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Here’s to 2020! A photo year in review.

No, do not expect me to discuss the beauty of the year 2020, I think enough people have already done that! 

For the people who are still alive or simply mentally sane, I’d like to show you what I have had the chance to do this year in terms of travelling. And I say the “chance” because I feel very lucky to be based in Vietnam, a country that has so well managed the crisis that we could travel freely through the country (almost) all year long.

So the year 2020 was starting pretty well. As sneaky as this year went, it was probably trying to lure us into the thoughts of another great year before hammering us down. Well played 2020, well played. 

After I wrapped up all my 2019 photography tours around Asia, it was already the new year. I usually spend a couple of quiet months at home at that time so I can catch up with my family that I have left alone for months for the tours. I took this opportunity to get back into Hoi An old town as this is my all-time favourite place in the world, and by chance, this is where I live! 

If I only knew that I’d spend so much time shooting in Hoi An this year I might have stayed in bed, but, oh well, it is done. 

I revisited all the classics, everywhere I often take my students to take photos in order to say hello to everyone. And it’s the same every year:

  • Long time no see, where have you been?
  • I was travelling in Asia for work
  • Oh, so you went back to your home country?

I just nod, make sure everyone is fine and I keep going. I took some terrible photos like I usually do at this time of the year. They may not be terrible but after a couple of months travelling through exciting countries like Bangladesh or Iran, every other place feels a bit boring. But I got used to it, again! 

I also caught up with all my favourite food around, ate tonnes of Banh Mis and crab noodle soups, and I cooked, cooked and cooked again for my kids who just missed my fatty French food. What a blessed time it was. 

I left for North Vietnam for a commercial gig and to spend the lunar new year with my in-laws when we first heard of Covid. There was this virus in China. But it was in China. And every time we hear about China, it is something awful, so there was nothing new here. Plus we knew that it was the Tet holidays and no virus in the world can survive in a body that is filled with so much rice wine daily. 

Anyway, we went back home to Hoi An and I ran my first central Vietnam photography tour. I was joined by Cris Cusick who runs photography tours with his partners in Cambodia. I don’t want to always sound the same, I am sorry guys, but once again: best group ever! 3 days of pure fun and laughs, shooting in the best locations with people so keen to learn. I really felt it was going to be a great year. And I met Brice, and that changed me forever! 

I was also quite busy with commercial work, shooting some huge factories in the middle of nowhere, or shooting lifestyle images for the Four Season in Hoi An with my partners. But that was a side job, you know, as international borders will be open forever and I will forever live from my passion of running photography tours….

Then came mid-March, like a slap in my face. We had to stop our street photography workshop right in the middle of it and send our students back home or they would get “stuck” in Vietnam. That street workshop that Andy and I had spent so much time preparing simply just vanished after only a few days. I was hoping to learn so much on that one! 

All tourism stopped around the world, and we put the Hoi An Photo tour on hold. 

And then, confinement came. 

I took it very easy, I thought this thing will last a maximum of 3 months, then summer will come, it will be hot, and we will all be forever happy again. So I didn’t stress myself out, I started exercising and being more healthy, and just enjoying the temporary retirement. Oh, had nights of sleep of 10 hours for a full month! A big change from chasing the sunrise several times a week! I played video games, I caught up with many of my friends, I trained and rode my bicycle again and again, and just like that I lost 10Kg. 

A bunch of photographers from Hoi An and I went to shoot quite often, practicing our street photography  skills. At some point all the Hoi An people were coming out in the fields to fly their kites before sunset. It was truly magical to see Hoi An at such a slow pace, as a lot of people lost their jobs. Almost like the Hoi An I met when I moved there. 

After this first confinement in Vietnam, our commercial photography business actually got busier, so I went back to being a commercial photographer. Kind of a rollercoaster of “what kind of photographer am I?” I got to enjoy it very much again, playing with flashes and shooting video, creating concepts and mostly working with 2 great partners. We did nail some pretty big assignments from big clients which is very exciting as it is officially our first year working together.

But inside me, something started breaking down. I was this travel photography teacher, but I could no longer teach. I tried to do a few things online but my heart wasn’t in it, as I am so used to being face to face with my students and my feet in the water. 

To keep busy we started organizing some regular photography events in Hoi An via our Facebook group Pics of Asia Photo School, like the Hoi An Photo walk and a few workshops about travel photography. It was great to be able to gather that many people in such a small town and we all had great fun doing it, including my kids. It felt like being back at work somehow, a great breath of fresh air. 

Then enough was enough! Quinn and I, who were supposed to run our Phong Nha photo tour, thought we were so in need of traveling that we took off to Phong Nha anyway, without any students. Obviously we took a bunch of people with us, all our friends who were grinding their teeth on the road by the lack of traveling. 

We spend a full week going from Hoi An to the salt fields in the South and back North to the Phong Nha national park. We explored a few new locations that I heard about, visited some great fishing villages on the coast and drove around through the mountains of Phong Nha. I took the opportunity to create a video of our trip where I give tips on locations for travel photographers. Make sure you watch it following this link

This trip saw the birth of Jean Pierre Foulfrȇme, that I hope you will be able to meet in the near future. He really deserves his own Youtube channel! 

Oh, and by the way, I also got busy creating photography tutorials for the Youtube channel! Jean and I spend a good couple of months preparing and recording these tutorials from home. Make sure you check them out, they really summarize my articles into short and fun videos. 

I was back in Hoi An and nothing was really evolving, I was in this “who knows when?” mood and decided to take the opportunity to develop my photography. I couldn’t teach anymore, which had been my greatest inspiration in improving my photography. Now I had to go and do it by myself, and I chose to focus on Hoi An old town as it looked like a completely different town. All shops and restaurants were closed, there was barely anyone in the streets but it had kept the early morning Hoi An vibes that I love so much. 

It was summer so I went back to visit my favorite locations to photograph, enjoying the friendly people, the warm waters and the abundance of human activity everywhere. With some friends we also went and discovered new areas that new roads have opened and we have added some great spots for the upcoming tours and workshops we will be running there. Refreshing the portfolio in locations to bring students was definitely a thing I had not had the time to do in a long time.

Then came something a bit unexpected: my business partner and I were commissioned to photograph and film someone’s holidays in the mountains of North Vietnam. We couldn’t refuse a trip in this land we often venture, and we were off driving our motorbikes through the best epic sceneries for 10 days. 

I did enjoy this opportunity to put my hands on the Xt4 camera that I used to capture photos and videos on the trip. I was worried I was not going to enjoy the new flippy screen but it was actually all right. Apart from that screen, it was like shooting with the Xt3. I did test the new capabilities of the xt4 autofocus and it did a pretty good job overall. 

A group of Tay people planting rice in a field in North Vietnam

It was really a fantastic week filled with great photos, videos, a bit of rice wine to keep ourselves warm at night and a few karaokes. I talked more about this trip in this blog post.

Back in Hoi An again and the rainy season was fast approaching. I kept shooting into the old town, enjoying the late summer light. Commercial work was keeping me very busy so time flew really fast.

And the rainy season came, but it forgot to clean its dirty feet on the doormat. It came with storms, typhoons, again, again and again. We had over 10 big storms over our heads within a span of 2 months. Hoi An old town was regularly flooded, which made the whole market move up a couple of streets. It was, once again, like visiting a new town, with different streets and activities. Obviously, I went to shoot almost everyday. 

I personally struggled very much creatively during this time. I was walking the streets of Hoi An endlessly, taking photos of things I felt I wanted to take photos of, but not knowing where I was going. I ended up with a lot of images of the town that I don’t even know whether they are good or not. I guess I wanted to capture a different Hoi An, and not overthink the whole process. It was finally a good opportunity to meet the residents of Hoi An old town. They are usually flooded among all the other people in the streets that it is normally difficult to know who is who. During this summer, I regularly met the local residents who were hanging out in the old town and took back the streets with their plastic chairs and local coffee shops.

I also used this opportunity to go and take photos during bad weather. It seems like a normal thing to do but we are usually blessed with great weather in Hoi an during the summer, and I am going away to run all my other tours during the rainy season. This means I am often faced with fantastic lights. This year I went to photograph Hoi An on rainy days or at really bad times of the day, when the light is so flat and boring. This was a very good experience and allowed me to think a bit differently from my usual way of doing things. I spent a lot of time working on patterns and colors, as well as shooting with crazy ISO in the dark.

My wife and I had planned to take a trip with the whole family, to escape Hoi An for a bit. I had the chance to travel quite a bit this year but my family had been stuck in Hoi An. We planned to travel in October but I got so busy with commercial projects that we only managed to leave on December 4th. We packed the tent and the camping gear and we took off for a whole South Vietnam loop, following the coast on our way down and coming back North via the mountains. 

We traveled for almost a full month, over 3500km, saw so many parts of Vietnam I had not seen before and had a fantastic family time. I did visit a few new locations like the Mui Ne fish market or the streets of Chau Doc, but I mostly took photos of my kids. I took a break from travel photography and worked on a little personal project with them which was really fun.

And we are now back in the “cold” of Hoi An winter (it’s basically 20 degrees), thinking about how fast this year actually went and how blessed I am to be in Vietnam. To be honest this has been a great year for me personally in terms of resting my body from running so many photography tours and it allowed me to spend so much time with my family. I also spent the time to work on my photography, still being very much inspired by street photography but shooting in a very travel environment.

But enough resting, it is now time to seriously go back to being a travel photography teacher, and I have got BIG plans for 2021! So, I will see you soon I guess.

Posted in

Etienne

Founder of Pics of Asia, Etienne is a teacher with a photography habit.

11 Comments

  1. Anne Forbes on January 11, 2021 at 8:11 am

    Thank you, Etienne,
    I wondered if you had stopped your regular up-dates. Glad to see that you are back. BTW when is the wet season in Vietnam?

  2. Catherine on January 11, 2021 at 8:13 am

    Thanks so much. I love your photography. I love how you write. You are just a great example of a human. Thanks.

    • Etienne on January 11, 2021 at 3:18 pm

      Thank you Catherine! I am not sure I am a great example to follow, but I try to keep things simple and fun for everyone to enjoy 🙂

  3. Anne Forbes on January 11, 2021 at 9:11 am

    PS – I forgot to say how much I enjoyed today’s collection of images. My favourites are the silhouette shot and the lanterns and reflections in the little boat. I was in Hoi An in October 2013 when a typhoon devastated it overnight I was surprised how speedily the traders returned to business.

    • Etienne on January 11, 2021 at 3:19 pm

      Hi Anne, I did indeed put a hold on our monthly newsletter as I did not travel so much. But I am now working on a new big project so you will definitely hear from me soon! The wet season in Vietnam is now ending, but we have entered a cold winter phase. Hopefully by mid-February the sun and warmth will be back, so we can go and capture sunrises and sunsets again! 🙂 All the best to you and thanks for your support.

  4. Paul Godefroy on January 11, 2021 at 3:04 pm

    Bonjour Etienne,
    Merci de nous faire vivre, avec vos images, ce qui noua a manqué en 2020.
    Je souhaite vivement que 2021 me permette de faire votre connaissance autrement que virtuellement et que je pourrais participer à une belle aventure avec Pics of Asia dans ce magnifique pays du Vietnam.
    A bientôt j’espère.
    Cordialement

    • Etienne on January 11, 2021 at 3:17 pm

      Oui Paul, en esperant que les choses avancent en cette annee!! Je vous souhaite tout de meme une tres bonne sante, en esperant vous rencontrer prochainement.

  5. Alain Mis on January 11, 2021 at 3:51 pm

    Bonjour Étienne,
    Du fait que vous êtes sur place peut-être pourriez-vous m’expliquer comment se fait-il que le Vietnam ait été si peu affecté par le Covid. J’étais à Hanoi il y a trois ans. C’est une ville tellement dense avec tellement de personnes aux moyens limités que j’ai du mal à comprendre pourquoi il n’y a pas eu plus de cas de Covid. Les gens sont littéralement les uns sur les autres dans la rue….? Merci et bons cliks !

    • Etienne on January 12, 2021 at 9:22 am

      Alain, les gens portent des masques meme quand il n’y a pas de pandemique. Le gouvernement a tout ferme et a oblige les gens a mettre des masques des que la crise a commence, ce qui a permit d’eviter un grand nombre de transmissions… Tout l’inverse de ce qua fait notre belle France.

  6. Andy Clachers on January 12, 2021 at 2:45 pm

    A great read as always Etienne and loved to see the photo of our tour group! Hope we get to meet again in 2021!

    Andy

    • Etienne on January 13, 2021 at 8:07 am

      Thank you Andy! I hope you are doing well in Oz! Are you managing to take any photos with all the restrictions?

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