Fitting finale

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A black and white photo on ethnic minority groups in Vietnam taken by Sébastien Laval now on display at the Ho Chi Minh City Museum and the Independence Palace

He has five photo exhibitions on Vietnamese ethnic minorities already under his belt, including one that is now open in Ho Chi Minh City, but Sébastien Laval is not done with his favorite subjects yet.

The exhibitions held thus far have together covered about 20 of the 54 ethnic minority communities living in Vietnam, but an upcoming one, held during the nine-day Hue Festival next April, will feature all 54 of them.

"It will be the third time I am participating in the Hue Festival," Laval told Vietweek in an email, "but I think it's the first time that the Vietnamese people can see all the Vietnam ethnic groups in one place [apart from local museums]."

He said the venue chosen for the exhibition, simply called 54, was very special the Truong Tien Bridge one of the most famous bridges in the country.

"It's very symbolic to use this bridge to show all these communities."

French company Carabosse - a group of fire artists who create large-scale sculptures and fire installations, will add drama to Laval's 60 photos with a fire and sound installation for two nights that will light up the bridge.

Laval, a 40-year-old photographer based in Poitiers, France, believes that the black and white photos that will be displayed at the festival in the former imperial capital of Hue in the central province of Thua ThienHue will not be too plain or dull for the public.

"Black and white are for people to imagine the "˜colorful culture' and customs of the ethnic minority people in Vietnam," said the autodidact artist, who first came in the country in 1995 and quickly developed a deep interest in documenting the lives of the ethnic minorities living in the remote regions here.

Whether they are Hmong women in their traditional dresses or a young ethnic minority man driving six little kids on his Yamaha motorbike or a village elder with his old tobacco pipe, the photos were all captured by accident when the "models" were in their most comfortable zone, revealing their true, natural beauty.

The photographs are selected from thousands taken since 2005 by Laval after he spent eight years (1997 2005) studying the people's culture and lifestyle.

Each picture, despite having its own story, has no caption or name, because the photographer wants his visitors "to look, contemplate, think and wonder "˜who these models are.'"

"I was young when I first came to Vietnam," said the photographer, whose works have been bought by the French Embassy in Hanoi as well as individual collectors in the United States, France, and Belgium, "and my first experiences here were a shock since I had never encountered such things before in my life.

"A foreigner, it's impossible for me to predict whom and what I am going to see during my living here, but one thing I am always sure is that I always meet someone who teaches me useful life lessons," said Laval, who moved to Paris to work as an assistant for a photo studio in 1992 and then a photographer for commercial photography in a studio in the capital of France in 2003 before opened his own studio in Poitiers the next year.

Laval took the photos with the purpose of showing the differences and resemblances between the ethnic minority communities in different regions and how they have mingled and dwelt in unity for years.

However, over the years, his interest shifted from their original cultures to how these communities, despite living in the most remote areas in the country, were changing their ways of life to adapt to the development of the country. Seeing this gave the Frenchman a greater sense of urgency. He wanted to record both the traditional culture and the forced changes as much as possible.

Out of all the places, the frontier town of Sa Pa in Lao Cai Province (northwest Vietnam) left the strongest impression on Laval. He first visited the town in 1995, when it stood amidst  the green of endless forests and mountain ranges, decorated with many small markets. When he returned a few years later, all those markets had been swept away by the "tourism, modernization storm." The pictureques town was dominated by dozens of modern restaurants and hotels.

"I am afraid that one day Sa Pa will have a modern, pompous look like other tourism cities in the world, when all the local ethnic groups would have given up their true colors."

After the upcoming Tet festival, which will fall January 31, Laval will return to Vietnam to take pictures of some ethnic minority groups living between Hanoi and Hue for the last of the "54"series, which will be held during the Hue Festival 2014.

After the festival, due to take place April 12-20, the 60 photos will be presented in the Museum Orangerie du Senat in Paris from June 27 to July 8, 2014 as part of a festival of Vietnamese culture in France.

Laval said he will return to Vietnam many more times for other projects, with his area of focus being Vietnam's major cities at night, kicked off last year with an exhibition on Hanoi from dusk to dawn.

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