Departure (2005) / Bui Huu Phuoc


The artistic approach of photographers from Vietnam and Cambodia who have emerged in recent years is unpretentious and fresh. This is perhaps inevitable since peace has only come to these countries not so long ago and whatever aesthetic traditions they had before the Vietnam War or the rule of Pol Pot have to be reconstructed by contemporary artists. There is also an urgency to tell stories from an insider’s perspective. Photography seems particularly well suited for these purposes.

Born in Saigon, Bui Huu Phuoc received his photographic education at the Ho Chi Minh City Cultural Arts College, where he came under the tutelage of Bui Xuan Huy who studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York. The latter has been a source of inspiration to his students, including Bui, with his liberal approach to photography. While Bui cites the names of Garry Winogrand, Nan Goldin and Diane Arbus as the artists he loves, it is not immediately apparent how they have influenced “Departure” (2005).

The narrative evolves around 22-year-old Toan, a second-year student at the Economic University in HCMC, whom Bui chanced upon when he was there for another project. Toan’s life characterizes the situation in rural Vietnam, where each family can only afford to send a child to school. Therefore, the opportunity for a better life sits squarely on that child’s shoulders. When he first broached the idea to Toan, the student was naturally uneasy. After spending time with Toan and his family and friends, Bui finally got the go-ahead. Most of the photos in “Departure” were taken in Toan’s dorm and in his family home at Tay Ninh, South Vietnam. “I would take a seat next to them and talk about their lives,” the photographer recalls. “I would also follow them around and try to capture them in the best angle. Generally, when you point a camera at Vietnamese people, they will always give you a smile.”

[On the Bus / From “Departure” / Courtesy of Bui Huu Phuoc]