‘A Certain Truth About Saigon’

Photographer Catherine Karnow talks about a lifetime of shooting Vietnam, and the story behind one of her iconic images

By / September 2013

I have been shooting in Vietnam for over two decades. I first went in 1990, curious about a country I had known of since I was a child, but had never visited. I grew up in Hong Kong in the 1960’s. My father the acclaimed journalist Stanley Karnow was at the time bureau chief for Time-Life and was covering both the Cultural Revolution in China and the Vietnam War. Vietnam for me as a child was like a nearby threatening rumble. I didn’t really understand what war was, but it was scary.

I was a young and innocent photographer when I arrived in Saigon in July of 1990. It was very hot; I stayed for a month. Vietnam was at that time just coming out of the darkest years of poverty and austerity. I remember it was very quiet even in the cities. In Hanoi, the capital, there were very few cars, almost no motorcycles, just bicycles and cyclos. Everywhere, I found the people hopeful, eager and curious. They were ready to welcome visitors and open their country up to the world.

Now the country changes so fast, I think that I have photographed the “New Vietnam” three times. Each time I return, which is about once a year, there are brand new buildings, billionaires instead of just millionaires, and whole new districts with new condos and mansions. The traffic gets worse ever year. More cars and more motorcycles clog intersections that don’t yet even have stoplights.

I took this photograph of the vendors in blue light sometime around Christmas of 2012. The Saigon Centre department store had done up its windows in a “Finding Nemo” theme, and the blue light of the “underwater” scenes cast a cool tone on the faces of those standing in front. There were throngs of people. Kids were dressed up in Santa outfits and parents were taking photos of them in front of the window displays. I was caught up in the mayhem and excitement.

Then my eye was drawn to the vendors standing on the curb, watching all of this. Their faces were somber and still. There was something about what I was seeing that spoke a certain truth about Vietnam, about a Vietnam that is timeless, and about Vietnam today.

Catherine Karnow

It was weeks before I finally understood why the photograph seems to ring so true. I find that there is all this energy in Vietnam, yet right under the surface, there is all this despair. Vietnam has been at war for most of its history, yet now even in peace, the people are struggling with a repressive Communist government, a terrible economy and little chance of moving up in society. The expressions on the faces of these vendors, their sadness emphasized by the blue light, seem to speak of their despondency. The vendors represent an underclass that has no hope for upward mobility.

I love that photography can show emotion without words. Although I think a caption is necessary. As a journalist, I am compelled to tell a story. A great photograph is one that works on many levels, but if it doesn’t convey emotion, it won’t move the viewer. I, too, have to be a sensitive person to create images with emotion. I feel lucky that I have a profession that encourages me to be emotional.

Many people think that all we do as photographers is show up and start shooting. But in fact we spend as much time researching our subject as shooting. It is all about knowing your subject, finding photogenic situations and gaining access, whether into a subculture, an event, a building, or into the deepest emotions of a person to document their feelings, their life, their world.

Naturally, we are always delighted when we are blessed with serendipity. And of course luck favours the prepared.

My intention with photography is to give back. I love to share the beautiful experience of shooting together with my subjects, but it is equally as important to share with them the photographs we make together. I am not trying to change the world with my photography, just to make people happier in small moments, to give them dignity, compassion, to show that I care about their happiness, their plight, their families, and their world. I believe photography can have the ability to honor and respect, and I consider it almost a duty to use my talent to share this.

 — as told to Brandon Hoops


Catherine Karnow, based in San Francisco, shoots for National Geographic, as well as many other international books and magazines. She is also a highly renowned workshop teacher. Check out her Italy Photo Workshop: catherinekarnowphotoworkshop.com