The Long Bien Picture Show in a Vietnamese’s Eyes

Bản gốc tiếng Việt của bài này ở đây.

To come to The Long Bien Picture Show, I had to use Google Map, wear a raincoat and go along Hong Ha Road. Behind the colorful pottery pieces of the world largest mosaic, Hong Ha Road (Red River Road), whose name sounds heroic and poetic[1], was dark, narrow, rough, slimy, and seemed like endless. It was the first time I explored it. On the way back home after the show, I was also puzzled by the labyrinth of Hanoian old streets. This city is where I was born, have grown up and just started getting old. Why isn’t its territory well-known to me? During the last 30 years, the length of my life time, Hanoi has been considerably expanded. The city does not develop to the area of Long Bien. It reaches to the West.

When I finally arrived and was parking my motorbike[2], I heard an amplified voice singing a song typical for “lower classes’ taste.” The voice permeated the host space and filled it with a strange aura. Coming to the center of the ground, I saw the singer, a young boy with a black shirt, black jeans and dyed hair standing by a black Lucky Music box. His voice was no worse than those participating in Vietnam Idol[3], but his songs were discordant to the enjoying of the photos on the screens. Some of the audience grimaced and covered their ears to focus their attention on the screens. There were totally five screens, three on the right, one on the left, and one in the front (saved for showing the documentaries). From the building of Phuc Tan Sports Center, an orchestra of Apples glowed. Among the crowd of audience was one salesman of kẹo kéo (pulled candy), a traditional kind of candy made of cane sugar, roasted peanut, shaped into a tube and served by having the sticky tube pulled and cut into long segments. This “traditional candy” is not quite popular now, especially in cities. The last time I had it was something like tens of years ago.  Not having had dinner, I took three pieces of kẹo kéo and felt very thirsty.


This was the first time I enjoyed photography works as images projected on screens. As the photos appeared and disappeared, time flowed both slowly and fast. Slowly because each photo was on the screen longer than an average movie frame and induced our thorough exploration. Fast because before our mind could capture all the details of a photo another had come to replace it.

I am not knowledgeable enough to give any comments on the photos from a technical perspective. I simply tried to be attentive to capture “something” from them. On the left, the series of photos by Boris Zuliani featured couples on Long Bien bridge. Human postures, especially their legs and arms, shone in the dark. On the right, the works by Tran Xiu Thuy Khanh suggested the kind of isolatedness, abandonedness, incompleteness, and fragility that is at the same time serene, calm, romantic, and vibrant. At the center were the works by Jamie Maxtone Graham. I had watched his photos several times before.

The first time I came across photos by Jamie in his Flickr, I felt quite uncomfortable with those he made of Long Bien. As I was sensitive to power relations, the Vietnamese people portrayed in his photos appeared to me as wretched people of a colony. Why do you look at us with such colonist eyes? I had been fed up with photos of poor people. They can be seen everywhere in Vietnam and there seems no need to put them on display in photography.

The second time looking at Jamie’s photos, I was startled by my own ignorance and the richness of the works. It seemed that the photographer had received agreement from the photographed, and in collaboration, they posed as if they were in a studio. They looked straight at the camera, the photographer, and the audience. Gentle. The street space was turned into a studio. But Jamie did not let his photos still and closed by preparedness as those taken in a studio. His works made me smile as the humorous artist kept one-fifths of people, a hand waving, and secondary poses behind the primary models in his photos. Thus, the photos seemed still and moving at the same time. Photographing with a planned agenda in one’s mind does not mean to miss unexpected showing-ups in front of the camera.

That the photos were taken with agreement from the models implies many visits and talks between the artist and his models, which is admirable as between the photographer and the local people there is a cultural gap. The colonial tone of the photos was also deliberately planned by the author to evoke a sense of time. Long Bien is a historic bridge.

Jamie created a network of interactions with his photos. There was the interplay between two different spaces of photography: the studio and the street as well as between two different chronological periods: the time of the French colonizers and the current time of the Communist party. There were also everyday interactions between people in the same place: the photographer and the local people, who belonged to two different cultures and met each other at Long Bien. The relationship between the author and his works spoke. If you have read the artist’s explanation of his ideas for his photo essay “When Evening Comes: Night Market Portraits” on Burn Magazine, you may have recognized another dimension of interaction, the one between  non-linear visual language and linear textual language.

The screen for Barnaby Churchill Steele’s works was opposite to Jamie’s. A bar, perhaps to support the screen, ran in the middle and cut the screen into two halves. However, it did not affect my perception of the works as these panoramas were to be discovered bit by bit. Barney let me see how people can be overwhelmed by their crowded context.


The time for the documentaries came when many people had not finished watching the photos as they were busy talking to old friends whom they accidentally met there. The ground was crowded with children running here and there.  This way of watching hinted the question: “In the past, how did people watch movies?”

The term “chiếu bóng” (picture show) was also a reminder of the early history of Vietnam’s cinema: “Before 1930, each cinema was installed with a projector. When a roll of film was finished, the lights went on and the technician changed it for a new roll to continue the film. The screen was made of pieces of white cloth and edged by dark blue or black threads. The audience sat on chairs or benches with wooden back. The floor was flat, and the screen was high, so audience’s neck could easily get stiff. In several cinemas, there was no chair.”

The first Vietnamese films were documentaries: “The first Vietnamese films were made by French authors. Earliest were those to introduce daily life activities in French colonies produced by Pathé in 1987.”

How different are the films of today and those of the past? And how daily life activities in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam differ from those in the past?

The shining Mac laptops, the projectors, the state sports center, the street singer, and the candy seller, etc., none of them was redundant in this great installation. All, gradually, enabled the viewers to develop a profound awareness of the socio-political and historical context they are living in.

I am just thinking that while there are art works that affect audience’s deepest emotions and make them become sentimental for no clear reasons, there are others that make people become conscious, heighten their sensitiveness to recognize the place of themselves in the historical dimension of time, space, and politics. And people can be conscious to the extent of crying.

Jamie shared in one interview: “Some live their whole life here. Others want to leave for other places.”

In The Long Bien Picture Show, the audience not only perceived the works but also perceived with the works.


All the films and photographs now available for viewing at

The Long Bien Picture Show has just been presented in Issue #2 of theTrans Asia Photography Review – .  It appears in the Curatorial Projects section. A more direct link to the essay is here –

[1] The Red River is a powerful river, notorious for its violent flood. It has witnessed great events along the thousand-year history of Vietnam. The river has been the inspiration for many famous songs and poems in Vietnam.

[2] In Vietnam, motorbike is still the most common means of transport.

[3] At that time, Vietnam Idol Season 3 was a hot TV show.

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