Frenchman brings Vietnam face to face with ethnic minorities

By Dang Hanh, Thanh Nien News

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During this year's Hue Festival, the former feudal capital took the rare step of hanging an entire photo exhibition from the iconic Truong Tien Bridge.  
The monochrome 62 image collection taken by Sébastien Laval brought Hue face to fave with members of Vietnam's 54 ethnic communities.
Laval explained that he wanted the silent still black and white images hung two meters from the road below to jump out of the colorful moving scene below.
“In an ordinary exhibition, works are displayed at eye-level. But this time I want everybody to look upward," said the autodidact artist in an interview with Thanh Nien News. 

Somehow, the French photographer's portraits of silent fates, silent smiles and silent winkles seem to scream: “Don’t forget us. We exist.”

Since Laval began visiting the country in 1995, he's spent the majority of his time in the ethnic minority communities settled in Vietnam’s remote highland areas.

Upon arriving in Vietnam, the then-commercial photographer chose to open a new chapter in his career. His purpose was simple: to promote the extraordinary cultural richness shared by these diverse communities.

Though Laval has shot many color photo collections in Vietnam, including his Hanoi by Night (all shot in a single 12 hours period), the French photographer choose to shoot the minority communities in black and white. 
“If I took the pictures in color, your attention will be concentrated on the clothes and not on their faces. The black and white [photos] make you see what their face and [what] their eyes show,” explained Laval.
After his first exposition on the Pa Then minority (an ethnic group that lives in the northern province of Ha Giang) was featured at the Vietnam Ethnology Museum in December 2006, Vietnamese people discovered a community they'd hardly known or heard about.
The show was widely covered by the Vietnamese press.
Laval has remained focused on the changing cultures and lives of these remote communities.
One of his most iconic photos features little girl from the Xo Dang (an ethnic group living mostly in the Central Highlands province of Kon Tum) can be seen holding a rice pestle, while a girl in the corner of the photo tugs at her crumpled sleeveless blouse. Those with sharp-eyes will note that the trousers she's wearing are a pair of old Adidas warm-up pants.  
"In 1995, the first time I visited northern provinces in Vietnam, ethnic people mainly wore their minority clothes," he said. "They have changed, and we have to accept [that fact]. But we need to show the young that there was a time when people wore the traditional clothes. Or before long, nobody knows a thing. It’s a pity.”
Laval says he hopes his works will be displayed at exhibitions in his home country to continue raising awareness about these people. The French government has chosen his work to be shown at the L’Orangerie Du Senat museum in Paris during a festival celebrating 40 years of diplomatic relationship between the two countries.

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