For a Hanoian born in 1983 like me who has become a bit jaded about everything, the former Agence France-Presse (AFP) bureau chief in Hanoi Michel Blanchard’s photos and career provide much-needed moments of inspiration.
Blanchard’s pictures, which are being showcased until April 30 at the French Institute in Hanoi (L’ Espace) aren’t masterpieces by any means, but it is precisely this that is their virtue.
They are simple images about simple topics, showing the daily life and sceneries of Hanoi and other places in Vietnam in the 1980s.
Hanoi in Blanchard’s photos seems quieter and more beautiful, a relief to look at for one who has become tired of the terrible traffic jams and pollution, rampant billboards, ugly street decorations, utility poles with too many wires and countless other unsightly things of the fast, busily developing Hanoi of today.
My favorite pick is a photo shot in the year I was born, 1983, featuring the beautiful red flamboyant trees around Thien Quang Lake. There aren’t too many red flamboyant trees around this lake now and the lake doesn’t look as idyllic as in the old photo.
Blanchard said he didn’t see himself as an artist. Nor could his photos be compared to works by many professional photographers today in technical terms because photography was only a hobby. Again, this is all for good.
Our life in the 21st century is so saturated with information, news, images, photography, media and technology of all sorts that it feels good some time to just shut down everything, leave all complicated technicality behind to get back to simple, un-mediated reality.
Yet, taken two decades ago in a special period of time, Blanchard’s photography retains some fresh legitimacy as a good tool to capture reality for honest purposes.
From 1981 to 1983, those transitional years between the American War and the Open Door Policy, Blanchard was the only Western journalist allowed to work in Vietnam besides journalists from other socialist countries and communist parties.
He said at that time, readers back in France and other countries were very eager for information from Vietnam.
He sent back stories in French from his office on Phung Khac Khoan Street in Hanoi. AFP would then translate them into English, Spanish and other languages. One time, he missed covering how Hanoians celebrated Christmas because he wanted to spend the holiday privately with his girlfriend rather than work.
This decision later caused much remonstrance from others, so Blanchard never did the same thing again.
On his free times during weekends and holidays, Blanchard would ride bicycles around the city and take photos. He said human contact seemed easier to create then. People were cheerful, friendly, warm and easy when he offered to take photos of them.
But it was a difficult time. Vietnam was under the US sanction, there was a war going on with Cambodia, and life was poor. Bicycles were the chief means of transport, there was little to watch on TV, goods were scare and electricity blacked out all the time.
Blanchard said he could never forget a scene here: one day under the faint light of the street-lamp at a crossroads he saw some children studying. This scene isn’t featured at the exhibition, but there are other “classical” sights of Hanoi during the time of government subsidies such as the Hanoi tram.
Nguyen Thuy Linh, a Hanoian growing up in the early 80s, said she liked images of the Hanoi tram and the cherry blossoms during Tet, but other photos didn’t ring many bells for her. She didn’t find the stuff of her childhood such as fire-crackers and familiar children’s games.
Do Xuan Cuong, a 68-year-old native who saw Blanchard’s photos, said he wasn’t as much interested in individual images of old Hanoi which looked familiar to him who had lived through all those years.
What Cuong found noteworthy instead was the quantity of Blanchard’s photos, a varied, solid body of work that showed a systematic, consistent pursuit of an interest, an important attitude Cuong often finds lacking in the way many Vietnamese approach worthwhile things.
In a talk delivered before the opening of his exhibition, Blanchard mentioned two great Vietnamese leaders who are particularly inspiring in this age of cynicism about Vietnamese politicians and perhaps of shortage of great minds.
They are the former Prime Minister Pham Van Dong who Blanchard said was an outstanding diplomat. The journalist said Pham Van Dong really loved France despite the history of French colonization of Vietnam. The other capable figure was the then Minister of Foreign Affairs Nguyen Co Thach who could speak English and French fluently.
One of the photos taken by former AFP bureau chief in Hanoi Michel Blanchard shows red flamboyant trees by Thien Quang Lake in Hanoi in 1983
Being a journalist in those days when life was slow was different. Digital technology has changed journalism, Blanchard said. In the 1980s, journalists had more time to work with their stories than today.
Then, if he went to Cambodia for two weeks (the AFP bureau chief in Hanoi had to cover Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), he would have the whole quiet time for himself and nobody would bother him with phone calls.
AFP stories sent from Vietnam also had to go through some final cross-checking and censorship from the Vietnamese government.
Blanchard said sometimes the accounts he sent from Vietnam were different from the inaccurate accounts of other Western journalists who wrote about Vietnam from some neighboring countries.
Those were lonely moments when he had to defend himself against doubts even from his own AFP colleagues in Paris.
Today, AFP doesn’t have a separate chief in charge of Vietnam but reports from neighboring countries. And stories aren’t written in French, but English and sent back to Paris to be translated back to French.
Blanchard said in an email that running news agencies was very expensive. News agencies need journalists and also depend a great deal on technology which can become quickly obsolete. Today, AFP like other news agencies have to adapt to the difficulties of the print press.
It also has to adapt to new means of communication such as the Internet and video. “It’s trying to keep a middle way with all these different needs,” Blanchard wrote. AFP for example has been forced to reduce the number of journalists all over the world, to offer video products, to be on Twitter, etc.
Another Michel Blanchard's photo shows cyclos and incense being dried on a street in Hanoi's Old Quarter in 1984
Though it faces fierce competition from the image, Blanchard said he was still confident about writing and the print press. Though these forms of media will become less important, writing is the only way to explain, make analysis, give detail – at a low price. Though we can do something equivalent with TV and maybe radio, writing still provides a much cheaper and faster way, he said.
As for the Internet, Blanchard said as long as the information was verified and e-journalists were competent, the Internet could provide good information. “Good Internet information is better than a bad print newspaper,” he said.
This is encouraging for me and others of my generation who write for the Internet. On the one hand, we believe our heavily visual culture should be more balanced with the sober presence of words. On the other hand, for various reasons, we can’t go back to the good old print press now.