The anti-paparazzo

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Nguyen A's photos of Vietnam's most influential people teach that true success takes both talent and heart

Nguyen A's photo exhibition, "˜Tam va Tai Ho la ai?' (Heart and Talent Who are They?), attracts many young visitors

The Ho Chi Minh City Youth Cultural House was packed to the brim, and most people signed the guestbook without knowing that the inconspicuous man sitting next to it was the photographer whose work they were praising.

It was photographer Nguyen A's newest exhibition "Tam va Tai - Ho la ai?" (Heart and Talent Who are They?) that brought the crowds, but rather than networking and politicking with the visitors, A just sat by the guestbook gossiping with an old security guard.

Whenever he was recognized during the 9-day exhibition (May 2-11), the 44-year-old still-single photographer's charm, curly hair and bright smile attracted groups of admirers who then huddled around him for hours.

It's fitting that A's work focuses on the unassuming nature of true greatness.

The photo collection features portraits of 300 leaders in the arts, culture, education, economy, entertainment, sciences and sports. A's work stands out as he captures celebrities and famous people both in and out of the limelight, trying to get at their true core, not only their public-selves.

"I'm just happy to share my experiences taking those photos. It was really tough journey, and the keyword was "˜trust,'" A told Vietweek.

"The characters are too well-known, they don't need me to boost their reputation with my photos. But my great admiration for them inspires me to do it. Some of them refused me at first and I know they have reasons to do so," he said.

Photographer Nguyen A (R) and legendary hat boi artist Dinh Bang Phi

"It is not easy to open your life and let a stranger step in to capture it. Fortunately, many changed their minds. Most importantly, they came to trust that my motives were pure."

It took Nguyen A more than three years to "chase and catch the characters" in the right moments, and two months to arrange the photos and set up the exhibition.

The subjects of the exhibition were aged from about 10 to nearly 100, and all are famous for their contributions to Vietnam.

"I just want to do something meaningful for the country via my own profession and experience. My photos may not give a thorough depiction of everything the characters have done in their lifetime, but these are definitely good examples for the local youth to follow," he said.

"Many local young people have become cold, shallow and irresponsible toward their developing nation and society."

A may have reached his mark as throngs of young people turned out for the show, and many left largely impressed.

"The photos are awesome," said Minh Chau, a student at Saigon University.

"They give famous people a very natural look."

Me Thuan, a freelance photographer, said that A has done more than just freeze the right frame.

"I love the way he compiles many photos, from different places and times, to depict each subject. It is completely different from previous exhibitions and reflects his hard work," Thuan said.

"I would understand the photos even without the long captions because A's pictures can speak a thousand words and really touch my heart."

A said that he has refused all offers to sponsor his project, which cost him over VND1 billion of his own money to complete. After the exhibition in Ho Chi Minh City, he hopes he can show the same collection in Hanoi, Hue and Da Nang. He's also planning to release a photo book of the images.


Think pink, even when your life is not

"I just do my own business with my own money. But I always say that I get more than I give," said A. "The subjects [of the photos] have really made me aware of the true lessons of life. I feel satisfied and it is my great honor to have their support."

Dinh Bang Phi, a 70-year-old hat boi (traditional Vietnamese opera) artist and one of A's subjects, called the show "a masterpiece."

"A gives me a chance to recall my heyday, although I have been retired for over a decade. At first, I refused, but it was A's enthusiasm that convinced me. Even my wife and my close friends had no idea that I was in his photos until they came to the exhibition and recognized me," Phi told Vietweek with an eager voice as he looked at his photos.

"These could be my last photos on stage."

This is not the first time that Nguyen A has stirred public attention with his work.

He shot to fame with his exhibition "Young Volunteers in Nguyen A's Eyes" in 2007 and "That's How They Live" two years later.

"That's How They Live" featured 90 disabled people who have overcome adversity.

A spent two years living with his subjects all over the country, working side jobs to cover his expenses. The work earned him a reputation as a die-hard artist and photojournalist.

More important than A's success has been the lifelong learning experience of getting to know people by photographing them.

"People who have not encountered poorness or misery cannot breakthrough to true happiness. Since I spent time with my subjects, they have taught me a lot about how lucky I am and what I must do with my skills," he said.

"I just realize that the problems I have faced in the past are trivial compared to other people's lives."

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