On a Friday morning, we sat down and talked to photographer Yan Lerval at My Place restaurant, where he is holding his photo exhibition themed Saigon Kids. The friendly Frenchman, who traded his own company to pursue photography as a profession, started to talk about his new life in Ho Chi Minh City, where he tries to find precious moments on every city corner and in the people he meets.
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Have you ever regretted closing your business in Europe for photography?
I had a company that imported handicrafts from Vietnam, but I sold it and started to travel for photos in 2000. To me, it was not a hard decision to make, since that’s what I wanted to do. I just wanted to change. Everybody wants to change.
Last year you had an exhibition and released a book project featuring kids around the world. This exhibition is also about children. Why are you so interested in kids?
I love kids and taking pictures of them. It’s a lot of fun to take photos with children. They are funny, natural and simple and always give you the best moments.
In fact, I didn’t design this exhibition. The My Place restaurant has hosted a lot of charity events, and they contacted me few months ago when I ran the exhibition in IDECAF to ask me if one day I would organize a charity exhibition in which all money will be donated to KOTO -- Know One, Teach One, a not-for-profit hospitality training organization. I said okay and that’s how it happened.
Do you target the places to take pictures of kids or just meet them randomly?
No, it’s funny that every time when I try to go somewhere on purpose, it doesn’t work. Before we decided on the exhibition, I thought kids are everywhere, but after we decided to make it, I started looking for kids but I didn’t find any.
Most of the time, I just walk around and meet them randomly. Sometimes, I’ll be driving on a motorbike and see kids playing but I won’t have my camera, so I come back to the place latter.
When you are a photographer, you keep eyes on everything.
Is it hard to approach the Vietnamese kids due to the language barrier? How can you connect with them?
Sometimes. But the language barrier doesn’t matter at all. There is always connection. You don’t need to speak to connect. You can approach people just with the way you look, smile, and make sounds. Last Sunday, I and a group of foreigners spent three hours with kids in Tay Ninh. We didn’t understand the languages of each other but we did have a lot of fun. I don’t know how but it was easy. Vietnamese people are welcoming, open and very easy to connect with. The kids are even more open. We are naturally connected.
Do you have to deal with the kids or ask them to pose for you?
Never. Everything is natural. Sometimes they’re looking at me but it’s not posing. When they pose, the pictures are not interesting anymore. Adults can feel uncomfortable having someone watching them, but kids, they don’t care. They really think that it’s funny.
What is the most difficult aspect of taking pictures of kids?
The moments. The kids, they move a lot. They never just sit like us and play dominos. They keep moving all the time. So you always have to be ready to take pictures fast, otherwise you will miss the moments.
This picture was taken in China town in Saigon’s District 5. Yan and his wife spent more than a half hour playing with the little girl and then took the photo. “Though the little girl could only talk with my wife, she seemed to prefer playing with me.”
Yan has called this picture “very Vietnamese.” “Don’t you see? The cyclo, the cigarette, electric wires on the sky, the street vendors, they’re all about Vietnam in the French eyes of mine. The more I look at it, the more I love it.”
Talking about the photo capturing a young boys’ “special football match” right in the middle of a highway, the French photographer exclaimed that “it was unbelievable.” “I was riding on the street and decided to stop and took out my camera right away when I saw the match.”
This picture was taken in downtown Saigon. “The kids were looking at me but their smiles were still natural,” Yan said.
Asked about this picture, which is the only one capturing kids’ unhappiness, Yan said it was a tough one. “Not all children are happy. I also wanted to present the hard lives of some kids around us,” he explained.
Lerval’s 24 photos are on exhibit until September 16 at My Place restaurant, 195 Dien Bien Phu, Dist 3, HCMC.
Themed "Saigon Kids", the exhibition is in honor of the work of KOTO, a not-for-profit hospitality training organization that is changing the lives of street and disadvantaged youth in Vietnam.
Pictures are on sale and all profits will be donated to KOTO.
For more information, visit www.koto.com.au or www.myplace.com.vn