Many of the Instagram and Facebook celebrities in Vietnam are local models or socialites. Most of the expats who find a niche in Vietnam on social media are business people or Viet Kieu.
We went in search of someone who breaks the mold. Meet Tanya Olander.
An entertainment industry veteran who has lived in Stockholm, Paris, and Los Angeles, Tanya now finds herself in Ho Chi Minh City with her family. Immersed in a city so different from her last three, Tanya took up her camera and began documenting her impressions shortly after arriving in 2012. Soon after, Somewhere in Saigon’s Facebook page was born. With nearly 20,000 followers, it’s well-known by many expats, Viet Kieus abroad, and locals. It’s become a social media ‘it-just-happened’ success story.
We had the chance to learn from Tanya about the fundamentals of her photography work and why she’s keen to stay in Vietnam.
How did you get started with Somewhere in Saigon?
My love for photography was born when I stepped foot in Saigon. Although I dabbled in it before, it was here in Vietnam that I began pursuing it as a serious hobby. I enrolled in a photo course to pick up the fundamentals and joined a few photo tours to practice my new knowledge.
As my Facebook feed began filling up with images of my explorations of the city, I established a Facebook page as a place to not only archive my findings, but also to share my stories around them. The format was perfect, as I just didn’t have the discipline to blog. I called the page “Somewhere in Saigon”. I’ve always been a sucker for alliterations.
For the past 3 ½ years I’ve published one picture daily. Lately however, I haven’t had as much time. I’ve been getting more requests for professional photography work. But, I’m still really passionate about this city and its people, particularly now as it is changing right before our eyes. I’m curious about what’s going to happen to the alleys and streetside vendors. Will these people get left behind? With the frenzied pace of development, I almost feel more inclined to head into the Saigon that lies behind the big boulevards and off the main streets.
When I head into these places, I want others to experience this “slower” Saigon with me. To feel the connections you can make with people, when you give yourself the time to explore. My pictures are often described as empathetic and personal. I’m really excited to have built this “window” to Saigon through my Facebook and Instagram accounts.
Who else works with you?
Right now I’m the only photographer, writer, marketing person on staff. While the workload is at times a lot for one person, it’s allowed me to control the branding, quality, and messaging. Also, I’m very concerned about maintaining the integrity of my subjects and I wouldn’t want to jeopardize that. So far, “Somewhere in Saigon” has almost entirely grown organically. I always chuckle when someone asks to talk to my head of marketing or main writer. That would be me. Oh, and me. People seem surprised sometimes, as they are when they find out that Somewhere in Saigon is created by and maintained by a middle-aged woman, ha ha.
How do your followers engage with you on social media?
Although I have a loyal following on Facebook, the bulk of the engagement with Somewhere in Saigon comes from through my Instagram account. A portion of the followers tend to be Viet Kieus from all around the world (Sweden, Germany, America, Australia, France just to name a few). I think it’s a way for them to connect with their motherland, whether they’ve been here or not. Other followers include foreigners here in Saigon, travelers who have been or are going here, and other photographers. It’s great fun and I’ve made some wonderful friendships through Instagram. Just recently I started doing Instagram LIVE. It was quite popular and engagement was surprisingly high. I definitely plan on doing more.
What are some side projects that you’re working on?
My biggest challenge is focusing on projects. There’s so much that I’d like to do. Many people contact me to ask about “tagging along” into the environments of my images. So that is something that I offer, although I don’t market it openly. People love heading into the alleys and are more than willing to pay for “authentic experiences”. As half-American and half-Swedish, I connect easily with most types of Westerners and am able to contextualize the experiences to visitors. And my Vietnamese is what I’d like to call “intermediate street conversational”, so that definitely helps me put them “into” Vietnam by allowing us to stop and chat with people as we go along.
Also, I’m playing around with video more as a way to give an even broader context to my images. And I love using Instagram Live as it allows me to answer real-time questions and interact with viewers. The biggest change is how I work with Somewhere in Saigon. In the past 6 months, I’m getting more professional photography jobs. I simply don’t have as much time as before. During 2017, I’d love to find an answer to how I can leverage this platform in a positive and socially responsible way. To be able to give something back to the country that inspired me to pick up the camera in the first place.
What’s one of your most memorable experiences in Vietnam with Somewhere in Saigon?
Being invited into people’s homes for coffee and food is a big favorite. That always touches my heart. Another is returning to people I’ve photographed and seeing the joy on their faces when I hand them the print. Especially mothers who receive pictures of their children. One young mother, a vendor at Hoa Hung market, stared in disbelief when I returned with the photo of her two-year old son. She explained that he was now in daycare, yet she looked at the image so tenderly and I felt the love and gratitude in her heart for her little boy. As a mother myself, that really touched me.
I’ve also been lucky enough to be contacted through social media by people returning to Vietnam after the war. Last year I spent several days with an American veteran who visited Vietnam for the first time in 47 years. That was powerful stuff. Even in such a simple thing as a visit to the Fine Arts Museum, he could give such vivid details and recount his experiences in a way that most of us would never hear in person. It was very humbling. Especially from someone who so obviously had a great love and respect for the Vietnamese people.
Another memorable moment was a woman who shared her personal experiences of her last days in Saigon as an 8-year-old (almost the same age as my own son today) in 1975. It was gripping to hear her tale of the backpack she wore as her family hurriedly made it to the airport, the mother having sewn in a note with instructions of where the girl was to be sent and a considerable amount of money, in case they were separated.
What’s your photography shooting style?
Candid environmental portraiture is my favorite. To catch a fleeting moment, an exchange between a mother and child or the contemplative gaze of a vendor as she waits for customers. However, I’m a huge people person and I love chatting with everyone so that kind of breaks the “candid” mode. I shoot with a 55mm 1.8 prime lens, never using zoom. But for those that do shoot with a zoom, I argue that intimate moments can still be captured and that the skill lies in being able to recognize them happening.
My shooting style for Somewhere in Saigon is built on observation, anticipation and waiting. I spend the bulk of a morning out reading my surroundings. There’s lots of information being thrown your way all the time. If I see a man coming toward me with a baby with outstretched arms, you can probably bet that the mother or grandmother is directly behind you. And so, if the man is 10 or 15 meters away, you have more than ample time to prepare for a shot, candid or not. I love observing and capturing moments that way.
Do you try to blend in with the atmosphere and capture candids? Or do you meet and greet the people you capture?
Typically, I leave to shoot my images for “Somewhere in Saigon” no later than 05:30 am. At that time I can still reach most districts by 06:00 am, from my home in District 7. I prefer to shoot at this time of day, so that I can be at home in the evenings with my husband and son. So you’ll see more shots capturing early morning city life. Like kids going to school, vendors setting up at the market, breakfast along the side of the road. I’m an early morning person.
I’d say at least half of my shots are the result of me interacting with someone. A short conversation showing interest in what someone is doing will go a long way, whether they’re selling fruit or backing out their motorbike from their house. Most people will warm up to you in a matter of minutes. It makes it easier to take out your camera.
Sometimes I ask permission and sometimes it’s not necessary. They know you’re just documenting a special moment. At times, I get a cell-phone turned on me, lol. That’s just part of it! I abhor the snap and run method and never personally capture candidly to be secretive, but rather to freeze an emotion or moment that is gone the minute you make yourself known. The infamous “V” sign pops up like a jack-in-the-box, nine times out of ten.
What projects are you working on?
Currently I’m working on a digital Somewhere in Saigon “experience”. I haven’t decided how it will be published, or if it will be exclusively digital, but I’d like to be able to transfer the stories and the connections, as well as the valuable information I’ve learned, into a collection to be shared with a wider audience.
Somewhere in Saigon has grown fast and has attracted a dedicated following. What’s next for it?
Who knows? That’s what’s so amazing about having had the privilege of creating something from scratch, born from a passion. And to think that it originally was just a way for me to collect my images, for myself. What’s cool is that I’ve made some really interesting connections through Somewhere in Saigon. It has opened so many doors for me professionally, as I continue to develop into a professional photographer. I’m humbled by the amount of positive feedback that I get and how my “little hobby” has been received so well.
Is modern Vietnam a good place for an expat like yourself to work, live, and thrive? What excites you about and keeps you in Vietnam?
It’s an amazing place to be. Just in the past 4 ½ years that I’ve been here, there’s been so many changes that I can barely keep up. There’s a pioneering vibe of activity and I feel that every week I meet someone new who has an exciting project in the works. I feel so lucky to be here and to in some small way, be a part of building something new.
Recently a vendor on the street asked me what I thought of Vietnam. How can I explain the bittersweet experience of daily change, I thought to myself, with my limited Vietnamese. What I came up with was this: To me, being in Vietnam now is like watching a child grow up. You’re excited about the things to come, but somehow also a little saddened by the phases that are left behind. My home country, Sweden, I told her, is already “all grown up”, so there’s not as much change to watch. I’d argue that it’s not quite as dynamic or interesting to “watch”. Vietnam is really a creative, dynamic place to be right now.
How do you spend your weekends in Ho Chi Minh City?
I have a 7-year-old son. Need I say more? My weekends, once filled with travel and parties, is now filled with board games and audio books. Sometimes though, I take my son with me to shoot. He loves the markets. The fish section is his favorite. He’ll eat anything although his favorites are “com tam” and “xoi ga”.
What’s your number one guilty pleasure in Vietnam?
I’d have to say Maison Marou. Or bun thit nuong at my favorite place on Mac Dinh Chi…and then back to Maison Marou, haha.
Who should I talk to next?
I recently connected with Jessica Drolet. I loved hearing about the project she’s starting up teaching millennials about cultural practices around the world.