Photographer Lam Duc Hien: Mekong river a fountain of energy for me

Thursday, 2021-08-19 09:20:40
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Photographer Lam Duc Hien.
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NDO - Since childhood, photographer Lam Duc Hien has developed a close attachment to the Mekong river. He has traveled the river over a 4,200 km stretch, following its waters from the bustling river delta in Vietnam all the way to its source in the snow-covered Tibetan plateau. The Vietnamese – French artist is currently hosting an exhibition entitled ‘Mekong – Stories of Man’ at the French Institute in Hanoi.

Hien granted an interview to Nhan Dan (People) Weekly newspaper reporter Du Nguyen to share more about his attachment to the Mekong river.

Question: How did you come up with the idea of taking photos on the Mekong river?

Photographer Lam Duc Hien: The Mekong project was a long-term project with two stages. When I was in Laos, my family lived on the bank of the river. Therefore, for me, the river became a close part of my life. After 10 years living abroad, I returned to Laos in 1988, to visit my relatives. At that time, as a fine art student in France, I brought a camera to take pictures and preserve family memories rather than conducting any photography project.

In 2003 when I worked as a war correspondent in Baghdad, Iraq, I narrowly escaped death in a fierce battle. It was the first time I felt scared. When I returned to France, I wondered about my profession and I asked myself if I should photograph things that make me happy.

The Mekong River is home to many ethnic groups living on the banks, but each of them only know the section of the river where they live rather than the entire course of the river. That’s how my project on portraying the Mekong river was born.

This project received a lot of financial funding, allowing me to be free to work on my own and take time to complete it. After that, I hosted a photo exhibition on the Mekong river in Luxembourg Gardens, France and it was very successful.

A photo on display at the ‘Mekong – Stories of Man’ exhibition

You have released a photo book and a documentary film on the Mekong river. Can you share with us your thoughts and feelings about the river?

I published a photo book entitled ‘Mékong, histoires d’hommes’ (Mekong, stories of man). My photos of the Mekong river are actually a bit different to those I used to deal with, such as in the war areas in Iraq, Bosnia, or Chechnya.

For me, the Mekong river is a fountain of energy in which I can immerse myself and swim. Therefore, every time I feel exhausted, both physically and mentally, I return to Southeast Asia where I feel at home, and I immediately felt like I am being recharged.

In 2003, I decided to start a photo project, during which I traveled the Mekong river over more than 4,200 km stretch, resulting in the publication of the photo book. After completing the journey, I felt very excited and full of energy. The river freed me from all my worries and stress, so that I could go back to Iraq after a 10-year break from 2003 to 2013, and return to my job as a war correspondent.

Do you identify as Vietnamese, Laotian or French?

Initially, I hadn’t thought much about my nationalities. I found that later that I didn't want to make a clear selection between them. Now, I'm completely comfortable with my multiple citizenships. I am Vietnamese, Laotian, French, and even more. I strive to be a global citizen, who enjoys freedom of thought, travels anywhere, and is able to understand the people of all countries.


A photo on display at the ‘Mekong – Stories of Man’ exhibition

What impression does the word "Vietnam" make to you?

I was born into a Vietnamese family. For me, Vietnam represents the face of my grandparents and everything I have experienced with my Vietnamese grandparents, whose hometown is in Hoa Lu district, Ninh Binh province.

Every time I return Vietnam, I enjoy having dishes that remind me of my childhood. Although I can't drink alcohol, I love ‘ruou nep’ (fermented steamed sticky rice) cooked by my grandmother. Whenever I have that dish, I miss my grandmother so much.

Thank you so much for the interview!

Photographer Lam Duc Hien was born in 1966 into to a Vietnamese father and a Lao mother who lived on the shores of the Mekong river in Pakse, southern Laos. He arrived in France in 1977 after spending two years in a Thai refugee camp.

Lam Duc Hien has documented the consequences of the 20th and 21st century’s major conflicts on civilians around the world, including Romania, Russia, Bosnia, Chechnya, Rwanda, South Sudan, and above all in Iraq, where he has worked for over 25 years.

Hien has won numerous awards, including the Leica Prize, the Great European Award of the city of Vevey, and the World Press Photo, among others. He is represented by the prestigious Agence VU’.