Though Trung and Phong just talked about their work and passion for digitizing documentary photos lightly, I can see both passion and love for heritages, and for Hue in them.
Digitizing photos of heritage requires both passion and serious investment
I have known Nguyen Phong (Nguyen Tan Anh Phong) and Trung Phan (Phan Van Trung) since I was in charge of the Thua Thien Hue Weekly issues, about for five years. At that time, I mainly contacted them to ask for photos when I needed the illustrated photos for articles in various categories, mostly cover photos and photo reportages.
Many photos, captured by them, have appeared on the cover of special issues. Their photos are always sharp and well composed, with high-resolution. They always ready to collaborate with the newspaper, whether in or out of office hours. Therefore, when I need photos, the first person in my mind is Phong or Trung.
Of course, that would be all about them if they haven't posted a lot of digitized photos of monuments, as well as historical buildings and figures. On their Facebook profiles, when comparing the original photos and the digitized ones, you can see the sharpness and sophistication to every detail of the latter, which can be enlarged to the largest size to hang onto walls.
What surprised me is that both Phong and Trung are amateurs. They follow this art because of their passion for photography. It can be true to say that is both art and press, as they can capture photos in every genre and the photos are also very beautiful.
Moreover, what surprised me most is the digitization. Phong said that he had been working it out for years but failed many times. Until recently, when digitizing the photo of Queen Nam Phuong, he succeeded in doing it. The two of them are also the first people in almost the whole country to successfully digitize documents and monuments.
After having succeeded in digitizing the photo of Queen Nam Phuong, Phong and Trung enlarged the photo and gave it to Hue Monuments Conservation Center. The photo is now currently on display at Hue Museum of Royal Antiquities. After that success, Phong and Trung have been focusing more on old photos of document, including the mandarins of the Nguyen Dynasty, the architecture of tombs, temples and churches, etc.
Once mastered, the difficulty facing Phong and Trung is not digitization, but the sources for old documentary photos, which is not easy to reach. Partly because a lot of old photos are lost, the rest are mostly located abroad and it is not easy to buy or borrow them.
It takes a few days on average to digitize a photo with minimal damage. It can also be a week, and sometimes half a month. The greatest thing after digitizing the photos is bringing back the most accurate images of figures, architecture, or handwriting. Many photos of architecture were engraved with Hán (Chinese) or Nôm (Vietnamese demotic) characters, which may be blurred and faded. After being digitized, the characters are very clear. That helps a lot for the preservation and conservation.
For some historical figures like emperors and mandarins, the preservation process may not keep their real photos; thus, people have to draw their images for worship or display, which is difficult to ensure 100 percent accuracy, especially the character's charisma. Therefore, as long as there is an original photo, digitization technology will bring out the most accurate photo. "This (digitizing photos) helps the descendants not have to spend time imagining how their ancestors looked like," explained Trung.
I asked them about their difficulties, especially the bread-and-butter issues. Trung is young and unmarried, but Phong is different. He has three daughters of school age, if he only works for passion, how can he provide for his children? Phong just laughed and said that he had a stable job and a good income.
Trung is providing service photography, wedding photography, and photography for interiors, and coffee shops, etc., to earn a living. For the rest of his time, he spends on photos from cultural life to customs. Trung said that he had more photo series of craft villages, which were very detailed and sharp. Just in case one craft is lost or someone needs it, he can provide him or her for reference…
Talking about the passion for heritage photography of the two young photographers, because of their passion, Phong and Trung spent more than two years diligently traveling, and photographing heritage. Nowadays, they have almost a complete collection of photos from the architecture of the mausoleums, Imperial Citadel, to temples in the area.
As I asked if they were not for commercial purposes, so what are the purposes of their photos? Were them for sale? Phong just smiled and said that if newspapers or anyone wanted to buy, he would sell them; but with display purposes, he would give them for free. Moreover, if he sells photos to the newspapers, the royalties are only for charity. "We don't live by this job," confirmed both photographers.
Phong's words reminded me of the time when the pandemic started and before that, when my newspaper office organized a program towards Saigon, they were very supportive. Before that, they had also set up their own program to give gifts to the poor in the area. That entire fund was their royalties from Thua Thien Hue Newspaper and some other newspapers, which they collaborated with.
“We have a shared piggy bank. Whenever we receive the royalties for photos from the newspapers, we just put them in. Trung, Long (Luong Nam Nhat Long) and a few other friends also respond occasionally, like Doan Quang (who is also a very active photo collaborator of the Thua Thien Hue Weekly issues). We sum up the amount we have raised at the end of the year, or after each flood, storm, or natural disaster. If it's too little, then we will spend our own money to buy a few dozen bags of rice, salt, fish sauce, instant noodles, cash, and give them to the lonely old women and the poor," they added… I remember that my colleagues and I had been a “bridge” for Phong, so that the kind heart soon come to the recipient.
“Now that natural disasters and pandemic are becoming less severe, we have time for documentary photography. After digitizing photos of relics and documents, I have also prepared a decent number of photos of Hue, and give them to Hue City People's Committee. Then, I will move towards documentary photos of clans, and photos for worship, etc. For whom who need to digitize photos, I can also help."
The way that Trung and Phong talked about their work, about their passion for digitizing documentary photos is so light; however, I can see both determination and love for heritage and for Hue in them.
Story: Tam Hue
Photo: Nhat Long