Thanks to smart phones and digital cameras, over the past decade the visual documentation of Vietnam has undergone a sea change. No longer is this country plagued by stereotyped images of poor Vietnamese working in fields wearing conical hats, young boys riding buffalos and attractive women in ao dai. Instead, the photography and video coming out of this country has taken on angles which show a different side to Vietnam as we know it today.
Uvi, a monk living in Meiktila in Myanmar
One such artist who has given his own take on the visual image of Vietnam is American-born creator, Neel Sharma. A graduate in Mechanical Engineering and Biomechanics, rather than pursuing a career in engineering, in the four years since finishing his studies Neel has spent three years living overseas, focusing on a variety of music and film-based projects that document the “micro living experiences” in each country that he stays. This, he says, allows him to “immerse [himself] culturally, while organically finding ways to build community and create projects with the local community.”
One of his endeavours which is gaining attention is The Art of Life project. A collection of short, one to two-minute videos shot from a first person, point-of-view perspective, the series “creates… an immersive viewing environment [that] provides an intimate window into the lives of others.”
“The purpose of The Art of Life isn’t so much to tell individual stories as it is about sharing the concept that there are many different ways of living life,” says Neel. “The first-person point of view helps reinforce this.”
He adds: “I intentionally remove myself from the content as I want the participants to share their perspective without any interference or narration from my end. The idea was; see what this person sees on a daily basis.”
One of the big problems Neel faces is finding subjects for his videos; it’s a selection process that he describes as “serendipitous and quite personal”. To find his subjects, he needs to build trust, enough for them to allow him to create the video.
This is doubly difficult due to the places he generally ends up living; areas of towns or cities that aren’t so developed, and where English speakers are in short supply.
However, he says, by living in each place for an extended period of time, learning a little bit of the language, and getting to know people, he has found he is able to form the trust necessary to get a window into people’s lives and most importantly, persuade them to wear a GoPro while going about their daily work.
One of Neel’s Vietnam videos is of Tam, a keymaker working in Hanoi. Neel and his girlfriend lived in Hanoi for four months in an area of the city that hadn’t housed many foreigners before. As a result, he says, he and his girlfriend became quite close with their neighbours, and people working in the neighbouring cafés and restaurants.
When Neel approached Tam, they had never spoken before, “but, on a daily basis we would acknowledge each other either through a head nod, wave, or smile, which is more than enough to form a bond.”
Tam agreed to wear the GoPro and do the video.
Another of Neel’s videos — one of his most striking — is of Uvi, a monk in Myanmar. The film starts with the monk putting on his robe before going off on his daily alms round.
“Back in 2014 I travelled through Myanmar for a month,” says Neel. “While I was exploring the country, I was told about a monk living in a city called Meiktila who allowed people to stay in a monastery with him for extended periods of time. At the time, Meiktila was not a tourist destination. So I made my way to the city, eventually found the monastery, and ended up living with Uvi and a few other monks for about a week.
“What’s really powerful about this video is seeing the way the community interacts with him while he is receiving donations.”
Stills from 6 videos in the art of life series
The Final Cut
The next part of the process is finding the background music — which is licensed from a handful of platforms online — and then the editing. Fortunately, due to the richness of the content, the editing process is quite simple.
“The most challenging and time intensive part is processing hours of footage and then condensing the footage down to a couple of minutes,” says Neel.
The shortness of the videos is intentional: Neel’s purpose is to get “people to swap out their eyes for a couple of minutes at a time and then get back to their day.” But as the series evolves, he hopes to incorporate longer content.
Stills from 6 videos in the art of life series
In the meantime, it means a delay between shooting and getting the final cut online. Indeed, once he has gone through the hours of footage, coming up Neel has a video of Sean Thommen, the brewmaster at East West Brewing Co. in Ho Chi Minh City.
“Watching and learning more about the brewing process was both inspiring and eye opening,” says Neel. “There’s truly an art to it.”
Having filmed 50 different people from seven countries, videos in the pipeline include stories of a Vietnamese barista, a fish net thrower, a painter, someone making nem cuon, and a mechanic. The Art of Life is an ongoing series and Neel hopes to collect and map as many perspectives from around the world as possible.
PHOTOS PROVIDED BY NEEL SHARMA