Street photography is both easy and hard. Easy because all you need to work at it are a camera and a street. No clients. The models are, perforce, working for nothing. No artificial lighting, either.
It’s hard for reasons that only begin with the requirements of what Henri Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment,” the ephemeral instant when all the elements—the action, the lighting the composition and the camera settings—are in alignment. When I try street photography I often come home with a card full of images—all of them failures in one or more ways.
Looking at some of Cartier-Bresson's most famous images, I'm not sure I can even discern the principles and methods that made him such a great street photographer. Most of the time, for instance, it appears that the human subjects in his compositions were unaware of his presence. Their faces and actions suggest spontaneity, which imparts a sense that whatever the viewer sees on their faces and in their bodies is genuine, rather than manufactured by a model and a photographer. But sometimes the human subjects in Cartier-Bresson's work stare directly at his lens, obviously responding to his presence.
He shot exclusively, as far as I know, in black-and-white. He presumably wasn't attracted to, or distracted by, bright colors. His compositions emphasize lines. He liked to use architectural elements like the arch of a bridge, an allee of trees, or a spiral staircase to lead the eye to the nut of the picture. In fact, those framing elements are so important that I suspect Cartier-Bresson, when he worked, looked for them first. Then he waited for people to walk into his chosen setting. But sometimes, it seems, he just happened to see something or someone, like a couple of lovers on a train, and he photographed them regardless of the setting and its lines.
Until last week, I had never thought much about how Carter-Bresson worked, because I never thought there was much chance I could do anything remotely like his work. Photography on the streets of a place like Washington is not easy. People generally don't like being photographed by a stranger, and they can react angrily to being ambushed, even if the law says a photographer has the right to shoot anything he sees on a public street. When people are disposed to be photographed on Washington's streets, it's often because they're marching in them, perhaps in some form of demonstration. There's rarely much that's genuine or unanticipated in a political rally.
My sense of possibilities expanded when I got to Vietnam. I think it's often the case that a photographer in a foreign country, where he knows few people and to which he may never return, is more likely to shoot things he'd be too shy to shoot at home, to be aggressive. On top of that, in a place he hasn't seen before, he looks with a fresh eye. Vietnam had those factors working for it, but they weren't all that made the streets of Vietnam a particularly propitious place to work.
Maybe it’s because their actual dwellings are cramped and crowded, but the Vietnamese people, in comparison to Westerners, live an enormous amount of their lives on their streets. They cook and eat on the streets. They exercise and play badminton there. (I saw one guy playing a hybrid between badminton and soccer, kicking a shuttlecock of some kind with his feet. A two-year-old sat placidly on the sidewalk as he played.) They work on the streets and they sell stuff. They’re comfortable enough in the street to sit down next to it, take their shoes off and show the passing world the soles of their tired feet.
Their transportation contributes to the sense that Vietnam puts itself on display in the streets. Relatively few people travel in cars or buses. Most of them seem to get around on motor bikes or bicycles. Quite often, two, three or even a family of five will be clinging to a Honda zooming down the street, open to photography. A flower vendor might have her entire business—buckets, water bottles, and blossoms—on a jerry-rigged platform strapped to the back fender of a creaking bike. No shop window or closed door stands between her and a photographer. By contrast, a Western city is a world of secrets, of lives lived behind curtains and closed doors.
A knowledgeable sociologist might say that the street life in cities like Hanoi (where these pictures were made) has its roots in villages and rice paddies, where life must be communal to survive. Or it might be that living in a one-party system with no effective limits on police power and spying has left the Vietnamese with no illusions about privacy, and thus indifferent to it. I don’t know.
I do sense that there’s something very communal in the ambience of Vietnam’s streets. Children make their way alone to and from school and no one seems to worry about their safety. The traffic is seemingly ferocious and dangerous. A visitor could justifiably conclude that for motorbikes at Vietnamese intersections, a green light means go and a red light means beep the horn and go faster. Yet pedestrians routinely venture out into the traffic crossing the street, confident that the bikes and cars will see them and somehow flow around them. It seems to work out that way.
There’s also something about the light in Vietnam. At least when I was there, in late February, skies were usually cloudy, softening the light and gently illuminating faces. Yet it never rained hard. And once in a while, the sun would break through like a spotlight, lighting a piece of an open-air market, making that scene a stage.
Finally, the people don’t seem to mind being photographed. When I pointed my camera at someone and gestured for permission to shoot, people almost never shook their heads no. They either tolerated me or seemed genuinely to like the idea that a big foreigner was interested enough to want their picture.
This may be due to a government policy encouraging tourism. The people I encountered may have seen me as a walking injection of dollars into an economy that needs them. They may have read that neighbors like Thailand and Cambodia are benefitting from tourism, and they want their country to have its share. Or maybe there’s a kind, hospitable streak in the Vietnamese national character to go along with the toughness and tenacity they show when someone gets aggressive with them.
I did a quick Google search and can't find any indication that Cartier-Bresson himself ever got to Vietnam. It seems odd, because Vietnam was a French colony during much of his working life. A shame, too. He would have done great work there.