Living the American Dream in Vietnam

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Aaron Joel Santos, an American photographer who came to Vietnam for a lark five years ago and has stayed back

Aaron Joel Santos has lived in Hanoi for five years now.

If five-and-a-half years ago someone had told him he would have ended up living in Vietnam, the American documentary and travel photographer says he would have laughed.

He had been living out of his car for a few months, travelling across his country. He could not even have pointed out Vietnam on a map then.

Yet, on a whim, he left for that very country.

"I moved to Vietnam directly after attending photography school in Boston.

"I thought I would live here for a few months, take some travel photos, and return to the US to start a photography career."

But when has life followed the script? Santos ended up living and pursuing a photography career in Vietnam.

"As we all know, literature majors end up waiting tables," he says tongue-in-cheek, referring to the US job market and his earlier literature and writing degree.

Wait tables is what he did after graduation. He was also going to photography school then.

"I would have never been able to afford my first camera without my job as a fine-dining waiter in Boston.

"I also wouldn't have been able to afford my trip to Vietnam without that job."

Having picked up his first camera pretty late in life, circa 2005, there is no romantic story here about a kid who fell in love with pictures and went on to become a successful photographer. 

"I achieved what I have achieved through hard work and long hours and a kind of insane obsession with and fear of failure. Sometimes I felt like I was in the right place at the right time."

In Hanoi, he landed a job as host for a Vietnam Television travel show for six months. At various times he worked as a subeditor for several local English publications, then as art director for a lifestyle magazine.

It was a while before Santos became a full-time freelance photographer. He is now represented by Novus Select in the US and NOI Pictures in Southeast Asia. He is also part of the agency roster at the Philadelphia-based Wonderful Machine.

Santos's works have been bought by The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, and The Financial Times among others.

He has set up Esian, a studio that shoots wedding photographs, while his works have been exhibited in large gallery shows such as the Long Bien Arts Festival.

Amazing Hanoi

Santos finds Hanoi a great place to take pictures in, wandering the streets and clicking away at whatever they throw at him. He loves it. The city is beautiful, charming, colorful, friendly, but chaotic. It is everything, all at once and all the time.

"One of my favorite things about living in Hanoi is the seemingly endless supply of secrets it provides.

"After years here, I feel as if I have barely scratched the surface of any and everything. And when I get called to photograph some hitherto unknown location, well, that is always exciting."

He never ceases to be amazed by the friendliness of strangers he witnesses every day.

"A lot of people will tell you that Hanoi is a cold and lonely place, full of hard stares and mean faces.

"Nothing is further from the truth.

"Try to speak English to almost any Vietnamese kid and I bet you they know the words "˜hello' and "˜beautiful' or "˜handsome'.

"They learn two words: one a greeting and the next a compliment. I've always enjoyed that. It's ridiculous and kind of amazing and I think it says a lot about the place."

It is this kind of thing that started to grow on him, encouraging the newbie to stay and make a name for himself in photography far away from home.

"A big turning point was when The Word began their Hanoi-based magazine, and I was hired as their photo editor and chief photographer. That was right around the time I began pursuing photography as a full-time career." 

The decision was an easy to make.

"It almost felt like cheating, choosing to stay in Vietnam. Not that the support network here was or is any larger.

"But on a very basic level, I knew that it would be easy to be poor and get by.

"I would not have to wait tables and get burnt out while still trying to find time to take pictures. I wouldn't have to assist anyone. I wouldn't need to live on the outskirts of some major city for cheaper rent."

He also saw his stay as a way to support local publications, to put his weight behind something he thought might be worthwhile.

He thinks there are some great photographers in Vietnam, but also sees a lot of lazy and clichéd images in magazines and publications here. He says the best photographers in Vietnam - and anywhere else in the world - are the ones constantly trying to satisfy the urge to make their images look better than everyone else's, not those wondering how they can make their images look the same as everyone else's.

He is busy, travelling all over the country, around Southeast Asia, and the US, for photo assignments. Besides commercial work, he also works with NGOs for social causes.

"I am extremely happy with how I have grown as a photographer in the five years since I moved to Vietnam. [But] I still have doubts about this every month!

"Making it as a professional is a difficult thing to assess. I have been lucky enough to support myself solely through photography, so in the most simple of definitions, I guess that I've "˜made it'.

"But still, every month I kind of wonder how I got here, how I got so lucky. I think this helps me to continue pushing myself forward."

Love affair

Santos's literature and storytelling background seems to deeply influence his photography. He loves documentary photography, telling a story.

"I try to think of every image as a story, and every series of photographs as a kind of narrative that can be deciphered in different ways."

He is also drawn to images that are emotional, though not necessarily overtly. Often, the emotions in his works are beneath the surface, something that he knows instinctively when he sees them in a subject, or, ideally, when he has captured them.

"I want people to see my photos as accessibly exotic, full of movement and character and color and maybe this kind of simmering magic just under the surface.

"I hope people see my photos and then want to research more about the place or subject I'm photographing. I want my photos to make people curious."

Equally important is to strive for balance. He says it is a constant struggle, either between what clients want and creativity for the photographer himself or following the beaten path.

His favorite assignments are ones that take him outside major cities and into the countryside in Vietnam because, he says, there are so many facets to Vietnamese life, and it is easy to forget about the distant villages in the northern mountains or riverside towns in the Mekong Delta.

He has never once had a bad experience filming in Vietnam. In fact, more often than not, he is invited in by strangers for tea and food and conversation.

He has even been invited into random weddings in the countryside to drink rice wine with the mother and father of the bride. 

"I just try to smile a lot and be friendly. When I'm photographing someone, it's usually because I'm interested in their life, whether they're a simple farmer or a politician or whoever.

"Everyone has an interesting story to tell. I think my interest in them comes through, and this helps break down certain barriers."

Since he has had many memorable assignments, it is difficult for him to choose just one as the "most memorable." 

He just wishes he could have moved here 10 years sooner and gotten more pictures as the country changed through the years.

"I try to never overlook the simple, quirky things that make Vietnam such a great place. I'll never fully understand Vietnam, but that's part of its magic.

"I have a map of the country tattooed on my arm, so I think Vietnam is pretty big in my heart."

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