French photographer Joanik Bellalou first came to Vietnam as an exchange student, and is now living and working in Saigon. His style highlights the beauty and candor of people, and the resulting photos are always impromptu. While Bellalou’s also a fan of conceptual and fashion photography, it’s the spontaneity of street photography that completely has his heart.
These days, when going outside seems to be a luxury for everybody in Saigon, how about watching the streets and humans of this city through the eyes of an expat artist? Who knows if his photos will open your eyes to little things that you didn’t quite notice before.
Check out Joanik Bellalou's Instagram
How would you describe the essence of life in this city?
Saigon is messy, sometimes extravagant, but always very welcoming. I feel that Saigon can become very interesting in the coming years with the metro operating, more people from other Vietnamese provinces flocking here, and foreigners trying to blend in. It will be an interesting mix.
Have you had memorable incidents in your photography career?
Anytime I had to put myself in danger to get a good shot.
I once got jabbed with a syringe from a drug addict in Paris while taking photos. It was purely an accident, but still a concerning one. I had to go to the hospital afterwards to make sure I did not have an infection, and had to follow a prevention treatment for HIV for a month.
In the end, nothing harmful happened to me. But at that moment, I understood that photography sometimes requires a lot of engagement and sacrifices from the photographer.
What would you eat if it was midnight and you got the munchies?
Fruits or something like that. If you have never seen a monkey sick, that’s because he eats three bananas a day. Therefore, I strongly recommend you to follow the monkey diet.
What is the beauty of black and white photography?
That no color disturbs the viewer.
Especially nowadays, when I feel that one can easily oversaturate their photos to make them look more appealing to the viewer — something I am also guilty of.
Other than that, black and white photography can teach one to work more on scene and composition, forcing them to observe the lighting and work with it, which is probably the most important aspect of the craft.
What’s the best thing about being a photographer in a city like Saigon?
It’s the funniest yet most frustrating thing at the same time. As I am a foreigner, many times people will spot me from even a few meters away. It makes it difficult for me to do my job as a street photographer, as people literally stop everything they were doing just to watch me, or sometimes talk.
Street photography without discretion is very hard, but I know it also happens to Vietnamese photographers. I still consider it a very warm, welcoming gesture. Meanwhile, in other cities, you can have real issues with trying to take some photos, whether with the locals or sometimes worse, the police.
Who’s someone you’ve met in Saigon that really left an impression on you?
Mr. Công. He is a man that I often meet in District 5, usually riding a bike alone or with his sister. He is a trash collector and can speak a bit of English. He never wants to speak in Vietnamese with me.
Công often invites me to his house, which looks like a burnt down place, near An Dong Plaza. One time I went there with a friend of mine and saw him start writing some Cantonese that roughly translates to “dark magic” on a piece of paper. I went back alone other times, and once we even went to the Cho Lon church on Christmas Day as he wanted to show the landmark to me. We also assisted with the celebration there.
What’s one emotion that you can best capture?
Might be loneliness or something similar to that.
Very often, the more I look at a photo of mine, the less I know exactly what I was trying to show with it. Somehow, when I shoot, I would often catch the eyes of a person in a situation, and I would get the feeling like we’ve communicated something in that moment. That interaction would be captured in a photo, but I could have no idea what it actually is.
If you could keep only one out of the five senses, which one would it be?
Obviously my sight.
If you could send a photo to the aliens, which one would it be?
Probably this one, something without any sign of hostility.
There are many theories about why we don’t ever see aliens, one of them being that any civilization will collapse before it can actually go on to inhabit another planet or explore deep space.
With climate change, biodiversity in decline and other nature-related issues, I think we have a million things to worry about before aliens or destroying more creatures than just ourselves all alone. :)
A song you can’t help but dance to?
Caramel Prisoner by Air. Not for dancing, but it has a very good vibe.
Translated by Jennifer Nguyen