Expats: An American Photographer in Vietnam

Aug 29, 2012
Photographer News

Reviewing our photographer roster one afternoon, I noticed how many expatriates we had listed—or, photographers living and working in foreign countries. For example, photographer Justin Mott is originally from a small town in Rhode Island, after which he resided in San Francisco and studied journalism. Now, Justin lives and works in Hanoi, Vietnam. Intrigued, I got in touch with Justin to learn more about what it’s like setting up shop thousands of miles from home. This will be the first in a series of interviews of Wonderful Machine expatriate photographers. Enjoy!

- Maria Luci

How did you end up in Vietnam?

It’s a long story, but the shorter version is this: I was finishing up my degree at San Francisco State and needed a break. My father passed away, so I went to the tiny island off the coast of Rhode Island where he grew up to get closure. I spent a summer there waiting tables and interning at the small paper saving money for an adventure in Southeast Asia. While waiting tables, I met a man who worked in graphics at TIME magazine. He told me if I ever make it to NYC to look him up.

I made it to New York when summer ended and gave him a call (I don’t think he actually expected me to do so). He introduced me to the photo editor and she politely looked through my awful images of autumn foliage and generic college shots. On the walls hung iconic images by James Nachtwey; I felt way out of my league—and I was—but she gave me a nugget of advice that changed everything for me. I told her I was heading to Southeast Asia and she said to look into the VII Workshops conducted in Cambodia. So I took VII Founder Gary Knight’s class in Siem Reap and he changed the way I thought about photography.  There were ten people in my class; I was easily the worst photographer. But after the class I spent three months in Cambodia and Vietnam traveling and working on stories, settling in Hanoi. There, I started working on a project on 3rd generation victims of Agent Orange. I fell in love with Vietnam and my projects and basically haven’t left since then. Gary helped me get my first story published in Newsweek and later that year I was actually invited into TIME’s office by the photo editor. She showed me around and also really helped me with my career and gave me confidence in myself as a photographer. I’ve now been in Vietnam for over six years.

Were there any challenges to becoming a freelance photographer in Vietnam?

Yes, the biggest challenge was to get work; the second biggest was to get solid rates. The first two years were pretty dry for me. I went back to NYC two times and hustled. I showed my work to whoever would look at it, and eventually it paid off. I begged Marcel Saba at Redux Pictures to rep me and I think he was sick of me bothering him so he accepted.

Getting access to things in Vietnam is also tricky; there is an extreme paranoia towards foreign journalists. The first response to most requests is a flat out “no.” Also, for commercial work the pricing is very different. Local companies don’t like to pay foreign rates and foreign companies expect a discount because the country is cheaper. Getting businesses to value solid photography has always been a challenge here. Things are changing though, so I’m optimistic about the market.

 Are there any language issues?

There are definitely language issues. When I’m shooting documentary work it can be hard to get a feel for people. My assistant acts as my translator, without her I’d be lost. The cultural differences can take some time to get use to, more so on the commercial side of things. Business in Vietnam is a lot of under the table transactions that I’m not use to, nor do I like. I want to win the job because I was the best photographer for the shoot, not because I was willing to give the biggest kickback. Contracts, ownership, and copyright of images are also complicated issues.  Businesses in Vietnam want to own all rights to images and don’t want to pay more for it. The business of photography is changing but it’s still years behind more developed countries.

What are typical assignments for you in Vietnam?

My most recent assignment was for the New York Times, so I’ll use that as an example. I went to Bangladesh for a series on relating to the unrest in the country’s garment industry. My editor and the writer briefed me and the rest was up to me. Editors are swamped and understaffed so they want a photographer who can figure things out on their own. I flew into Dhaka and worked with a local fixer. We were in contact ahead of time sorting out what I wanted to shoot and arranging access. Things obviously change once you hit the ground and in Asia—no plan works the way you want it to. No one wanted a foreign journalist in their factory, so we had to be really sneaky. We finally got access by acting as a tourist. The NYT is great at sending photographers to different countries and giving me time and freedom to tell their story with images.

How is working in Asia different from working in the States?

Things take a long time to get done. A lot of meetings, a lot of tea. Photographers often get frustrated with clients and lose patience. The market is fairly new so you have to be patient and be ready to educate art buyers about usage and rates and about how the whole process works. It’s a new market and while you might think the rates are low, they are high from what clients are used to paying. But the adventure and problem solving is half the fun.

Has living and working in Asia affected your photography style?

Excellent question, I wish I had an excellent answer. I can say this: living in Asia has allowed me to experiment with my style. The cost of living is cheaper, so if I want to take a month and just focus on personal work I can do so. I can afford to fail there, so yes, it has definitely affected my style.

Do you plan to stay in Vietnam?

I do; I love the energy and vibe of living in Asia. I have such an eclectic group of clients and I always feel challenged creatively. My commercial work is just starting to take off and the market is growing so that excites me too. I also recently started a pilot program with the US Embassy in Malaysia teaching young professional photographers how to tell stories with their images. We have huge aspirations for these workshops all over Southeast Asia, connecting young photojournalists in the region and helping them enhance their skills in telling photo stories. The US government has been extremely supportive and we’re thinking long term.

What advice would you give to a photographer moving to Vietnam?

Stay at home, we don’t need any more photographers here. Just kidding, I love having new photographers to push each other creatively, and new talent assures you will never become complacent. I’d say the hardest part is sticking with it. The first year or two can be difficult to build up your name both abroad and to local clients. Get your name out to agencies all over the world and make sure you make your name synonymous with not just your city, but also your region. The other key thing is to utilize that downtime when you first move somewhere new to work on your craft. If you want to move to Vietnam, come talk to me over a Vietnamese coffee. I’m not sure if I have anything worth saying, but as you can see by my long-winded answers, I love talking about photography.

View more of Justin’s work at mottvisuals.com.

Tags: agent orange expatriates justin mott new york times photography photojournalism time magazine vietnam