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Belgian photographer uncovers spirit of Hanoi’s concrete jungle

Thursday, September 24, 2020, 15:42 GMT+7
Belgian photographer uncovers spirit of Hanoi’s concrete jungle
A Wouter Vanhees’ shot from his debut photobook ‘Hà Nội, Wednesday, 10:43 p.m’

“Hanoi is shedding its skin. So what to make of its spirit?” asked Wouter Vanhees, a Belgian photographer who roams Hanoi’s construction sites in the middle of the night as he hunts down great photos.

A portrait of Wouter Vanhees, a Belgian photographer based in Hanoi since 2015.

A portrait of Wouter Vanhees, a Belgian photographer based in Hanoi since 2015

Vanhees, 42, has been based in Hanoi since 2015.

Though he spends his days working behind a desk as a financial counsellor, Vanhees’ Wednesday nights are filled with scooter trips around the city, a time he says “the stars of work, family, and personal time align.”

The purpose of his trips? To seek out what he calls “the spirit of Hanoi” amongst the city’s dozens of construction projects.

A Wouter Vanhees’ shot from his debut photobook ‘Hà Nội, Wednesday, 10:43 p.m’

A Wouter Vanhees’ shot from his debut photobook ‘Hà Nội, Wednesday, 10:43 p.m’

Though Vanhees first began photographing as a way to document his family’s life and travels in Vietnam, he later fell in love with street photography, particularly shots of Hanoi’s rapid urbanization and the social implications of such development.

“There’s no plan and no predetermined route," Vanhees wrote in a feature story for Vietnamese photography magazine Matca.

"I don’t know what I’ll find, nor what I’m looking for.

"I’m not sure where I’ll end up, but that’s OK because I have my camera with me.

"That’s my protective armor, the only pretext I need to venture out.”  

In an interview with the online journal Urbanautica, Vanhees described himself as “absolutely in love with Hanoi.”

“While it’s a huge city in absolute numbers, it’s still relatively small compared to many other Asian megacities," he said.

"And as I mentioned before, somehow the city has, so far at least, managed to retain much of its small-town charm."

He is also fascinated by the traditional values that the city has managed to preserve despite its modernization, particularly the importance of family and hierarchic values.

A Wouter Vanhees’ shot from his debut photobook ‘Hà Nội, Wednesday, 10:43 p.m’

A Wouter Vanhees’ shot from his debut photobook ‘Hà Nội, Wednesday, 10:43 p.m’

To better understand the shaping influences for Hanoi’s massive transformation, Vanhees chooses to stray off the beaten path and into weed-ridden construction sites under the night sky to capture a discrete side of the city.

“The photographic elements are simple. Alongside ubiquitous high-rises, certain motifs tend to recur: neon-lit haze, crisp shadows, illuminated windows punctuating the night sky," wrote Ha Dao — managing director of Matca — in an analysis of Wouter’s work.

"Some detail the chaos of ongoing construction while others veer toward abstraction.

"In photographs devoid of human figures, their presence is not described, only implied."

Vanhees' collection of photographs from the past five years will be compiled in his debut photobook ‘Hà Nội, Wednesday, 10:43 p.m’ on shelves on Friday.

Speaking of the raison d'être for his Hanoi project, the photographer professed,“I want to understand this city. There’s order in its chaos. There’s stillness in its noise. There are so many shades to its darkness. And it’s changing so fast. It’s hard to come to grips with this transformation, not understanding what was in the first place, let alone what is to come.”

Below are more photos from Wouter Vanhees' Hanoi project:

 

 

 

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Xuan Tung / Tuoi Tre News

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