Cho Thai Binh : Sunlight and Smoke
Unsurprisingly, markets are still very much a thing in Vietnam.
Despite the intrusion of shopping malls, home-shopping services, and other conveniences, a very large proportion of Saigon’s population still feed, clothe and entertain themselves with goods purchased at wet and dry markets.
I encountered a wet market on my third day in Vietnam – in Vu Tung, a small but astonishingly busy street just off Dinh Tien Hoang . It was a massive, mostly open-air, congregation of stalls selling animal products in various phases of their post-life adventure.
I read somewhere that the term “wet” is used to describe these markets not only because the products they sell are mostly wet, but also because the processing and selling of these products necessitates frequent floor-rinsing.
It sounds gross and yes it is quite gross.
The air smells like blood.
But it’s extremely humbling to see people interact with the stuff that becomes their food with an immediacy that totally contradicts the covert, sterile, over-processed approach I’m used to.
Anyway… I don’t wanna get preachy here. Wet markets are cool despite being kinda nauseating.
Dry markets sell dry good. Seeds, textiles, coffee, gifts, etc. And despite the ridiculous market-stall-operator trope, the people who work there mostly do NOT want to be bargained with.
I stayed close to a pretty great wet/dry market hybrid for just over a year: Chợ Thái Bình (Thai Binh Market). But I didn’t discover it until after I had left Saigon.
It was May 2018 – 15 months after arriving in Asia, and I had popped back to Saigon for two weeks after my first month in Chaing Mai. Two weeks to say my goodbyes before moving back to the Thai city where I was to start a consulting gig.
On a whim, or perhaps subconsciously motivated by the knowledge that I wouldn’t be back there for some time, I strayed into the market that I must have walked past more than a hundred times.
I was delighted. The space was packed with everything a traveling street photographer craves: Interesting light, awesome local people doing cool shit, urban grit, and a vibrant, commercial energy that rendered the marketgoers largely oblivious to the giant with a giant camera. It was an amazing morning’s shooting during which I took some of my all-time favorite photos.
I love when I get lucky like this. It happens sometimes when I’m shooting a busy space where I’m on the move and don’t have the luxury of composing every nuance of the shot.
I’m always trying to spot frames first. I love finding spaces that have a combination of interesting light, environmental texture, perspective and amusing peripheral figures.
Once I’ve stumbled onto such a spot, I settle in to wait for a character to pass through it. While waiting, I assess every element of the frame and patiently build the shot that I want while waiting for my subject, experimenting with exposure and depth-of-field settings.
This approach poses some challenges as far as social and physical comfort is concerned, but the results are often worth it.
However, what sometimes happens is that that I’ll spot a subject/frame combo that works instantly and I only have time to concern myself with proper focus and good exposure in the two seconds that I have to take the shot.
Mostly these don’t work, but occasionally they do. And while I want to think that it’s mostly luck, I have found that the more I train myself to spot these scenarios, the better I get at taking advantage of them.
Back to this shot… there’s just so much incidental cuteness to it that I love – stuff that really couldn’t have been planned but worked out perfectly.
There’s a fun symmetry to the four main figures – all of them unaware of each other. The main subject is crossing our frame – a pleasing trajectory that immediately captures our attention. There’s a determination there that’s fun to observe.
To her left, a gentleman in a distinctly Western ensemble and of a distinctly Western shape is ambling off at a leisurely speed. Bit of cultural diversity and additional movement for the scene.
The two figures on the right are both engaged in off-camera commerce. They’re facing the same way and doing the same thing, but their postures are very different – a subtle contradiction that made me happy when I noticed it.
Finally, almost totally hidden from us, a face peering out from behind the exotic textures of the dangling fabrics. It hints at the genial atmosphere of the space without overwhelming us with sentiment.
This here is a great example of the “ideal” scenario I was talking about above – a space where I notice the environment before I notice the subject and I can patiently sit and wait for someone interesting to enter the frame.
Walking through the market’s designated eating area, I was happy to notice the striking shaft of light penetrating the patchwork ceiling. Rendered visible by a fragrant smog of BBQ smoke, the column illuminated a small patch of floor right next to an insurance company’s worst nightmare – an open fire beneath a structure composed entirely of wood and plastic.
I positioned myself and snapped off a dozen shots of various individuals walking through the light, but despite there being several that fell within my usual “no faces” guideline (something I’ll write more about another day), picking this shot was easy.
This awesome lady’s distracted but weirdly serene expression is a great example of the kind of ambiguity I like to capture in the people I photograph.
These are three very similar shots that I like for very similar reasons – mostly related to how engaging the subjects are despite being largely unidentifiable.
I get to KNOW them without seeing their faces. I’m given context – hooks onto which I can attach empathy – by her belongings, posture, and movement, rather than something as obvious as their facial expressions.
These are also scenes with a quite a bit happening in the background – more than one story is being told – but because our subjects are so interestingly illuminated, they’re easy to overlook.
We are rewarded with a bit of narrative depth only when we take time explore the scene a little.
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