viet Ngu, was a theater researcher who received the State Prize for Literature and Art, and my mother, Associate Professor Dr. Le Thi Duc Hanh, is a senior researcher at the Institute of Literature. My brother, Tran Van Viet, is a teacher and a photography enthusiast.

I was immersed in an artistic atmosphere from a young age. During my school years, my father would take me to various theaters to watch plays. Later on, my brother taught me the basics of photography. I still remember the nights we spent developing black-and-white photos using an old Russian Kupa enlarger. The excitement of watching an image gradually appear as we dipped the photo paper into the developing tray was unforgettable.



In 1993, I applied to be a photojournalist for Hoa Hoc Tro newspaper, submitting both written and photographic work. I was accepted and worked there until 1996, after which I joined Lao Dong newspaper, one of Vietnam's largest newspapers. In 2000, I won third prize in the national art photography competition held every five years by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism with my photo "Belief in Victory," depicting a child wrapped in a red flag with a yellow star, hand on their chest over their heart. That same year, I won the ACCU Excellence Award (Japan – Asia-Pacific Photography Award) with the photo "Sharing a Religious Faith," which showed an Australian girl respectfully praying in front of a Buddha statue at Kim Lien Pagoda, with an elderly Vietnamese woman doing the same in the foreground.

These were the first small milestones marking the beginning of a new journey for me. Since then, I have published eight books, held ten solo exhibitions, and won over 100 international awards. Some memorable milestones include being the only Vietnamese artist selected to attend the Vermont Studio Center (USA) in 2018, after submitting a photo series on Buddhism. There, I had the opportunity to meet and listen to dozens of artists, writers, and poets from around the world presenting their works and artistic perspectives.

In 2015, my photo series "Generals in Peacetime" made it to the finals of the International Creative Competition in London and was showcased at the famous Soho Theater. A few years earlier, my photo "Memory of Love" won an award at the Art of Photography Show in the USA, and I received an email from the organizers stating that I should be proud and include in my CV that my photo was judged by curators from two major American museums. Three of my photos were selected for the group exhibition "Stories of Creativity" organized by See.Me (USA) and displayed on screens at the Louvre Museum (France). Notably, in 2017, my solo exhibition "My Mother" was featured at the Photometria Photography Festival (Greece).

 


2. Describe what a normal day looks like as an artist.

I work as a journalist, writing cultural articles and photographing for the weekend editions. Almost every morning, I write articles, and I photograph a few times a week. Additionally, I serve on the National Film Appraisal Council and judge some national photography competitions. My days are always busy, including weekends, leaving little time for leisure or meeting friends. However, I try to take an overseas trip once a year to rejuvenate my inspiration, learn from life and art experiences, and take photographs.

 

 3. Can you tell us more about the theme in your art and your inspiration?

My philosophy of photography is that anyone can take beautiful pictures using digital tools like tablets or smartphones. The power of photography lies not in creating a beautiful image but in telling a story. The image can be grotesque, rough, or ugly, but if it connects with and evokes emotions in the viewer, it creates an inner dialogue. Therefore, I don't restrict myself to a specific mode of expression but find the most suitable way to tell each story. My photos aren't confined to any particular format, allowing for diverse perspectives and emotions. A photo series may include documentary-journalistic images alongside artistic ones, realism combined with surrealism, minimalism, square photos, elongated photos, vertical photos, single photos, or paired photos. Printed photos with drawings added—all these serve the artist's intent as all means are aimed at the final effect of the work. There are no limits in expression; only the artist's talent determines the limits.

I enjoy undertaking long-term documentary and artistic projects such as "The Tao and the Life" (about the lives of monks), "Generals in Peacetime," "To Be or Not To Be," "Disconnected and Connected," "Memory of Love," "My Mother," "Houses That Will Gradually Disappear"...

For an artist, constantly finding creative inspiration is crucial. The most frightening thing is the inability to create. Sometimes, I can't think of anything new no matter what I do, leading to self-disgust and a terrifying sense of emptiness. But then everything naturally passes. Suddenly, a new idea appears in an unexpected context, such as a conversation with a businessperson or someone in a different profession, which I call the magic of life.



4. How does your art life impact other parts of your life?

Art makes me love life and appreciate its moments more. Each shutter click captures a moment that instantly becomes the past, while the next click focuses on the present. Photography is where I can voice my true self and be most authentic. In life, being oneself is the most important thing, as being oneself equates to freedom. However, no one achieves absolute freedom and must always adapt to circumstances, which makes us melancholy. Everyone lives and everyone dies, but we must avoid the fate of dying at 30 but being buried at 70. We must leave some value in this world, and I remember Mother Teresa's words: "If you cannot do great things, do small things with great love."

 

5. Could you share any difficulties and hardships you had to face in life and how or if you managed/overcame them?

The challenge lies in balancing the work of a journalist and an artist. Often, the journalistic aspect overshadows the artist, and the pressures of being a journalist grow heavier, especially in today's competitive information age. I always feel I lack time for art. Overcoming these challenges sometimes involves instinct guiding me, leading me through it, and later looking back, I'm unsure how I managed to accomplish so much work.

 

6. Tell us about your best experience in the art world so far

In 2006, during my second solo exhibition "The Dharma and the Life" in Hanoi (the capital of Vietnam), with 99 photos of monks' lives, I introduced contemporary elements into the photo exhibition for the first time. The photos in the series were mounted on brown and yellow fabric—the colors of monks' robes—alongside Bodhi leaves, and the final series was displayed on a wooden and fabric pagoda model. The exhibition featured lotus flowers and played the Prajnaparamita Sutra, creating a temple-like atmosphere rich with Buddhist symbolism. The exhibition attracted nearly 70 monks and many esteemed guests and artists, with extensive media coverage because it was the first exhibition in Vietnam to depict the lives of monks. The success of the exhibition led to the publication of the photo book "The Dharma and the Life," sponsored by the EU.

 

7. What practical advice can you give to fellow artists?

For an artist, the creation of new works is an obsession, or in other words, overcoming oneself, as the famous painter Picasso said: "Imitating others is forgivable, but repeating oneself is shameful!" Artists must always start anew with a "crazy" passion and leave all success behind. I particularly admire the legend Steve Jobs (USA) because he always left his "legacy" behind to start new things.

Take photos with your heart and passion, and don't be influenced by trends on social media.

 


8. Is the artist life lonely? Please share your thoughts and experiences.

Artists are often more sensitive to life than others, making them prone to loneliness. No one wants to be lonely, but the more unique and different an artist is, the lonelier they become, as Tagore's poem goes: "When a tree grows high, it distances itself from its kind and seeks solitude." However, I think loneliness has its own beauty. It gives artists the opportunity to look deeper into their being, feel more deeply, and search for their own answers to the eternal question: "Who are we, where do we come from, and where are we going?"

 

9. What are you working on at the moment and are there any upcoming events you would like to talk about?

I am still working on personal projects, including "Houses That Will Gradually Disappear," which tells the story of old collective housing blocks tied to the "subsidy period" in Vietnam's history, from the country's unification in 1975 to 1986. This project aims to preserve traces of a historical period and mark the turning point of urban economic development today as city planning gradually erases such buildings. Additionally, I am working on a short film project about "My Mother," following my photo book and exhibition "My Mother," which serves as a personal album and a family story from my perspective.

 

Contact:

Viet Van Tran (First name: Van, Middle name: Viet, Last name: Tran)

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