Lens over Vietnam

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A group of young people is building an endless photo archive of Vietnam's past and present


A photo from the exhibition Voi nha Tay Nguyen (Tamed elephants of the Highlands) at the National Library of Vietnam in Hanoi from September 30 to October 7. The exhibit featured photos of 51 tamed elephants and the highland residents that raise them.

When Le Van Thao read about the desperate plight of Vietnam's endangered and over-poached elephants, he wanted to do something.

So he and his amateur photography group Enter Vietnam set off on a two-month adventure to photograph and live among the majestic beasts in their highland homes, documenting the lives and struggles of the animals and their masters.

The project culminated in Voi nha Tay Nguyen (Tamed elephants of the Highlands), an exhibition at the National Library of Vietnam in Hanoi from September 30 to October 7.

The show featured an overview of the lives of 51 tamed elephants, centering on the daily routine of the elephants and the highland residents that raise them.

Thao told Tuoi Tre that he hopes the photos will create awareness of the problems these elephants and highlanders face.

"The more people know about them, the more they will be loved and protected," Thao told the newspaper.

And this is essentially the goal of Enter Vietnam, to create an enriched awareness of Vietnam: it's history, culture, people and natural landscapes. Via their website vietnamlens.com, the group is documenting its field trips to fascinating locations around Vietnam with careful notes about the areas, travel routes, and explanations of the customs and traditions of each community they visit.

What's more is that access to the website and its fast (and rapidly growing) database is free. Members simply sign up by donating three of their own photos and they can then access all the rest. 

Kaleidoscope

Divided into various categories, either by place, subject or photographer, vietnamlens offers an array of topics: landscapes, flora, fauna, people, culture, traditional folk music, traditional instruments, age-old rituals and a section on Uncle Ho (Vietnam's founding president Ho Chi Minh).

Thao, along with partners Nguyen Ba Ngoc and Ma Phuong Uyen, put the whole thing together during their free time in a narrow room on the third floor of The Gioi (World) Publishing House.

Ngoc, the group's youngest member, told Thanh Nien that the name "Enter Vietnam" is inspired by the computer's Enter key.

"We want to build our website as the most simple resource for any Vietnam-lover. Just "˜enter' and you can easily access the true Vietnam, through the website full of interesting information and colorful images," said Ngoc.

Ngoc, born in 1983, said vietnamlens was different from other photo websites in that it was free, and provided much more detailed and comprehensive information about its images.

"There are many websites providing information about Vietnam, but honestly, they still lack information that reflects the truth behind the people and natural sites in the images. We do it a different way," said Ngoc.

"For instance, if we take a photo of a river, that photo will be accompanied with information about the river's source, length, destinations, estuaries and more. We suffer from the ambition of making a free-for-download "˜photo dictionary' of Vietnam for anyone in need," said Ngoc.

Ngoc said that the idea for the website came in 2005 when the three Enter Vietnam members met while traveling. They've all worked as editors, graphic designers, photographers and freelancers since then, but after six years of hard work, their project is finally on track.

Previously, the group has established an e-map of culture and tourism for Ninh Binh Province, created a virtual exhibition of contemporary Vietnamese art to be viewed online, and built a 3-D museum of ethnology, which required them to photograph the entire Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi and then program 3-D models of the exhibits into the computer to provide people who can't visit Hanoi the opportunity to view the museum online.

Ngoc said these activities had been extremely rewarding and had inspired the group to keep working harder, though they can't make a living off vietnamlens.

"Money is always the problem. We keep doing our jobs like editing and graphic designing to earn money for our trips," said Ngoc. "The website will hopefully be an effective source for the local and international press, magazines, media, design and printing companies. We are trying to update the notes, analysis and commentary to give viewers a clearer view of the concepts."

Members of Enter Vietnam have so far visited all of Vietnam's 63 provinces and cities. The fruits of the journeys are the 300,000 photos of every corner of Vietnam.

"The photos are not enough," said Thao. "We plan to photograph a trans-Vietnam tour and update all our old photos with newer and more interesting information. We also welcome all the photographers, both amateur and professional, to share their great photos and stories with us..."

"...The more, the merrier."

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