Some people make a choice to live in the present – “carpe diem” (seize the day) as they called it in the Latin language during Roman times – because that’s how they want to live. No big future plans or aspirations, no sky-high objectives. One day at a time – no tomorrows.
Nguyen Van Phuoc is such a person and he’s made a fantastic career as a professional photographer in Da Lat without ever putting together long-term strategies or career plans. Nicknamed “MPK” (Michel Phuoc Khung – Happy Crazy Man) during his wild younger days, he’s now a well-known photographer around the country, settled with a wife and young child.
Michel is 61 years old but looks a lot younger, he explains to me that for him the beauty of life is in its spontaneity and natural state, not in design or planning. “Things have always come naturally to me at the right time in life,” he states over a coffee.
“When I was in my mid-20s during the 1980s life was pretty tough. I made a living as a rice porter, hauling 3 tons of rice per day for the grand sum of 36 Vietnamese dong per day,” says Michel with a laugh.
“With a job like that I had no choice but to live in the present as dismal as it was! I could barely feed myself, let alone dream of a bright future!”
It’s obvious right off the bat that Michel has an artistic flare – dabbling in poetry, short stories, and music since his youth. His look, vibe, and his clothing style all exude creative thinking and artistic talent. So, no surprise that he branched off into photography.
“I was wandering around Ho Xuan Huong (Xuan Huong Lake) in Da Lat one afternoon during those rice porter days and spotted some photographers taking pictures of the scenery. I wanted a few photographs of myself so I took what I had left from my salary and one of the photographers snapped a few for me.”
Michel goes on, “The photos were then developed and it hit me like a bolt of lightning: I could do something artistic, something I love, and have a much better life than I do now.”
And that was probably the most strategic planning he’s ever done and all he’s ever needed!
He scraped together enough cash to buy a camera and a few rolls of film – very hard to find in the early 80s pre-“Doi Moi” (Doi Moi was the creation of a structured socialist-oriented market economy in Vietnam that started in the mid-80s. Until then many technology products were still very scarce) but he scrimped and saved and somehow managed.
“I started approaching tourists in the city and adjacent picturesque countryside. I was born and raised in Da Lat so I knew the best shooting locations by heart. Couples on honeymoon, romantic trips, families, groups, clubs – I worked with all of them over the years,” states Michel.
He went on to explain that after a few years of that photography work it became routine.
“I enjoyed working with different types of people but became disillusioned over time – I wanted more creativity, more expression, to experience life outside the box. I was just taking photographs, not creating anything. I started thinking there must be a lot more to life than that routine.”
From one day to the next Michel turned artist with his camera as his tool to capture the beauty of life in its natural state. Flowers, rain, dew, fields, streams and lakes all became his preferred subjects – even abstracts of urban living and homes were added over time.
He still survived doing commercial photography but “I started holding the camera and pointing it where I wanted to go in life, not where the paying work was.”
When we met Michel was busy planning his 37th exhibition, which took place in Da Lat over the Tet (Vietnamese New Year) holiday period in February.
He explained that there is no shortage of financial support from his fan base, and sponsors always appear at the right time.
He’s also held exhibitions in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Da Nang, and Vung Tau over the years and has hundreds of thousands of followers on his website.
I expected him to say that he sells his photographs at the exhibitions but he shocked me: “Hell no!” he laughed.
“I give my photographs away most of the time! Of course I don’t donate them to just anyone, but when I meet people with a true passion for my work, I’m happy to share with them. I believe things all come back to us in the end.”
And they do, as evidenced by the financial support he gets for his exhibitions from his fans.
“Opportunities always come along and in the meantime life flows naturally each day,” he says, eager to bolt off into today’s adventure: “Thanks, but I’ve got to run – lots of preparation for my upcoming exhibition.”
A man who really knows what “carpe diem” is all about.