Linh Pham is a Vietnamese photojournalist based in Hanoi. He frequently contributes to Getty Images, The New York Times, and National Geographic. Pham’s work explores the human condition in the Lower Mekong region and rapid social transformations. He co-founded Matca in 2016, a platform for archiving and sharing modern Vietnamese photography.
How did you first start to get into photography?
In my early youth, I had always surrounded myself with visual arts in various forms including photography but I never thought that it would become my career. In my final term at university, I attended a 101 photography course and was introduced to the documentary ‘War Photographer’ on the works of James Nachtwey and that was my turning point. I spent months after that looking for and reading all I could get my hands on about this new idea of ‘documentary photography’ and ‘photojournalism’ to try to understand how those photographs, mostly black and white, did make me stop and ‘feel ‘something. I then quickly dropped my career as a graphic designer to pursue photojournalism.
Which themes were you drawn to in the beginning and why?
Early on in my career till now, I am pretty much interested in exploring the stories about human conditions that have experienced social transformation thanks to rapid economic growth in Vietnam and surrounding countries.
What topics and themes within photojournalism would you still like to explore in the future?
I have been growing up at a time when social media arrived and exploded. A lot of values are being evaluated, judged, and reaffirmed, and being relevant as a photographer has been the core of my practice. Though I am deeply rooted in the idea of narrative photography on the social phenomenons that I am concerned about, finding a way to document it with all the modern storytelling tools and present it in a way that attracts the nowadays audience has been the topic I am exploring.
In 2016 you co-founded the MATCA, a platform for archiving and sharing contemporary Vietnamese photographic works. Can you tell us how the MATcA was born and what, in your opinion, is needed to support the local photo community?
When I started with photography a decade ago, I was searching for a channel of resources or a mentor that I can learn the craft from in the context of Vietnam but I found none. For a moment I realize that I know more about the works and backstories of all the ‘household names’ – Western and American masters rather than my own photography. At the same time, there is no supporting infrastructure and resources for independent photographers in Vietnam. Once I made it into the international photographic scene, I founded Matca with the hope to create this source of resources that I wish I had at the beginning, also a way to give back the opportunities that many have given me along the way.
Matca is an independent, non-profit initiative dedicated to photography as a form of visual art. Founded in 2016, Matca has evolved across platforms, including but not limited to an online journal, a physical space, and an imprint. The open organizational structure allows them to experiment and adapt to the changing local context. Matca, as a collective, strives to turn a wide lens on an increasingly overlooked community of Vietnamese photographers so as to reveal, if you will, the bigger picture. We wish for Matca to become a space where viewers are invited to take their time and reflect on the works, be they vernacular or conceptual.
Is there a piece of equipment you would never work without and why?
I guess that is my memory card. I started photography in the digital age so I know nothing about all the crafts of analog and whenever I want to record information in any form (photo, video, audio) there is always a memory card.
In your opinion: what is the biggest difference between working internationally or at home in Vietnam as a photojournalist?
I don’t see any difference at all in the workflow of being in Vietnam or anywhere in the world, you still need to run the same process if you are a responsible one. What I have as an advantage here is being a Vietnamese who was born and raised around here. I already have all the base knowledge of what has been going on in the country contextually and have been infused with its cultural elements.
What are the biggest challenges you faced during your work as a photojournalist? How did you solve them?
I think the biggest challenge I have in this image-saturated world is to produce works that differ from millions of photos that have been taken daily. By differ I don’t mean to apply any type of short-handed gimmicks but how to bring in your vision, your craft, and uniqueness to the audiences.
What are your hopes and wishes for the future of photography in Vietnam?
I hope to see more and more career professionals working in other aspects of photography in Vietnam, like critics, researchers, educators, curators, and not just photographers. I wish to see more institutional and private support for independent photographers, and independent practitioners in general, as well.
What advice would you give to aspiring photojournalists, particularly those interested in covering social issues and daily life in their own communities?
I can say it is such a privilege to take on this profession and to be with the people you photograph. You always have an option to leave the place and leave the people you photographed behind to carry on with your life, and they don’t. As so my principle is to try to establish trust and respect with my subjects, and always get them informed on the reason why I was there. Considering the context and potential impact of your photograph, and seeking to minimize any risks or exploitation to the subject is a crucial part of the job as well.