Interview: Other Streets – Mark F. Erickson

In this interview, Hon Hoang talks to photographer Mark F. Erickson.

Diaspora, I have made attempts to understand this term, but it’s meaning escapes me like vapors through an open window. As soon as my mind begins wrapping itself around the concept, it’s gone, moving to take another form. Perhaps there is no simple way to encapsulate it. The idea of diaspora has become more than the movement of people, it’s about identity and what these people experience after they’ve moved.

For immigrants and many of their descendants, they grow up on the precipice of two or more ethnic identities. The push and pull from wanting to know where you’re from so you can know who you are and who you might become. Trying to fit in one place all the while maintaining connection to a place your family calls “home”, but the memories of “home” are not ones you’ve made for yourself.

For photographer Mark F. Erickson, his photobook Other Streets: Scenes from a Life in Vietnam not Lived is an exploration of capturing his Vietnamese identity and creating his own memories of home. Mark was born in Saigon in 1972, evacuated as part of Operation Babylift in April 1975, and adopted by an American family in western New York.

Mark’s photobook has been exhibited at the L.A. Center of Photography, the Davis Orton Gallery, and the Griffin Museum of Photography. He has been profiled in The Photobook Journal, diaCRITICS: the arts & culture of the Vietnamese and SE Asian diaspora, the Worksleeve podcast, and VVA (Vietnam Veterans of America) Books.

In this interview, I speak with Mark about his photography and how the medium helped him get a glimpse into a life he might have lived.


If liked this interview you may also be interested in Foreign Home: Vietnam

What are some things you want to say and explore with photography? What do your photographs mean to you? 

I love words and I read a lot of books. But I also love the visual arts because there are some things that cannot be expressed with words. And the wordlessness of photography, in particular, leaves a lot of space for engagement and interpretation by the viewer. In that sense, what I’m trying to say with photography is beyond words. What I am trying to explore and what it means to me is more explicable. It is an external representation of an internal exploration of who I am, where I come from, and how I fit into the world.


Can you please detail how Robert Frank’s The Americans influenced your style of documentary photography? 

The Americans influenced me in many ways. First, while there are many noteworthy individual photographs in the book, the whole is much more than the sum of its parts. Frank included what others might perceive as imperfect shots—some are even out of focus and others are slightly off-kilter–and left out. Second, the work is focused on everyday people and situations, allowing the viewer not to be distracted by famous faces and pretty places. Third, I really struggled with editing and sequencing my own work and turned repeatedly to The Americans more than any other book as inspiration for how to do it well.


Growing up in the US, what were your perceptions and ideas of Vietnam as you learned about it through a Western lens?

The truth is I didn’t think much about Vietnam while growing up. Of course I knew that I was factually from Vietnam, but I was in a predominantly white community and Vietnam was just not a focus of conversation or personal interest. I was an adolescent when popular Hollywood Vietnam War movies like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket came out and they did pique my interest, but the gaze in those movies is firmly on the Americans. Thus, my very narrow perception of Vietnam was that it was the location of a tragic war.

How did these perceptions and ideas shift as you studied Vietnamese history from a Vietnamese perspective with Hue-Tam Ho Tai? 

College was an incredibly eye opening experience on many levels. Socially, I met people from all walks of life, including other Vietnamese students who introduced me to Vietnamese culture. Academically, as you mentioned, I had the opportunity to study under Hue Tam Ho Tai, one of the few tenured Vietnamese professors in the United States at the time. As a history professor, she of course taught an obligatory course on the war, but she also taught about the entirety of Vietnamese history, as well as Chinese-Vietnamese relations. Over thousands of years, the American War in the 1960s and 1970s is just a very small part of the overall story.


In 1993, you returned to Vietnam after (18) years (first leaving when you were 3), what were your thoughts of Vietnam when you entered the city of Saigon? 

This was prior to the normalization of political relations between the United States and Vietnam, so one of the only ways I could visit for an extended period of time was as a foreign student in Hanoi. During that trip, I took a bus trip with the other foreign students to Saigon.  I distinctly remember standing in the open doorway of the mini bus.  It was that magical time of day near sunset when everything glows and the shadows are long.  I was quiet and I had some inexplicable feelings crescendo inside of me, feelings that I didn’t feel anywhere else in the country.


How did you hope to capture and record Vietnam in your series OTHER STREETS: Scenes from a Life in Vietnam not Lived 

I took my camera, tripod and a lot of film with me to Vietnam.  I loved the process of documentary photography, but I had no greater ambition or vision of what that could or would ultimately become. A camera gives you permission to stare at people and engage with them in a way that you otherwise are not socially permitted to do. In short, I just wanted to capture for myself what I saw and experienced first-hand.

When I returned to the states, I developed the film and made contact sheets. I developed a dozen or more of the photos that jumped off the contact sheets. I knew I had captured something special and I tried to get some publishers interested, but was unsuccessful, stopped trying, and got busy with a lot of other things in my life.

It was not until many years later that I thought of revisiting those images and really doing something with them. And by this time, of course, the country had changed dramatically in terms of economic development from what I had captured.

How did your dual perceptions of Vietnam affect how you approached this project? 

The project aspect of this did not come into focus until the last few years. Revisiting those images and finding treasures that I previously overlooked was at first a personal curiosity. My children were getting older, so I had more time on my hands, and I was having more mid-life thoughts and feelings about my background and identity. Going back to Vietnam through these images brought up a lot of unprocessed feelings. 

At this time, I ran across a Kuzuo Ishiguro quote about being a Japanese person in England and growing up to be an English-language author and it was one of the eventual inspirations for the title of my book:  “There was another life that I might have had, but I am having this one.” And I thought that captured something I hadn’t been able to put my finger on:  yes, there was another life that I might have had, but yes, I am having this one—and I can be at peace with that.


Whether about yourself, your country of birth, or the medium of photography, what are some lessons you discovered through this project?  

Wow, I’ve had a lot of lessons in all of the above. This project helped guide me to a greater feeling of being Vietnamese. As an adoptee, I have at times felt like I wasn’t authentically Vietnamese—I don’t have a Vietnamese name, a Vietnamese family, the Vietnamese language or culture—and I loved what Viet Thanh Nguyen told Phuc Tran when he expressed something similar in an interview:  why are you allowing others to be gatekeepers and judges on authentic Vietnamese-ness? I expected the project to connect me more with the artistic and photographic communities—and it has—but I didn’t expect the greater connectivity to the Vietnamese and broader Asian community, which has been a pleasant surprise. Prior to publishing the book, I never felt comfortable using my Vietnamese name (Đỗ Văn Hùng), but I now recognize it too is a part of who I am. Post-COVID, I want to go back to Vietnam again given that I have re-connected with family there and my wife and children have never been.

Are there any particular moments or stories from this project that have stayed with you? 

Related to the above, I of course have appreciated the professional recognition and awards that I have received, but what I have been most touched by are the reactions of Vietnamese-Americans. For the older ones, most fled as boat people and they left with nothing, so looking at my book brings many to tears with memories of their childhoods. For their children with no memory of Vietnam, it has served as a bridge between them and their parents to better understand the country they left behind.


Are there any long-term personal projects you’re hoping to explore or are currently working on? 

A work in progress is about Vietnamese-American boatpeople and their adjustment to life in America as refugees. The work comes from the time I taught English as a Foreign Language in the Vietnamese community and it was my first exposure to their lives. Ideally, I would like to pair the photographs with essays from people who lived that experience.


If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself? 

First, as I mentioned earlier, I sent my work out to several publishers and got rejected by all of them.  I took it as a rejection that my work wasn’t good enough.  My older self would tell my younger self not to take the rejection as the end. I now know that many photographers self-publish for many reasons, including the ability to have complete editorial control. Most publishers are in it to run a business and make money and that’s usually the last thing on the artist’s mind. Second, if the body of work is really strong, you will find the audience for it.


Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? 

I strongly believe that the best training for a photographer is to take a lot of photographs and to find a mentor. Henri Cartier-Bresson famously said “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst” and it is so true! A mentor is critical because it is hard to self-critique and he or she will push you further than you might otherwise be able to go on your own. At Harvard, Chris Killip (UK) served as that type of mentor for me.

Mark F. Erickson (Đỗ Văn Hùng)

Interview: Frenetic City – Zhou HanShun

In this interview, Hon Hoang talks to artistic photographer Zhou HanShun.

With the unknown, our mind fills in the information gaps while we seek out what we believe to be true. There is beauty in that mystery and need of resolution. The sensation of the unknown is familiar to photographers. The need for exploration and resolution, whether within the world on within our minds. It is a familiar feeling for photographer Zhou Hanshan. In this interview, we discuss his career, path to photography, and the frenetic unknown when compared to the stagnation of the familiar.

Zhou is currently working on a kickstarter to fund his upcoming photo-book Frenetic City.

What were some of your early experiences with photography? Did you know in those moments that photography would be your career?

My first contact with photography was during my early teens, when I played with my father’s Minolta Super SRT. When I went onto art school, I chose to major in photography during my final year at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

I kind of knew early in life that I wanted to do something that revolves around “art”. But later on, I realised that making a decent living with fine art would be terribly difficult, especially in a tiny country like Singapore. That’s why I enrolled in the graphic design programme in art school, instead of fine arts. I took up photography “seriously” when I was in art school, while studying graphic design. Back then, photography was taught through the design programme, and not in the fine arts programme. In the 2nd year of the 3 year course, I decided that I would do photography as a major. So I guess that’s when I decided that it was something that I wanted to do. But interestingly enough, after graduation, I went to work in the advertising industry as an Art Director, instead of being a “Professional” Photographer. I guess that I would rather work on personal projects and photograph on my own terms, instead of someone else’s. Being in the creative industry also allows me to see various forms of photography. But having to work full-time means that photography actually took the backseat, until around 2010. While I was getting recognition for my advertising work, somehow, I realised that something was missing in my life. That was when I started to photograph “seriously” again, and have been working on my personal projects again and getting my work exhibited ever since.

Whether through formal education or self-taught, how did you develop your style as a photographer? Are there any photographers that influence you in particular?

There are lots of photographers whom I admire. Example: Harry Callahan, Lee Friedlander, Daido Moriyama, Henri Cartier Bresson, Masahisa Fukase, Josef Koudelka, just to name a few. These are photographers who did things their own way, with their unique vision, without being influenced by what the majority of the work during their time. I think that’s important for creators. To do our own thing. Even if it might not be widely accepted. To be safe is to be boring. Although I went to art school and majored in photography, I don’t really like to restrict myself to a particular style of photographing. But I do prefer to create work in B&W though.

Please tell me more about your upcoming book Frenetic City. How did you find yourself in Hong Kong and how did you go about starting this project?

I lived in Hong Kong from 2014-2017. When I first landed in 2014, I was quite overwhelmed by the intensity of the crowded streets and the chaotic nature of it. Frenetic City was a photographic reaction to it. I wanted to create the feeling that I felt in the photographs. I am currently crowd funding on Kickstarter to publish Frenetic City into a book. My first monograph. The campaign ends on 30th May 2020.

What can you tell me about your time photographing Hong Kong? What are some things you learned about the people and the city as you worked on the project?

Hong Kong is a very dynamic and energetic city. Coming from Singapore, I must say that I do miss its energy sometimes. It’s also a very “photograph-able” city. When I first arrived, I was quite overwhelmed by the chaotic and stressful environment, especially the crowded streets. Compared to other cities, Hong Kong for me feels much more intense. While Singapore is also a busy city, the pace of life here is somewhat less “hurried.” An example would be that I can easily sit at a cafe for an hour or two, while in Hong Kong, the bill would come as soon as I was almost done with my food. In general, I think Hong Kongers are trying really hard to make ends meet (given the astronomical price of property there).

Being born and raised in Singapore, what is it like to photograph people native to your country compared to the projects you take on abroad?

Being born and having spent most of my life in Singapore, it can be quite “difficult” to find inspiration to photograph here. Having said that, I am currently working on a project that explores life and landscapes along the edge of this island-state. Somehow, I find myself much more productive when I am working on projects abroad or based on other cities. Maybe it’s the initial freshness that comes with visiting or living in a new environment.

As a creative, what is the importance of pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone? Do you notice a difference in the quality of your photographs when you’re comfortable versus when pushing yourself?

I think it is very important to push myself to experiment or try new ways of photographing. I’m not exactly a fan of having a particular style of photographing. For me, it depends on the project that I am working on. Some projects that are more “documentary”, then I would employ a more documentary way of working. If it’s more “conceptual”, then I would use a more conceptual way of creating the work. So in that sense, when I look back at the resulting work, I do see a difference. Some work might look aesthetically “nicer”, while others might look more like snapshots.

If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

If I could advise my early self, I would tell myself to start working on my personal projects much earlier on in life and not get tied down by the constant pressures or worries of making a living.

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

Create work that is important to yourself and not get influence by style. Ultimately, photography, like all art forms, is about what you are trying to say or the work that you are portraying.

Interview: About Dream – Suki Lui

In this interview, Hon Hoang talks to photographer Suki Lui.

Photography isn’t always about what we see in front of us, but a medium of expression for what we have inside. The conceptualization of thoughts and feelings fabricated into light forms can be cathartic in the best of times. In these days of uncertainty, we have to explore what is hidden within, in all sense of the word. In this interview, I speak with photographer Suki Lui about her experiences and work. How she approaches her art from conceptualization and exploration of life experiences to production of photographs.

What were some of your early experiences with photography?

My parents do not have any art or photography background. They were refugees from rural China who came to Hong Kong in the 1970s. They did not own a camera or have a family photo album either. They only possessed one photo of themselves from their life before coming to Hong Kong.

Having the chance to have a photo taken was thus a very precious experience for me. I remember all early family photographs were taken by relatives or our neighbours. They then sent them back to us when the films were developed. It was in fact a very intimate act and it was how people connected with each other back then. The other early experience that I can recall is my father enjoying taking my mother, me and my four brothers to have a proper family portrait taken at photography studio once every couple of years – those traditional family portraits where everyone sits or stands formally just like those you normally do for school year book. I remember the family portrait was taken in a studio with an English rural landscape backdrop which I believe had not been changed for more than a decade. This association of photography with intimacy and relationships has stayed with me.

I started taking photos at sixteen. My early experience of taking pictures was not very structured; it was only a way for me to record daily moments I spent with friends and family. The early photographs I took were all with the analogue cameras I had been given: disposable cameras, some toy cameras from Lomography like LC-A 35mm film camera.


What does time mean to you and how does this definition affect your photography?

I believe the concept of time is always at the back of my mind when taking photographs. Henri Cartier Bresson and Saul Leiter were definitely some of the early influences on my photography. Capturing ephemeral moments was one of the main objectives of my early photography practice.

I am also sensitive to time in that I am sensitive to changes in light. Capturing particular light is one of the most important elements in my photography.

Also, using film instead of digital data forces me to reflect carefully on the particular moment I am capturing when pressing the shutter. I also enjoy spending time developing films in the darkroom alone. I enjoy the focussed concentration and having full control over my work process; it is in fact very therapeutic. Awareness of the amount of work required to develop analogue photographs helps you to cultivate an attitude of carefulness and meticulousness when taking photographs.

As a creative, what is the importance of pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone? Do you notice a difference in the quality of your photographs when you’re comfortable versus when pushing yourself?

I think it is important to not let yourself stay in your comfort zone. I find it tedious to constantly work on the same style unless the process is intended to help me advance my technique. I think a lot about my work and the possibility of developing new techniques by working differently. My experiences teach me that I can always discover new things which surprise me when I step away from my comfort zone.

My ongoing photo series About Dream was a new challenge to me. My photography is usually portrait-oriented. Working on About Dream let me have chance to pay more attention to my surroundings and mundane objects instead of people, and allowed me to explore new ways of playing with light.

 Do you plan most of your projects or do they grow into one as you take more images? If planned, what is your process like?

I do plan some of my photo projects. It depends on the nature of the project. For commercial works, it is necessary to make a plan beforehand. I do research, which includes finding visual or literary materials, as well as having conversation with friends (this is particularly important). Apart from that, I find it very useful to discuss with my creative team (if I am working in a team). However, in my experience no project works exactly as planned.

By contrast, most of my personal projects mostly start from one image or idea before developing into a coherent project. I think the process grows quite naturally. In fact, I believe it is sometime essential to let the process lead the way.


Are there any long-term personal projects you’re hoping to explore or are currently working on?

Yes. During my masters studies in London, I started working on a project which explores modern consumerism by focussing on how signs are manipulated and meanings are created and played with in the process of consumption. With my background as the only daughter in a relatively conservative family, I realized how different expectations for every aspect of life have been placed on me. Female experience is thus a central subject matter for me. In this project, by recontextualising mundane objects juxtaposed with female models, I intend to reflect on the stereotypical way of representing women in modern consumerist culture.

How much of yourself do you put into your photographs?

I frequently take self-portraits, but for me this is less about myself and more about capturing a particular moment in time and reflecting on broader themes of change, intimacy and gender.


If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

I would tell myself to have the confidence to go to places and situations where I might not feel entirely comfortable, but which would help to push my practice further.


Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

I would say it is important to stay with people who help and support you to create, whilst opening up yourself to work with different creative people. Most importantly, I think, you have to be honest to yourself and pursue what you care about and find interesting.

Interview: Hours of Gold – Kris Vervaeke

In this interview, Hon Hoang talks to Kris Vervaeke, a portrait, commercial, and street Photographer.

Physical exploration abroad can bring about much left unexplored within one’s own mind. Many questions that people are not confronted with are presented to the foreground as we move across the globe, finding ourselves in different yet familiar places. Observing those that breathe the same air and bleed the same blood yet noticing the subtleties and idiosyncrasies that make us unique. The ability to observe and even admire these quirks are necessary as a North Star for most photographers. Guiding them towards their subjects and creating stories through images. Photographer Kris Vervaeke presents his work with realism yet accompanies it with a tinge of wonder as he’s guided by this sense of direction.

What were some of your early experiences with photography?

Just taking a few snap shots here and there during my travels when working for a steel company. Nothing special.

China Factory
China Factory

Whether through formal education or self-taught, how did you develop your style as a photographer? Are there any photographers that influence you in particular?

After many years working in an industrial environment, I switched careers completely. Did some evening school and I’m still self-teaching me with every experience. Photography is what I do now. I think I developed my style by just wandering around, looking and trying out different things.

Some old and classics: e.g. Cartier-Bresson and August Sander,  Lee Friendlander.  Martin Parr, Alec Soth,  also  Larry Sultan. Kadir Van Lohuizen, Misrach… but I also can get inspired by some starting photographers.

China Factory
China Factory


Being born in Belgium, what is it like to photograph people native to your country compared to the projects you take on abroad?

To be honest I have not really photographed many Belgians yet… and if so it would not be that different I assume. I probably will adjust in some details here and there but in general, the way I approach and connect with the street and with people would be the same.


You spent 13 years living throughout Asia. What can you tell me about your first year there and how did it compare to your last?

As I was just new in the photography business with no experience, I started with variety of small jobs from shooting 1500 wine bottles to silly portraits for a little local magazine. With each job I learned more and added on experience. Over the years you get to know the region better and I started doing more personal projects towards the end.

6 Chinese Cities
6 Chinese Cities

Can you tell me a bit about your House Full of Gold series? How did the project start?

The title refers to the name of a fortune tellers booth. When living in Hong Kong, I visited this temple taking pictures of the Chinese New Year rush. This is when I first saw those fortune tellers in the back building and became interested with them. I didn’t pursue any images with the fortune tellers at the time, but it always was in the back of my mind.

House Full of Gold

A unique place of worship and wishes, 160 fortune tellers concentrated in one building, neatly lined up in tiny offices; waiting for customers to come by for good fortune. They invite you in their little sanctuaries, stacked to the roof with knowledge and paper and history. They read from ancient shading books, from the cracks of your smile and from the shape of your jaws. They juggle with jostle sticks and birth day numbers and find the future in your hands and forehead while you sit on hard wooden chairs. I found myself going back many times. I started talking to them and eventually had my hand and face read by some. This gave me a better understanding of these fortune tellers and the traditional art of fortune telling. It made me want to document this unique place.

House Full of Gold

So I started to take portraits of the fortune tellers and their empty booths when they did not want to be photographed. It is only later on that I decided to do something with it. That year I participated at a photography workshop organized by Magnum. I wanted to re-create these rows of fortune tellers and the bizarre atmosphere that is at the same time religious, superstitious, carnival, shopping mall, historic site, temple and theme park, all packed in one. Allowing you to see the shops and its interior from the outside makes you a visitor choose your fortune teller. I also included detail images of the interior , plus quotes of the fortune tellers about my own fortune.

House Full of Gold

Are there any particular moments or stories from this project that has stayed with you?

When doing the interviews, one fortune teller said ‘Once I told a customer she would become a prostitute and she did. I’m not sure if my prediction led her into it.’ I smiled, sometimes people put too much trust in others. As mentioned for this project I had my hand and face read several time . One fortune teller (an ex fireman) advised me ‘OK, Mr. Kris , you pay first’ ‘You have long ears. You can be famous, but you are stubborn. Keep good Feng Shui. This year, put some fresh flowers every day at the north side wall in your house. This will help you become famous’. Well, I tried this but it did not help. Another one said ‘Your career is like a river, like it cannot stop. At 65 you’ll still have a career.’ So now I guess I’ll keep my faith in that one…

House Full of Gold
House Full of Gold


Do you have an image in mind before you take a photograph? How much do you allow the moment and your emotions to dictate the direction compared to what you have planned?

I work very intuitively. I often find my inspiration in daily life or on the street. I like to take pictures of what I think is somehow intriguing, bizarre, senseless, curious or surreal. Sometimes it is so bluntly ordinary that I find it becomes queer, daft or surprisingly entertaining. For my new project where I take images of objects in a studio I do have the image in mind and work with more structure.


How much of yourself do you put into your photographs? What is it about your subject that makes you want to create a photograph?

Unconsciously I put a lot of myself in my photographs. I see subjects, I see stories. With an eye toward storytelling, I use my camera to take you to some strange and wonderful places that you may not experience in your own day-to-day life. I love to make photo stories that capture some of the humanity and goofiness I discover.

6 Chinese Cities
6 Chinese Cities

Are there any long-term personal projects you’re hoping to explore or are currently working on?

My personal work tends toward in-depth projects that become books and exhibitions Currently I’m working on a project called ’98 objects found in my mother-in-law’s-basement’ I photograph objects found in people’s basements. A surprising collection of prosthetic devices, dysfunctional tools, tooth brushes, 20-year-old cans of food, old toaster, decapitated toys, to a single shoe. Through these kept items a portrait of an era emerges, everyday objects as a capsule of time of society


If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

I should have started with photography much earlier…

6 Chinese Cities
6 Chinese Cities
6 Chinese Cities

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

Follow your instinct, don’t be afraid to throw yourself into it and own your project. It’s advice I still need to give myself.


House Full of Gold

Photos Courtesy of Krisver Vaeke

Instagram: @krisverv

Interview: Families of the Dump (Forgotten Laughter) – Gerry Yaum

The internet is saturated with one article after another that requires our undivided attention, attention that is few and far between in the digital age. This article and interview will contribute to such saturation, but it is well worth the time to read for the stories photographer Gerry Yaum provides and the work he does for the Families of the Dump.
The interview is about Yaum and his decade long project in Mae Sot, Thailand, documenting the Burmese refugees that call the dump home. The project consists of his charity work and photography.

Photographer Bio:

Self Taught social documentary photographer and security guard.

Submission Information:

A BRIEF HISTORY “Families of the Dump”

My social documentary photography project “Families of the Dump” dates back to 2013. In 2013 after viewing a CNN story on YouTube I learnt of Burmese refugee families who were living in a garbage dump in Mae Sot Thailand. I had been searching for an important very human story to tell. The families in the dump became for me that very important, life-changing story.

In the vicinity of the Mae Sot dump approximately 100 families who have escaped Burma (Myanmar) live and work. The people are mostly from the Mon and Karen ethic groups but there are also other groups in the population. They have escaped Burma for economic and or political reasons. Many families working the garbage in Mae Sot have experienced war and extensive human rights abuses. Life in the garbage is a better choice for them, a better option than where they came from. They can work everyday, make money and build better lives in Thailand at the dump than they could back home in Burma.

At the Mae Sot dump all types recyclable goods are of value, plastics, bottles, cardboard, metals etc. Everything is dug out of the waste and then resold to local buyers based on weight and quality. Everyday the people, sometimes-entire families including children and the elderly come out into the garbage to scavenge. Food is often taken out of the waste, raw meat, fruits, vegetables, nuts, foods of all types, everything of value is used.

The families either live in shacks directly on the garbage, or next to it. Many of the photographs in this presentation were made in the homes the people live in, sometimes up to 9 human beings in a single dump shack.

My first trip to Mae Sot and the dump of the families was in April/May 2013. I took a second trip in 2013, another in 2015, 2016 and a 6-month trip in 2017-2018. Over that time period I have visited the dump over 100 times. The work has been both photographic and donation in nature (please see end section for the donation work).

Website or Social Media Links: (to follow his documentation of donations spent)

What were some of your early experiences with photography?

I started in photography when I was 14, after taking a darkroom class in my shop education course. After high school, I tried to get into a college photography program, but was rejected two years in a row. I got angry and frustrated so I decided to do it alone. Making the kind of pictures I wanted to make. If a school would not accept me then I would teach myself. 

When I was 21, I took all my cameras and darkroom gear, borrowed my parent’s motorhome, and drove from Edmonton to Vancouver, Canada before heading South into the United Stated for 6 months of picture making. I ended up photographing in an African American ghetto in Oakland, California. Met many friends there, people who lived in a completely different culture, and with very different life experiences than my own. 

For me, it was a life changing event. I learned so much. I photographed the jazz scene there as well as heroin users and ex San Quentin convicts. It was a real eye opening experience for a naive 21 year old white boy from Canada. That 6 month trip cemented the way I would do things in the future, gave me a working method to make photographs. 

There was another 6 month US trip 5 years later. Later in life there would be a  3 month, 10 month, 1 year and 6 month long trips to Thailand. I just worked whatever job I could, saved money, when I had enough, I dropped everything and went to make my pictures!


What do you do for work? How does this work affect your photography?

For the last 25 years I have been working as a night time security guard. Gerry Yaum is a pseudonym, the made up name Yaum means security guard in Thai. 

The good part of being a guard is that you have plenty of free time during the night to study. I can read art biographies, browse photography books, clean my camera gear, roll bulk film etc. One of the most important things I do during my security nightshifts is to study languages. I have learned to speak a fair amount of Thai and to read and write a bit. Language is key when it comes to doing social documentary photography. You can build friendships and build trust when you can speak directly with your subjects. I am now trying to learn Burmese so I can speak to the people at the dump. 

Most importantly, working night security allows me to plan my photo projects. I can think things out, work on ideas, get everything settled in my mind. 

Tell me a bit about your project, how did it get started? How did you learn about this community?

Well now you got me going, I can talk all night and on about ‘Families of the Dump”.  I started to photograph inside Thailand way back in 1996. Initially, I was photographing the night scene in Thailand. Mostly concentrating on sex workers who worked with Western sex tourists. I did a series of portraits with female, male and transgender (ladyboy) workers. After doing that work on and off for around 15 years I was burned out and needed to go in a new direction. I then left the bar world to photograph in Bangkok’s Klong Toey slum. This was a series of portraits done of people in Klong Toey, their lives, their stories. 

In 2012, I was working as a night security guard looking for another subject to photograph. I wanted to tell an important story, a story of good people who had been forgotten. Not only that, I wanted to do photographs that could help the people in the pictures. So I looked online, and searched for ideas through out my security nights.

In an Asian newspaper story, I found an article about people in Siem Riep, Cambodia, working in a garbage dump. I thought that might be what I was searching for. I have been to Cambodia several times, but do not speak much Khmer. I thought, “maybe I can do this type of photographs somewhere in Thailand.” The idea being that I could then speak Thai to my subjects, learn about their lives, explain why I was making photos, build trust, make friends, etc. So I did a search on ‘Thailand garbage dumps’ and up popped Mae Sot and the families who work there. The strange thing about this story is of course that very few people in the dump speak Thai, the family members all speak Burmese and their own particular dialect depending on what ethnic group they are from, Karen, Mon, etc. Probably less than 10% of the people in the dump speak any Thai. So when I got to the dump, my Thai was sort of useless. I have been trying (‘trying’ being the key word) to learn Burmese ever since.

The project is basically my interpretation of the lives the families live in the garbage. We work together making the pictures and later on I show the work and tell the stories, on my blog, on my social media and in exhibitions at galleries and other sites like libraries. The photos, people seeing the pictures lead to all the donation work that is now being done. 

My first trips to the dump in April and November of 2013, I would just hand out bags of food to different dump shacks, 2 or 3 bags each trip. Over time that evolved into much more. At the company where I work security, I showed the pictures to my coworkers and they started to donate hats, toys, clothing and money. So I started to take and distribute those things in the food bags. Later people started to give me money. With the donated money I would buy rubber boots, more rice, and other food goods to hand out to the families. With more money donations we (myself and the donators) started to buy headlamps, some basic medicines and a better quality boots for the families. In 2017-18 we did over $4000 CAD in donations, this coming trip I have $1630 CAD that I will use to buy goods to donate. For me, this is all a dream come true. The photos have led to direct help for the people in the pictures, as it should be.

From your years working on this project, what are some stories that have stayed with you? What do you take away from these moments?

On my 3rd  day in the dump, near a group of dump shacks, an older Burmese mother said something to me in Burmese, then placed her fingers together side by side. I had no idea what she was talking about about, she then repeated the strange hand gesture a second time with more Burmese talk, which I still did not understand. I smiled, nodded and walked away to do  some dumpscapes down the road with my 4×5 camera. As I was making those photographs I looked back and saw a table had been setup up on the roadway. Curious, I headed back. There were people gathered round and a young couple dressed in their best clothes. The woman was wearing a pink jacket shirt, with a long golden skirt, she had beautiful fresh flowers in her hair. Next to her a man was wearing a clean white long sleeved shirt and a traditional Burmese blue Longyi (a cloth tied at the waste and worn as a long skirt). I realized that this was a wedding and the pressed fingers gesture represented marriage, a joining of a man and woman becoming husband and wife. The husband was 17, the wife 15. I made pictures, donated some money to the new couple and shared the small amount of food and drink (shared hot chocolate) provided. It turned into a great time. I lent the family my point and shoot digital camera and they made a series of pictures of each other. Family photos while standing in front of the walls of dump garbage. When I returned to Canada I had the images printed up and then later in November 2013 during a return dump visit, I handed out the wedding photographs. As you can well imagine the pics were a big hit! Loved by all, smiles everywhere. 

One early morning that first year in the dump I was photographing with a 4×5 camera on a tripod. An hour or so in I heard lots of yelling, there was just this sudden unexplained panic then everyone in the dump was gone. They all ran for cover and had disappeared into dump shacks or the nearby sugar cane field. It was surreal, the whole event only took seconds.  In a flash all the people in the open were gone, all the people that had been working disappeared. I had no idea what was going on, I just stood there with my camera looking stupid, trying to figure out what to do next. I asked myself, “What was happening?” Figuring I better get my ass out of there, I grabbed all my gear, put the 4×5 on my shoulder and stumbled over to the nearby sugarcane field hiding area with the others. I stood there with an old man I knew a bit and he just shook his head he said in English “Burma!” then shook his head again. Then I heard it, the sound of a helicopter in the far distance (the Myanmar-Burmese border is very near to the garbage dump).  I had not realized it before but it was quite loud now. Everyone had run away from that sound, the sound of helicopters frightened everyone. I was never quite sure what happened but I think this is the story. The people in the dump thought the Burmese military were coming across the border in a chopper to get them! What you have to understand is many of these people are escaping mass murder, rape, war and loss. Many of the people in the dump have experienced genocide. That noise triggered something from their jointly held past, and they just ran in fear without thinking. After a few minutes the helicopter noise went away and everyone returned to work. It was as if nothing had happened. I started to take pictures again with a new insight into what these peoples past lives were like.

During my last trips to to make photographs at the dump in 2017-2018, I spent about 4 months photographing the dump at night. The photos in your selection are from that time period. I would walk the garbage all night while the families worked, making pictures, always looking for photos, trying to tell the story as best I could. This one time I was making photos, standing in complete darkness as usual, the only light coming from the headlamps of the people working. Suddenly, I felt something grab my left hand. I looked down and there was a bald young girl (children have their heads shaved because of the lice problem), maybe 5 or 6 looking back up at me and smiling. She just held my hand tightly and just looked up at me. It was a very simple and very beautiful thing, I will never forget it. We walked around the dump for 10 minutes before she let go. I then continued to make pictures. I do not know who she was, but it is one of those moments that sticks with me. It is one of the the reasons I go back to the dump again and again. I feel an obligation to return, a duty to try and help that anonymous young child who held my hand. 



Do you still see the same families when you go back?

That is the best part of the whole social documentary photography process. Because you become so involved in the lives of your subjects you see them over and over again, this happens for years on end. When I did my series of portraits on sex workers in Pattaya Thailand, I photographed many different workers over many different years, it is the same with “Families of the Dump”. Most of the family members know me by name because we have established long term relationships. One example, is from that  earlier wedding story. I photograph that same couple every trip, first in 2013 at their wedding and every trip since. I now have photographed 2 of their children, this coming trip when I return to the dump in a few days I expect to be photographing their 3rd child. Of course some people leave and new families come in, but for over the 6 years I have been photographing at the dump I have established long term relationships with dozens and dozens of people, so many people I have lost count. 

Being able to photograph family members over many years, to be able to photograph the children as they grow up is a wonderful experience, it connects you to everyone on a much deeper and personal level. You remember that little girl as a baby, you remember that older person when they were still healthy and strong, you see the different family members interact and work together for years. Longevity, continuance in photographic works adds depth and nuance to everything. It is the only way to do things in my opinion, it adds so much richness to everything.


When people donate, how do these funds help? 

Yes, yes and YES! There is no waste, no administration costs, 100% of the money goes for goods that are then donated to the families. It is a simple process. I go to an ATM machine in Mae Sot, I then go buy what is needed at local stores and markets. I buy headlamps, rubber boots, rice, food goods, over the counter medicines, working tools, treats for the kids (lollipops, cookies) and I haul it all on my rented  motorbike (I pay for the bike out of my security guard money) out to the dump and hand it out directly to the families. Your hand, to my hand to their hands. No BS, no waste. 

I can speak Thai well enough to negotiate good deals with the Thai folks selling goods at the markets. In fact sometimes when the Thai market sellers see what I am doing they actually donate some free things of their own, usually for the dump kids, hats, balloons etc. What I have found is that if you give freely, if you help others yourself, if your heart is in the right place, others will join in, they jump on the bandwagon and help. People are usually good, you just need to give them a chance to be good. 

I should also mention I document everything, I make photos of the bought goods, of the handouts to the people.  I also do videos if I have time. Everything is on the up and up, I try to make things as transparent as I can, 100% of the money raised through donations is handed out in goods.

The donation money raised is a combination of money donated by friends and by money I raise through my work as a security guard or through my artist talks at galleries. I also try to donate my artist fees from any exhibitions I get as well. So it becomes the perfect circle of art life. I make the photos in the dump, the photos are exhibited, the money from the photos being exhibited and the money donated by people who see the pictures goes directly back to the people in the photographs. So making photos creates funds to buy boots and headlamps for the “Families of the Dump”. IT IS PERFECT!

Link for donations


As a photographer, how do you engage with these families? Do you get to know them before you take the first photograph? 

I take things slow and easy, return again and again to establish trust, friendships and long term relationships. The people in the dump are escaping all kinds of personal suffering. The last thing they need is some smart ass rich western white guy who is dragging around 4 Leica cameras making pictures. So I try to build things up slowly over an extended period of time.

Now 6 years in, it is quite easy to photograph at the dump for me. Most everyone knows the deal, knows why I am taking photos. Many folks see it as a collaborative effort to tell their story, most people at the dump trust me now. We work together as a team. The only time there might be an issue is with new families who do not know me. Then it is a matter of them getting used to me and the cameras. I get positive comments and support from the established folks, they all talk amongst themselves. It is a karma thing, if you’re good, positives comes back at you, if you’re a selfish SOB, that comes back at you too. Because of past actions lots of good karma comes my way, I am very lucky.

Many photographer types just show up at the dump, take stuff for themselves and never give back. Always felt that type of photography was so selfish and predatory. I wanted to take my photos of course, it is what drives me but I also wanted to give back. So when I first arrived back in April of 2013, the first thing I did before making my first picture was hand out 3 bags of food to some of the dump shacks. Only then did I start to very slowly photograph.

I never take photos unless I have permission. If someone does not want to be photographed, then fine, I will move on with a smile. It is so important to treat everyone with the proper respect. To follow their wishes. To not exploit their situation for your personal benefit. That relates back to the Yaum name thing I mentioned earlier. The reason I came up with the name YAUM is that I never wanted my real name on a wall, getting my real name on a wall in a gallery is of no importance, who cares. It always seemed to me to be a bit exploitive to use your real name up there beside the pictures. All I want to do is tell the stories, tell the people’s stories, that is VERY important to me, the rest does not matter. My simple photography philosophy is, treat everyone you photograph with complete respect, give back as much as you can, and tell their stories not yours.



What is your process like when you take photographs? Do you have a goal in mind or do you wander until something catches your eye?

I have ideas all the time. One of the good things about being a security guard on nights is that you have a lot of time to think and plan. It is amazing how much planning you can do during 7 straight 12 hour night shifts in snowy, freezing Canada. So during work shifts I create all kinds of goals, have all kinds of gear thoughts, make all kinds of photo series plans.  

While on site, I try my best to do my Cartier-Bresson ‘decisive moment’ thing but I also work very hard at achieving my goals. Hard work makes up for lots of screwups. What I try to do is capture the ‘heart’ of things. The visual moment that tells the story in the deepest and most personal way. Of course that is easier said than done, but I do my best. Like I said earlier most of what I do accomplish is simply a matter of hard work, not giving up and pushing through my countless mistakes.

Are there any long-term personal projects you’re hoping to explore?

I have many ideas on the go, the one that comes immediately to mind is “KANATA”.

“KANATA” is a long term 10 year project I plan to do in Canada. It will be a series of landscapes and portraits using the traditional wet plate collodium process.

“KANATA” (the indigenous people world from the Cree language for Canada) will be a series of landscapes and portraits done across all of Canada. Canada is the second largest country in the world, most places I have not visited. I want to tell the story of what Canada is through photography. I plan on using 8×10, 11×14, 16×20 and even a super large 35×35 inch view cameras for this series.

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

I would tell young photographers to make the kind of pictures they want to make regardless of any other factors. Simply put, follow your dreams. If you need to work other jobs to make only the type of non paying photographs you want to make, then do that! Only by following your heart and throwing yourself into your own personal photography can you be truly happy. For me, I became content in life when I made the decision to follow that path. Chase your own type of photographs down, have the courage, have the  strength to follow your dreams and to create your own personal beauty. You will never regret it.

Interview: The Echo of Your Departure – Azadeh Fatehrad

Dr. Azadeh Fatehrad is an artist and curator based in London, working in the context of historical representation. Fatehrad’s research, artistic and curatorial practice are intertwined around a process of gathering information and generating new imagery in response to archival material she discovers. Her practice ranges from still and moving images to fictional stories, short films and artist books which have been exhibited internationally at the Royal Academy of Art (London), Somerset House (London), Weltkulturen Museum (Frankfurt am Main), Index: The Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation (Stockholm), Lychee One Gallery (London) and The Barn Gallery (Oxford), among others. Fatehrad has received her practice-based PhD from the Royal College of Art (2016) and has conducted diverse projects across Europe and the Middle East, including at the Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt am Main, the International Institute of Social History (IISH), Amsterdam, AFDI Archiv für Forschung und Dokumentation Iran Berlin eV,Berlin, and the Institute for Iranian Contemporary Historical Studies (IICHS), Tehran. Underpinning Fatehrad’s research is a cross-cultural approach that looks at the artistic, social, aesthetic and political implications of ‘existing images’, and their relation to life today. Fatehrad has curated diverse public programmes such as ‘Sohrab Shahid-Saless: Exiles’ at the Close-Up Film Centre, Goethe-Institut and Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London (2017-18); ‘The Feminist Historiography’ at IASPIS, Stockholm (2016); and ‘Witness 1979’ at the Showroom, London (2015). Her projects have been positively covered by the likes of the New York Times and Financial Times, CNN, Euronews, the Guardian, and the British Journal of Photography, among others. Fatehrad is co-founder of ‘Herstoriographies: The Feminist Media Archive Research Network’ in London and she is on the editorial board of the peer-reviewed Journal for Artistic Research (JAR). Fatehrad is also the recipient of St. John’s College Artist in Residence 2018 at the University of Oxford.

What were some of your early experiences with photography?

The early experiences with photography were the one in my childhood playing with Polaroid cameras. It was fascinating for me to witness the appearance of the image on paper very fast after taking the photos. I enjoyed the experiment.

How does your work as a curator affect your work as an artist? Do you often find inspiration in the work you curate?

I think they are both interconnected and they feed one another very well. In curating for instance, I usually treat gallery space as a ‘canvas’- juxtaposing selection of works that reflect a form of dialogue or constellation of my ideas.

How much of your education has prepared you for what you’re currently doing? Has it helped cultivate your artistry and allowed you to pursue endeavors unavailable to those without a PhD?

Surely it has been a great help in shaping my work today. I am a huge fan of research and that helped me a lot as I wanted to know in depth of my topic. Research provided the university affiliation and essential institutional support while I was focusing on specific project that I was individually keen to explore. However that might be different for different people and that phd might not be needed in some cases for perusing their project. I think, two elements affected my progress positively and those were education and the community of colleagues/friends around me.

Tell me a bit about The Echo of Your Departures and why you chose to explore the history of feminist in Iran?

The Echo of Departures is based on personal story of diaspora. I left Iran about ten years ago to study my MA in the UK. It almost started immediately that the life of diaspora became a search of myself, a woman from Iran in a new adapted home of UK. I was curious to know why my view points are influenced by traditions and social values even though I was far away from Iran. The distance surely helped me gain new perspective, to be able to evaluate and to be able to find a new being that could be more independent from traditional thoughts. There wasn’t really any other way to find out about women of my country, in particular myself, without searching feminist history of Iran. That helped to contextualize my work and my thoughts in a more articulate manner.  

What have you learned from pursuing this project? Has any knowledge acquired made you adjust how you approach it?

Certainly, I learn new skills on auto-ethnography as a new section of my productions. Additionally, there were a few additional dimensions that had to be added to my production line through making this project. For instance, my works are usually multi-disciplinary but for this project specifically I had to learn about choir, sound and scoring for a bit. On the other hand, I mainly work collaboratively with one or two other colleagues but for this project I had to scale up to a larger team of 12 collaborators, comprising of different groups and specialized colleagues who could assist me in realizing my ideas. I am pleased with the result, and I learned a lot.

As an artist and historian, how do you balance facts and creative interpretations within your photographs?

They usually co-exists, one addresses the context and the other allows imagination to move beyond the printed photo/ projected video. I learned that it is good to not trust history and redefine history your own way. By doing research, by finding the facts and creating new constellations, these things may allow other view points to emerge. I am very interested when we start to look non-binary and avoid dichotomies- bad/ good, past /present. I think they all co-exist simultaneously and could be redefined.

When starting a multi-media installation, how do you decide which mediums would best complement the message being conveyed?

Most of the time that decision has been made when I am sketching an idea at the start of each project. I was fascinated with women’s voice, it is so powerful I thought. Hence the echo of your departure became a focus on voice and multi-layered echoes of diasporic life for me today.

What is your process like when you take photographs? How much research takes place before you reach for your camera?

There are different ways that I make photographic work. Some staged in studio which requires a lot of preparation usually, and some are made in a sort of flaneur style or random encounters which needs less of preparation. My camera is always with me.

Are there any long-term personal projects you’re hoping to explore?

Sure, there is a list of a few projects in my pipe line which are progressing through funding applications at the moment, once the funding comes through I could make those happen. There is also two video currently in the editing stage which will be exhibited in September in Berlin.

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

Trust your intuition, Keep making and continue producing your work.

Interview: Subversion – Josh Lin


Josh Lin, a philosophy student in Taiwan, has been shooting film photography since 2010. Photographing landscapes and everyday life. It was only recently did he start creating scenes within his photographs, creating from his imagination as oppose to capturing what he saw in front of him.
From a young age, he knew he was interested in art. Drawing and making stuff in his text books, but he never got a chance or had motivation to explore the more creative parts of himself. Recently, he bought a film camera for his girlfriend and tested a roll of film with his friend. From that moment he realized he could create something special and his journey in photography began.

What were some of your early experiences with photography?

I started shooting film since 15, using a lomo LCA+ and shot everyday life. Later I got a Nikon FE from my grandpa, started learning how to use a SLR, but still shot the same things. After that, I stopped with photography for 5 years, it was not until  I was 21 that I picked up my FE again. I was very into hiking at that time, so I always shot landscapes and some portraits of my friends, nothing creative and professional.

Whether through formal education or self-taught, how did you develop your style as a photographer? Are there any photographers that influence you in particular?

I’ve never taken any class on photography, learned all by myself.

I would say my style comes from my imagination and my interests in philosophy. Since I was a child, I’ve always loved metaphors and philosophical thinking. My childhood diary often told of a scene I saw that day and what life lesson that can be extended from that scene. Also, I was a very attention seeking child, so I often made myself different from others. Doing things that people think is weird or mad, whether through appearance or behavior. After going to college, that part of me grew a lot. I major in philosophy and began immersing myself in critical thinking everyday.

When I started shooting creatively, the images constructed in my mind just came from nowhere, it’s vague but that’s how I found my style.

I don’t think I was influenced by any photographer, as I said, I had no formal education on this, so I actually don’t recognize any famous photographer or photos. I would say my biggest influencers are online shitposts, and some artist like Rene Magritte.

How is the topic of sexuality viewed in a place like Taiwan? Does its perception affect your work?

I think like any other place, people either like it or think it’s filthy. Most people in Taiwan are conservative, but they are often older or people outside of the city. My target audience is none of them, so they don’t affect me in any way. I just simply don’t care.

On the other hand, sexuality is a hot topic in my echo chamber, people express themselves openly. That being said, much of my work is considered too edgy by my friends. I think provoking change is part of my motivation. To open people’s eyes on sexuality and nudity.

What are your thoughts on nudity and sexuality?

I think they are fascinating, in the sense that they are often considered taboo in our society, but to me, a taboo mostly comes from irrational beliefs and conservative vibes. They are just as important and normal as “what I eat today” and “what’s your profession”, but due to their taboo nature. People keep these things to themselves, leading to a hypocritical and repressive society, in which people fail to explore their inner and psychological parts. To me, it’s such a pity, knowledge of myself mostly comes from my exploration of these topics. If most people can do the same or just be more open about it, we’ll have a better and healthier world.

Do you have an image in mind before you take a photograph? How much do you allow the moment and your emotions to dictate the direction?

I always write down the things I want to shoot, sometimes I visualize them beforehand if it’s too challenging to achieve, but not often. Mostly, I just take my camera, models, and props, wandering around my apartment to choose a shooting spot, and let my imagination go. I often come up with new ideas while shooting, and some of my favorite works were not planned at all.

How much of yourself do you put into your photographs? 

I’m still a college student and also just started my accessories brand, so I can’t shoot everyday. Ideas come to me at any moment, sometimes I see garbage floating around and boom another image. When shooting, I put my whole self in. I care deeply about my work, they extend from my soul and consciousness.


Have you ever let fear or a sense of hesitation limit your creativity? If yes, what did you do to overcome these limitations.

Yes, just now I’m preparing for my Religion Series. I’m an atheist and often find religious people ridiculous, so I wanna make a series to express my anger of them. It’s a sensitive topic, more sensitive than I can imagine, so I made a poll on instagram. Asking people if it’s too controversial to make this series. Sometimes I do need people to tell me where the line is, or I might unconsciously offend too many people.

Are there any projects you’ve been wanting to produce, but have been too fearful about its reception? Could you please tell us about the project?

Yes, the Religion Series I mentioned above, particularly Islam. It’s the matter of my safety so I wouldn’t take risks. But other than that I can’t think of any project I’m afraid to create.

Are there any long-term personal projects you’re hoping to explore or are currently working on?

No, not yet, I want to find a topic I can explore infinitely, maybe in the future. But in a sense that all my works come from my thoughts, to me they are all connected, they are all part of me.

If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

I just started, so no advice.

Photos Courtesy of Josh Lin


Interview: Rebel Riders – Muhammad Fadli

In this interview, Hon Hoang interviewed Muhammad Fadli on his recent photo-book Rebel Riders and his work as a photographer.
For more details on Muhammad Fadli and his photobook, please go to: dienacht-magazine

Perhaps the desire to build stems from a need to be creative or wanting to possess what can not be bought. Inquisitions arise when looking at images of Indonesian Extreme Vespas. Relinquishing themselves from inopportune circumstance, these Rebel Riders use their ingenuity and resourcefulness to recreate popular Western Vespas into creatures meant more for a desert fueled fugue.

These groups of Indonesian natives find a place with like minded mechanical Frankensteins. Showcasing their creations to those with the same passion and whoever happens to be in their path as they maneuver these mechanized monstrosities. Known as “Vespa extreme” by some and “Vespa sampah” (garbage Vespa) by others, the vehicles are an alchemy of metal, bones, and whatever materials are available, held together by will and ingenuity. Freedom of the open road is exemplified by their boundlessly creative interpretations of the Iconic Italian Vespa.

Photographer Muhammad Fadli traveled through Indonesia to document these mechanical innovators. A closer look of the Vespa extreme and their creators can be seen in his new photo book called Rebel Riders.

Bound by fine burlap, the photo-book encases the visual tale of the Vespa Extreme community. Within its pages contains a supplement packet that gives depth to the rider’s story. It contains a pamphlet like version of the photo-book with an index of each image and notes expanding on the subjects within the photographs. 1000 copies of these pamphlets were printed to be distributed throughout Indonesia for free. Another thing found in the packet is a set of stickers, each one with the original design from a Vespa Extreme group.


To learn more about the Rebel Riders and the photographer that captured them, I interviewed Muhammad Fadli about his recent projects and his career in photography.

What were some of your early experiences with photography? Did you know in those moments that photography would be your career?

It all began in my third year of university, about thirteen years ago. Back then, I was still living in Padang, a city at the west coast of Sumatra. I occasionally borrowed a SLR camera from a small audio-visual studio owned by the faculty of the university. They mainly used the camera to document old manuscripts and rarely used it for anything beyond that. That was when I started to know how camera works and realized its potential. Before that, I used a point and shoot camera only for school trips, events, capturing friends and random images, but that probably doesn’t really count. Talking about working as a photographer, I certainly never thought it would be my career. To be honest, at that time, I didn’t even know what I would do after finishing my study.

Whether through formal education or self-taught, how did you develop your style as a photographer? Are there any photographers that influence you in particular?

I am mostly self-taught benefiting from the wake of the internet era. It wasn’t like how it is today, but more than enough inspirations could be found as long as you’re curious. My photography style evolved from shooting very much cliche landscape images (you know clear blue skies, nice trees, river, and etc.) and later into more documentary with various approaches that I find suitable for the story I’m working on.

As for the influence, good inspirations (in term of photographer) are such in a short-supply in Indonesia, so I mostly look outside from the start. These days I really enjoy looking at the works of Todd Hido, Max Pinckers, Bharat Sikka, Alec Soth, Larry Sultan, Hiroshi Sugimoto, or even the good old Robert Mapplethorpe (I wish I knew his works much earlier).


How did you become aware of Vespa Extreme enthusiasts or the Rebel Riders? How did you go about starting this project?

I have been aware of them for awhile. A friend of mine even had one that he regularly rode to the university. But at that time it just came to me as something crazy that young people always do. I was also still learning photography and so I never realized that it could be a great story. Only much later, about two years ago, when I attended a masterclass organized by Obscura Photo Festival in Malaysia, I decided to give it a go.

What can you tell me about the Rebel Riders? What are some things you learned about them as you continued working on the project?

From the outside it is actually a story about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The classic Vespa scooter by Piaggio always has its nostalgic and romantic qualities (remember Jude law and Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley or better still, Audrey Hepburn’s Roman Holiday?), but in Indonesia there are some people who don’t seem to be satisfied with it. They transform and weld it into Frankenstein-esque scooters which look like post-apocalyptic vehicles you normally spot in Mad Max movies. They may leave you thinking, who are these people? But they are just normal people, they could be your neighbor or your classmate who happen to love different things. What I later realized this story also tells me something about my own country. It is a reflection of how things work here. Let’s see the neighboring Singapore or Malaysia, there’s no way you can get away with this kind of scooter on the road without going to prison. We have quite similar traffic regulations, but in Indonesia it’s rarely enforced. It can be bad, but the good thing is life doesn’t have to be that boring here.


How well did you get to know the riders? Was there any individual’s story that stood out to you?

Although I only met most of the riders that I photographed once, I tend to follow some of them if there’s a possibility to do it. So I know some of them very well and we became friends. One individual that really stand out is a young guy named Blake Sharon (vespa guys often don’t use their real names), who happens to be from my hometown. He quit university and traveled four years straight with his extreme vespa citing he wanted to experience Indonesia as close as possible. Traveling with a limited amount of money, he sometimes worked along the way and lived on the mercy of the locals he met. In the end, he managed to visit all the main islands of Indonesia, crossed all 34 provinces, and even talked his way into having the Indonesian military fly his extreme vespa in a C-130 Hercules aircraft when he wandered around Papua. I was so fortunate to know him at the last stage of the project, it coincided with his homecoming.

Why and how did most of the riders become involved with the community?

For many Indonesians, getting involved in a community comes very naturally. in general, we love to get together more than most other countries, or to say it better, people in Indonesia feel more confident if they join others who have similar interests. Anyone who live in Indonesia for a while will realize this country is very diverse, but more often being different is not easy. So it’s no wonder in Indonesia there are communities for almost anything such Ferrari owners, urban farming activists, or reptiles lovers. Several years ago I even found out there’s a club dedicated for Apple’s Macbook users. It’s almost like a joke, but it’s true. In my opinion, it is the same case with these extreme vespa riders.


What is the process like for someone to start building their own extreme vespa? Does the community typically help one another build?

For most of the time, it happened to be very organic. They have this certain idea or design and they will work on it. There are some popular designs such army style vespa that are being copied almost everywhere, but there will still be some degree of customization. As for the community, it is very useful to share critical and technical information like how to employ more than one engine at the same time (this is quite an engineering marvel of it’s own).

Iponk (middle), a scooterist from South Sumatra along with his son (right) and a travel companion (left). He traveled for hundreds of kilometers to attend a Vespa event in Lampung.


Being born in Indonesia, what is it like to photograph people native to your country compared to the projects you take on abroad?

I grow to realize that apparently we, human beings, are pretty much the same apart from speaking different languages. For me, being born in Indonesia helps a lot. Here the populations are very diverse and each has different psyche, so I’m used to diversity already. And then there’s this universal language called respect. As long as I can keep the same level of respect toward my subjects I think I will do fine anywhere.

Gamblers at the Temple of Heaven Park, Beijing.
Igor Kazic, one of the Stari Most diver who usually called “The Icarus of Mostar”, jump from the old brige into the Neretva River 23 meters below. This old tradition has become a tourist attraction at the Bosnian city of Mostar.


How much of yourself do you put into your photographs? What is it about your subject that makes you want to capture their image?

I don’t think any photographer can escape from putting themselves into their own work. Maybe the degree is different for personal and commissioned work, but it’s always there. What and how you photograph shows who you are and your interests (you can fake it for sure, but then again it’ll still show something).

About my subjects, I wish I can really tell what is it about them that triggers the urge to take their photograph. Sometimes it happens just as simple as walking down the street and I see an interesting person among the crowd. I will just ask if she/he is willing to be photographed.

Are there any long-term personal projects you’re hoping to explore or are currently working on?

Right now I’m in the final process of publishing my other project into another book. The project is about the aftermath of Dutch colonization in a small archipelago in the eastern part of Indonesia. I worked on this project for a few years already with a good friend of mine, a travel writer. This should have been my first book, but there are so many delays. Mainly because we will self-publish so we were hampered by financial situations. But it will finally be out early 2019. After that I will see where things will go. There are several ideas, but for now, it’s still too early to say anything.


If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

I hope I don’t ever have to start over again…

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

You need something more than just photography to advance forward. Knowing your other interest and combining it with photography can help a lot. And always pursue projects that matter to you on personal level.

For more details on Muhammad Fadli and his photobook, please go to:

Interview: Dead Rabbits and Tree Stumps – Ken Shin

Originally interviewed for EnFlight.Design

An Interview with Ken Shin. This is the part where I in-eloquently introduce the artist that I interviewed. The part where I give brief details on who they are and what they’ve done, but I’m not going to. I’ve opted to take Ken Shin’s introduction of himself from his GoFundMe. Only Ken Shin can appropriately describe the life and work of Ken Shin in a way that only Ken Shin can.

Please enjoy.

My name is Ken Shin.

I’m currently a university student in Los Angeles.

I like to take pictures, but I’m poor. For most of my high school life, I was living in a white Ford Econoline molester van. I showered in my neighbor’s bathroom and cooked in their garage.

I want to enter a photography contest, but I can’t afford to pay the entry fee, since even with two jobs I am still struggling to keep up with my tuition.

A good result from a contest would not only help me break into a saturated industry, but it would also reduce the financial stress or keeping up with tuition.

Winning would mean I could maybe think about buying a real camera instead of using a point-and-shoot.

Anything will help.

Thank you.

You started photography back in High school?

My family situation wasn’t that good and I spent a lot of my time outside. At one point, I found my dad’s old point and shoot so I always messed around with that.

I saw your GoFundMe, did you really live in back of a van?

Not in the back of a van, just in a van. I wouldn’t just stay in the back of it…that’s weird.

Nice, no limitations then.

Yeah, I lived in the driver seat, passenger seat. It’s one of those white ford molester vans.

The panel vans with no windows?

Yeah. At one point I was going to take pictures for this kid for his grad photos. It was at a park so I circled around a couple of times and eventually I had the cops called on me.

You were still in high school at the time?


I saw that you went to the Trump rally in Orange County, what was that like?

Yeah, it’s more of a morbid curiosity I guess. I wanted to see what kind of people go there. I can see what those people look like, but I won’t know them. I can make generalization about them, but I won’t know them.

We’re you still there when the riot broke out?

I was just finished shooting with another guy and we got out of the rally, we didn’t know about the riot outside. We were being escorted out and saw an orange glow, as I looked down, I saw that things were burning.

What’s your approach to street photography?

I kind of wander around like a loose Alzheimer’s patient and I keep my eyes peeled.

I heard this story when I was little, it was about this farmer. He was working his field and as he looked up, he saw a rabbit run into a tree stump. The rabbit just * raspberry sound * dies.

He decided, “hey I don’t need to farm anymore, I’ll just wait at this tree stump for more rabbits to run into it.” So he didn’t tend to his fields, so he starved and his family starved then his family died because he was a failure.

That kind of stuck with me so I thought if I walk around and cover lots of ground, I’ll just see more. It’s like putting out a lot of stumps for more rabbits to run into. It’s all luck.

You were in Korea over the summer, what was that experience like?

You take their picture with anything, Leica, digital, or whatever, it doesn’t matter because they’ll lose their shit.

It’s this weird thing where people will either assume you’re a pervert, rapist, or pedophile. If they don’t default to those three. They’ll assume you’re working with a prosecutor or investigating them.

What do you usually do when they confront you?

I tell them I’m a photographer.

I figured out my statement, if I tell them I’m a photography student from a University for the United States! Then they’ll be okay. Koreans are self-important, but they’ll always bow to authority. It’s that confucian values thing.

What are you hoping to capture? What makes you decide to press the shutter button?

I avoid making pictures look like they were taken in some other time. I’m taking pictures to see what now looks like, so I want them to look like they were taken now. This exact moment, this exact feeling right now.

I want to remember what this time looks like. What people look like, what they do, what they want.

Life happens in 360 degrees, the camera only captures a fraction of that. It is up to the photographers to decide what little slice of that pie to present to the viewer. It’s not about what’s in the frame, it’s what you leave out.

Ken Shin

Photos Courtesy of Ken Shin