A View of Life on the Street as No One Else Can Show It


The photo exhibition at the city's newest luxury office building, critics agreed, presented a poignant portrait of the lives of Ho Chi Minh City's street children.

The show was an artistic and commercial success, attracting large crowds of Vietnamese and expatriates, receiving extensive coverage in the local media and resulting in the sale of 96 photos.

"There was some real talent on display," said Nguyen Thi Lan Huong, who owns a popular art gallery. "The pictures were very moving. They didn't reflect the sadness the photographers had known as much as it did their dreams. They were such small, simple dreams."

The photographers knew their subject well: They were street children themselves. A year or two ago, many had been pickpockets and thieves. Most had run away from home to escape emotional or sexual abuse. Some had been prostitutes. All had known the pain of homelessness.

The six-day exhibition stemmed from a pilot project started last year by Anna Blackman, a British cultural anthropologist, and Nguyen Duc Dung, a Vietnamese social worker and hobby photographer. Their goal was to teach street kids to use a camera to develop "visual thinking" about their world. That, they hoped, would enable the youths to view their lives and themselves through a new lens unclouded by the past.

"We wanted to encourage creativity, and we hoped the kids would leave a photographic record that would explain their lives to adults," Dung said. "One of the interesting things is that none of them wanted to photograph . . . things that were soft and beautiful. They were interested in the harsh nitty-gritty of daily life."

Many of the photos evoke both loneliness and the togetherness of shared hardship: a child alone by a tree, with students in the background slightly out of focus; a 10-year-old seller of lottery tickets, caught daydreaming; two youngsters playing cards on the street, their faces wreathed with smiles of friendship; six pint-size kids sharing a load of soft-drink cans they had collected.

The class started with two secondhand Nikons and 20 street children. After a field trip, the number of students was whittled down until only the five most talented remained, among them Vo Cong Thang, who had run away from his home in the city of Vinh two years ago, looking for work in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

Child welfare officials estimate that 20,000 street children roam Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Many live in shelters supported by the government and private foundations, others in cardboard huts in parks and along riverbanks. Thousands have dropped out of school and work as shoeshine boys, postcard sellers, petty criminals or laborers, often sending their profits home to their parents in the countryside.

Thang, at 21 the oldest of the street photographers, is shy, speaking in a soft mumble and averting his eyes from a visitor. Only when he picks up his Nikon and absent-mindedly twists the lens back and forth does his face light up and his voice grow strong.

"I thought work was going to be easy to find in the city, but it wasn't," he said. "So at first I lived in the bus station and by the river. I had no money, no friends. I learned how to shine shoes. Then I found a bed at a shelter for street children, and the shelter started this photo project that has changed my life.

"I don't like photographing landscapes. They are too beautiful. I like doing the street children, because I know their lives. People say my photos are unhappy pictures. That's because the lives of the children are unhappy. My photos reflect what my life was like before."

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