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Nov 26, 2023 / 20:15

Book for charity by Hanoi-born photographer

Vietnam Sottovoce is a collection of expressive black and white photographs taken through the lens of Minh Pham about his native country.

Vietnam Sottovoce by Minh Pham was launched on November 25 at Casa Italia in Hanoi, featuring 80 black and white photographs taken during his travels throughout Vietnam, from Sapa in the north to Con Dao in the south.

Minh Pham documents Vietnamese people's daily lives with his camera, especially in Hanoi, where he was born and raised.

The photos, all taken with an iPhone, are captioned in three languages: English, Vietnamese, and Italian.

 The third book by Minh Pham includes monochrome photos taken with an iPhone. Photo courtesy of the author

Published by The Gioi (World) Publishers, Vietnam Sottovoce is Minh Pham's third photo book.

His first collection of black and white photographs, Mosaic Myanmar, was published in 2019 by Casa Editrice Polaris in Rome, Italy. Proceeds from the sale of Mosaic Myanmar benefited single mothers in Myanmar.

His second photo book, Hanoi Hanoi, published in 2022, brought together 90 photos of street life in the Vietnamese capital. The book was nominated for the "Bui Xuan Phai - For the Love of Hanoi" award. Proceeds from the sale of Hanoi Hanoi went directly to the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA), benefiting victims of the chemical herbicide and defoliant sprayed by the US Army in Vietnam in the 1960s.

While Hanoi Hanoi reflects Minh Pham's journey to Vietnam in search of memories of his parents, the images in Vietnam Sottovoce are his whispers about his country of origin.

Danish journalist Thomas Bo Pedersen and photographer Minh Pham (right) at the book launch. Photo by courtesy of Thomas Bo Pedersen

Unlike the photo captions in Hanoi Hanoi, where Minh Pham mixed his creativity with humor, Vietnam Sottovoce's draws its main inspiration from the lyrics of songwriters such as Pham Duy, Trinh Cong Son and Ngo Thuy Mien, and verses by poets Xuan Dieu, Huy Can and Han Mac Tu. He also returned to the musical and literary icons he loved as a student, such as Nina Simone, Robert Frost, and Emily Dickinson.

The author wove the lyrics and verses into the captions to match the mood of each photo. Once chosen, the captions take on a life of their own. They echo Minh Pham's hushed stories of the Vietnam he rediscovered as an expatriate. He was particularly moved by Trinh Cong Son's murmur: "Why this nonchalance when life is so fleeting?"

Minh Pham's Photos of Hanoi collected in the books. Photo: The Hanoi Times

The cover of Vietnam Sottovoce features a young woman he met by chance one day while visiting the former imperial palace of King Khai Dinh in Hue.

Minh Pham told The Hanoi Times about the cover: "She was with her friend. The two of them, dressed in ao dai (traditional long dress) with flowers in their hands, were busy taking pictures of each other and laughing, both lost in their own world and completely oblivious to their surroundings. Their youth, energy and angelic smiles struck a chord with me. I hope I will have the chance to see them again to thank them.

Minh Pham began taking photographs in 2020 when he returned to live in Hanoi with his Italian wife, Stefania. As with his previous two photo books, Minh Pham collaborated with his close friend, Italian journalist and writer Paola Boncompagni, who helped him select photos and write captions in Italian.

"Having worked closely with Minh Pham on the last three books, I had the chance to experience Vietnam through his eyes and heart. I love his insights into Vietnam," she said.

"Although he is no stranger to Vietnam, he brings a fresh perspective to his photographs. They are so vivid that they physically transport me to Vietnam, even though I have never been there. Thanks to him, I fell in love with Vietnam," said Paola Boncompagni.

Minh Pham's family was originally from Hanoi and moved south in the 1950s. He grew up in Saigon and emigrated to the United States in 1975. He earned a master's degree from Columbia University in New York. He is the first Vietnamese-American appointed United Nations Resident Coordinator and United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Resident Representative. He has worked in New York, Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean for 25 years.

Paola Boncompagni is an author, freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker and producer. Her most recent book, La Terra Vista Da Qui (2001), is a collection of travel notes from her twenty years of work in international development around the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Central America.

Some pictures of Hanoi taken by Minh Pham:

 Under my watch.
 Shadows of self.
 Return to sender.