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Coffee Chats: Nguyễn Khánh And The Value Behind Photojournalism

“The happiness of a photographer lies in being able to capture an event from its center”

Coffee Chats: Nguyễn Khánh And The Value Behind Photojournalism

Nguyễn Khánh

If you are a sports enthusiast or a frequent reader of current events, you’d be no stranger to photojournalism — full of emotion as well as information, such as those by Nguyễn Khánh. After returning from the UAE for his business trip, Vietcetera had a chance to discuss with Nguyễn Khánh about his experience of being in the industry for over a decade.

1. The moment can come unexpectedly

One of the most important qualities that a photographer needs to have is resilience, focus, and patience to create each frame. This is all required to create that distinguishing factor between you and the other photographers.

Every single event happens surprisingly quickly, filled with fleeting moments that can be difficult to capture. This makes it even more important for photographers to remain focused. For Nguyễn Khánh, he focuses his observations on who is the most important to follow with his camera lens.

“The best moments can come unexpectedly, so with that in mind, don’t slack off. Always keep yourself focused, continually observe the scene, and keep your finger on the button — ready to press.”

Vũ Minh Tuấn after scoring 2-1 against Indonesia in the semifinals for the 2016 AFF Cup | Source: Nguyễn Khánh

Beyond that, Nguyễn Khánh’s experience has taught him that photojournalists have to remain alert throughout the duration of an event to be able to gauge what could happen next. For example, in the AFF Cup 2016 semifinals between Indonesia and Vietnam, Vũ Minh Tuấn collapsed to the ground after scoring a goal. On that day, there were plenty of photographers, but Nguyễn Khánh was one of the few photojournalists that were able to capture that moment.

“When Tuấn scored his goal, he ran closely past the photographers’ area and I remember everything being so hectic. Immediately, I reached for the lens with the appropriate magnification and ran to the edge of the field, dodging past security guards to get my shot.”

2. Information and emotion are the two biggest components of photojournalism

Before capturing an event or a person, Nguyễn Khánh considers it most important for photojournalists to determine what it is that they want to convey through the photo. If you can’t answer the question, then the work would turn out hollow and superficial.

Portrait of a Miner at Thống Nhất (Quảng Ninh) | Source: Nguyễn Khánh

Maybe your photograph won’t hold much credit on the artistic front, but at its core, it has to convey information. At the most basic level: Who are they? What are they doing? This is the bare minimum that photojournalists must at least meet. 

“In 2015, a German news agency falsely broke the story of a Vietnamese politician’s passing. Naturally, it was important to disprove this announcement so after learning about his arrival time to Vietnam, many newspapers were lined up waiting at Nội Bài airport. It would’ve only taken a photo to settle everything. In the end, it was just me alongside my colleague who was able to take a photo of the politician — albeit from afar. It was powerful because it proved that he was alive.”

An officer's back on fire during the 2013 gas station number 9 incident in Hanoi | Source: Nguyễn Khánh

Nguyễn Khánh also emphasized the importance of capturing the right moment or the main ‘action’ that has the ability to resonate visually with the audience. Most of the time, this can be created when accompanied by a powerful emotion, these two elements work together to create that unique experience for the viewer.

A picture can speak a thousand words, so utilize that to communicate to the viewer a special emotion. If the audience looks at a photo and feels nothing, Nguyễn Khánh considers this a failure. He reminds photojournalists to continually be introspective and demand high things for themselves.

3. Don’t compare photojournalism to editorial or artistic photographers

Nguyễn Khánh shares that he runs into this often, especially from people who are just starting out in photography. He wants to remind everyone that no matter what specialization, professionals in every field deserve their own respect.

The torn glove of a little girl working in the Antimon mine |  Source: Nguyễn Khánh

Fully dedicating yourself to specialization is difficult and can at times feel belittling. But every field is a whole different world in itself and to venture into that, requires practice and dedication. If you have committed to a particular field, follow through with that. Don’t be distracted or greedy and multitask — for example, pursuing both photojournalism and editorial photography — will only prove to be unrealistic.

The difference between these two photographic fields is the elements surrounding its demand. Photojournalism demands that the work be informative and contribute to a story, whereas more artistic styles cater more to the aesthetic value that the viewer holds.

Photojournalists can’t piece together or edit their content because it has to convey a specific scene from reality, whereas other mediums have the artistic freedom to cater to different aesthetics with editing.

But of course, Nguyễn Khánh considers an excellent photojournalist to be someone who can incorporate both information and aesthetics into their work. Because after all, the latter is one of the most effective strings to pull when trying to rouse emotions from the viewer.

4. Most importantly, prepare a personal strategy and keep yourself safe

For photojournalists, the work doesn’t just entail sitting around waiting for the moment to come to you. To get the photo you want, you need to really engage with the story and the events happening — but in doing so, photojournalists sometimes can put themselves in the line of fire. Nguyễn Khánh considers natural disasters or disease outbreaks as the biggest risks in photojournalism.

Nguyễn Khánh at the Central Hospital for Tropical Diseases in Hanoi | Source: Nguyễn Khánh

“I sometimes joke to my friends that where people escape from, we head into. You have to engage with the scene to be able to get the photo you want. But also keep an eye out and prepare to keep yourself safe above all else, don’t jump into needlessly dangerous situations like moths to a flame.”

5. Telling a story through photography is harder than using words

Photography is similar to storytelling, their crossover lies in the ability to recount a story or a scene to the audience. But their difference lies in the language used: photographs create images that rely on the viewer’s logic and intuition to see the bigger story.

For example, viewers can easily see that the subject of a photo is happy, but to capture someone’s moment of happiness is not entirely straightforward.

Nguyễn Khánh explains that in photojournalism “you will have 10 to 12 photos where you will arrange them chronologically or spatially, with images ranging from close-ups to wide pans. The arrangement is crucial to create that story for the viewer and hold their attention.”

6. Start small

Before heading into an event, Nguyễn Khánh always does his background research. “Pose questions for yourself and answer them: Where is this event taking place? What are they doing? What will the biggest moments be? What could go wrong? Et cetera.”

At big political events such as the United States-North Korea Summit or APEC, there tends to be fewer journalists who have permission to attend. With that in mind, before they happen, photojournalists will have to contact the organizers to register and hopefully get hold of a press pass.

Obama greets Hanoians after having bún chả on Lê Văn Hưu in 2016 | Source: Nguyễn Khánh

In the example of APEC in Đà Nẵng, even before the main players arrived at the airport, photojournalists would have had to gauge the potential distance between their position and the plane in order to select the appropriate lens.

Nguyễn Khánh considers that it’s important for photojournalists to hone these skills at smaller events to apply them to bigger ones when the time comes. Usually, news agencies would only send one photographer per event. Therefore, in order to be chosen, you have to have a plethora of experience to be able to build the agency’s trust in you as a photographer.

“Don’t overlook smaller events because they can help you hone the skills for bigger ones: where to stand, what the spaces could look like, how to move in those situations. It prepares you so later when faced with bigger challenges you aren’t suffocated or overwhelmed.”

7. The biggest happiness lies in being able to capture an event from its center

Millions of people, through images or words, are keeping up with the news every day. With that in mind, there is a saying that there is no room for lazy people in this industry.

Coach Park Hang Seo after the U23 Vietnamese team wins gold at the SEA Games in the Philippines | Source: Nguyễn Khánh

Photojournalists can only really create something worthwhile when they are present at the event, breathing in the same air and interacting with the individuals in that same space.

“I have been very lucky throughout the past 10 years to be able to work at the country’s biggest political, cultural, and sports events. Every one of them was a separate challenge in themselves. From the central’s floods to COVID-19, or to the emotions from sports matches. Every single one of them was a milestone for the country and I am honored to be able to take part in writing them down in history through photojournalism.”

Translated by Nina Pham