Vietnam Portraits : An Interview with Street Photographer John Meehan

John Meehan is a street/travel photographer from Liverpool, UK. His fondness for Vietnam has resulted in his several trips to this beautiful and highly diverse country with a tragic past. Vietnam is key to John’s five-year project to document contemporary life with a series of themes focusing on older people, markets, etc. His portraits of old people are strong and spirited with a lot of character and burden of past evident in their visage, whereas images of younger generations are full of energy and entrepreneurship. There is more to his Vietnam images than this contrast; it is an attempt to capture its generally silent and shy people not as a tourist or a casual street photographer, but as a keen observer and a friend.

John Meehan photography (2)For this showcase post the images selected are exclusively from his Vietnam series. John has also written very insightful articles on his blog where various aspects of photography are discussed. In this brief interview below, John shares with us some facts and insights into his photography:

Please tell us about yourself:

I was born in the working class Ancoats area of Manchester (UK) in 1961. Most of my professional life was spent as an academic at a university in Liverpool UK (where I am currently based). My family is all involved in creative arts in some way. I have a sister who paints and a brother who is a master photographer. My partner has recently got the photography bug and she looks to have a good eye too. I gave up my academic career in 2014 to concentrate full-time on my photography.

John Meehan photography (3)When did you start taking photography seriously?

I received my first camera in 1973. It was a Russian made Zenit SLR. From the outset, I was serious about photography. We had the classic Time Life Library of Photography books in our house and so I was aware of the artistic possibilities of photography from the very beginning. Though I am largely self-taught, my older brother mentored me extensively in the early days and taught me to use a large format 5×4 camera.

John Meehan photography (4)How did you arrive at your key area i.e. street photography and when did your love for Vietnam found its way through photography? Do you feel if there’s indeed an Asian sensibility?

Urban photography – a term I prefer to the narrower ‘street’ photography – has always been the major focus of my work. However, in the early 1990s I did spend a lot of time trying to master large format landscape photography. My photographic output in the days before digital was exclusively in colour. This applied to the landscape work too. Now that I shoot exclusively with digital cameras, most of my work is in black and white.

John Meehan photography (5)In 1994 I travelled to South East Asia for the first time. That trip to Thailand sparked an obsession with photographing in Asia which continues today.  I have since travelled many times to Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. As with the countries of Europe, those of Asia are significantly different from each other culturally and so I don’t think it is possible to speak of a general Asian sensibility.  The differences between countries translate to a different experience when photographing each one. Of all the countries of Asia, Vietnam has occupied me most as a photographer. My recent trips to Vietnam have been with a fellow photographer (Colin Paul). I have been undertaking three overlapping projects there since 2009. One of these is about fishing communities, another about markets and a third is a series of street portraits. A selection of the street portraits is shown here.

John Meehan photography (6)Tell us about your photo-gear, favorite settings? Also tell us about your photography workflow, software you use and your views on editing and photo manipulation:

Like many people reading this, I have made the transition to mirrorless cameras. I switched from Canon DSLRs in 2012 and now use Olympus, Panasonic and Fuji X series cameras. I happily trade the slight quality loss for the big weight loss. I always shoot in RAW format and post process using a combination of Lightroom and Silver Efex Pro2. Something like 90% of my output is black and white but I love colour too.

John Meehan photography (7)What are your method into shooting and your creative approaches:

I’m a pragmatist and don’t like arbitrary rules. When shooting on the street I use zoom lenses. I usually carry two bodies to avoid lens changes. Travel is expensive and I don’t want to reduce my hit rate by limiting myself to prime lenses and wasting time switching lenses. Knowing the history of the medium and familiarity with the work of leading photographers is critical to expanding creativity. I photograph many subjects and am as happy making architectural abstracts as street portraits.

John Meehan photography (8)Which single characteristic does make a photograph iconic?

Photographs work in mysterious ways sometimes. It is difficult to explain why some photographs work and others not. To paraphrase Robert Doisneau, if I knew what made a photograph iconic I would take lots of iconic photographs.

John Meehan photography (9)What do you think about contemporary photography with abundance of images and clichés therein:

We are living in a golden age of photography. With the advent of digitization we have never had better equipment or greater access to audiences for our images and written thoughts about the medium. These are challenging times for commercial photographers, but for the medium as a whole increased participation is a good thing in allowing talented photographers and writers/bloggers to emerge. Mass participation leads to fragmentation as schools of thought emerge intent on promoting or defending some particular style or genre. This is healthy because friction creates spaces for innovation and creativity. Just look at the hybrid styles that have emerged such as documentary style weddings and street portraiture. Contemporary photography is in rude health and we can learn from differences.

John Meehan photography (10)Tell us about your next project, your sources of inspiration/motivation and favourite photographers/artists:

I’m hoping to get back to Hanoi in 2016 to continue making portraits of the senior citizens who gather each morning around Hoan Kiem Lake. There is a great community and social scene around the lake that I want to document. This will likely be part of a yearlong road trip me and my wife Karon have been planning for some time. Motivation is never a problem for me as there is always something exciting to do. If not making images, then I am reading or writing about photography and communicating with other photographers. I am a member of the f/50 collective. This is a small group of experienced photographers from around the world who collaborate on projects and share work via our blog

John Meehan photography (11)Any advice you wish to give to readers of the post:

Know your history, study the greats and photograph what excites and moves you. If you achieve success great, but if not you will still be happy and true to yourself.

John Meehan photography (12) John Meehan photography (13) John Meehan photography (14) John Meehan photography (15) John Meehan photography (16) John Meehan photography (17) John Meehan photography (19) John Meehan photography (20) John Meehan photography (21) John Meehan photography (21b) John Meehan photography (22) John Meehan photography (23) John Meehan photography (24)All photos © John Meehan : Website | Twitter | Blog

About Nishant Mishra

Nishant studied art history and literature at the university during 1990s. He works as a translator in New Delhi, India and likes to read about arts, photography, films, life-lessons and Zen.

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