Can you brief me about your trip this time?
National Geographic asked me to speak on National Geographic Live. In order to be ready for the presentation, I need to update how Vietnam is today. It’s a photo presentation. One photo will be in the screen for about 10 seconds. And I must move on. I can’t just talk.
However, the larger picture for me in my life is two things.
One is that I want to have a real project in Vietnam, not just some little things. I realize that this is the place that I have actually witnessed and documented changes.
Secondly, I actually have a history with this place, together with my age, my experience, and a lot of years have gone by. I kind of have something. I went to Dien Bien Phu with General Vo Nguyen Giap. I was able to take photographs of Pham Xuan An, Diep Minh Chau, Bao Ninh. I really have something here.
How was your first trip to Vietnam in 1990s? Do you remember?
That was a heavy time. It was July, 1990. March – April, my father came here with my mom to do a cover story about General Giap for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. At that time I was not a very experienced photographer. He and my mom came here and a photographer of NY Times went with them. My mother came back and said to me: “You should have been a photographer.”
In May or June, just 1 month later, I was in Sydney and in a self assignment about Asian immigration. And I met a young Vietnamese guy. He said to me: “I will go back to Vietnam this July. Would you like to visit Vietnam?” And I thought: “That’s it! I should do this.”
I got a visa and got 30 days in Vietnam. I was in Hanoi, Saigon, Hue, Da Nang. I visited Tu Du Hospital. I wanted to visit General Giap, visited the orphanage. I went around with the guy I met in Sydney. We spent a month together and he helped me with the translation.
My impression was I was fascinated. It was like a dream. Everywhere I went Saigon, Hanoi, Hue, I was in a train. I saw Ha Long Bay. That was an incredible dream of sadness and beauty.
I was so seduced at what I saw and I photographed. I worked so hard. It was so hot. I was so driven to create beautiful pictures.
Your picture about Ha Long Bay appeared in many famous magazines. How did you take that picture? And... Why Ha Long?
Coming to Vietnam reminded me of growing up in Asia. I grew up in Hong Kong in the 60s. When I was a little girl, I often went out on a junk to an island at weekends with some of mother’s friends. Ha Long Bay looked like that island, to me; it looked like an old Hong Kong. My mother used to be a very accomplished brush painter.
Ha Long Bay, to me, looked like her brush painting. I didn’t just wait to see the boat passing by and took that picture.
We found out that there were only six old sailing boats left. Everybody had motor-boats that looked more modern and bigger.
In order to get these sailing boats [for the picture], we had to go to several different fishing villages and asked who had a boat like this. We found out 2 fishermen who had these [sailing] boats. But they were out for fishing. Nobody had cell phones, emails. Who knows when they will come back?
There was a place that I could climb up high, and got a view. And there was a place I wanted the boat to sail around. But it was so difficult. They were miles down there. I wanted them to sail but I couldn’t communicate with them from such distance. I had to shout... I screamed to ask them to go this way, that way. And, you see, the picture looks so peaceful.
A picture of Ha Long Bay that has appeared on many famous international magazines shot by Catherine Karnow in 1990.
You had a very big lecture on National Geographic Live about Vietnam. What did you talk in that lecture?
I talked separately 4 times, each time to nearly 2,500 people in a symphony hall in Seattle. It turned out the first time that I talked in front of so many people. I had spent many weeks for the show.
The photographs are from 21 years, from 1990 to 2012. It was a good show. I had some very serious subjects on this, like Agent Orange, Amerasian, including photos with short videos about AO.
I was happy to show some of my trip to Da Lat, all the way to Vietnam and Vietnam Today, the new wealth of District 2 and District 7 in Saigon. I was able to spend time with a family.
The show was both serious and light, with a lot of emotion. I was very honored that I could show my 21 years in Vietnam. Most of the work that I have done in Vietnam is personal. I didn’t get sent by Nat Geo or magazines clients. I paid for myself.
One woman wrote to me afterwards. She said that she went home and she cried. She cried because she was so moved on one thing that I said: “The Vietnamese are able to find beauty in sorrow.” – I am very moved in that I was able to share and reach each person with my own personal love for Vietnam.
Do you see any change in Vietnam compared to your old photos long time before?
Since 1990, I have visited Vietnam many times. There are a lot of changes in Ha Long Bay. Tourism is everywhere. I went with a group of tourists. We rented a boat to travel around. The boat owner guided us to the place that tourists often see. Tourists are too crowded.
I asked the owner to go another route and stop. Wonderful. There was no change after 1990, beautiful and peaceful as always.
The biggest change is Hanoi was completely silent in 1990. You could even hear your whisper. There were only bicycles and xích –lô. Sound of a passing- by- xích –lô was just like the sound of a big bird flying. There were no advertising board, no color lights. Saigon was busier.
Catherine first photographed Diep while the latter was on a North-South train in 1990. The photo appeared on the cover page of Lonely Planet Magazine.