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Hoang The Nhiem: Seeking the breath of life in landscapes

Table of contents

Hoang The Nhiem is a highly accomplished landscape photographer whose success is the result of continuous learning and exploration. Unlike some who may have benefited from family tradition or innate talent, Nhiem’s journey has been shaped by his adventurous spirit and philosophy of life.

"Two trees" by Hoàng Thế Nhiệm

From maritime telecommunications to the path of photography

Hoang The Nhiem’s journey into photography began with a family’s camera which was quite rare at that time. From a young age, he was fortunate to have access to that camera, which allowed him to capture and preserve cherished memories of his family, childhood, and college years. It was also the camera that accompanied him during the first few days he ventured out into the world, wandering throughout Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and parts of the Soviet Union – including the port of Vladivostok.

The more he traveled, the more he felt the vastness and modernity of the world, from landscapes and people to equipment, science and technology. He and his colleagues were overwhelmed as if they had just stepped out of a closed space, and the old camera had become outdated. This was also the beginning of his exploration into photography, even though it wasn’t his professional job.

Hoang The Nhiem started learning about cameras and searched for information on Japanese cameras while visiting Japan. He was really excited about the new autofocus technology that emerged in the 70s and 80s. From being interested in technology and taking photos intuitively, he gradually entered the path of intentionally focusing on subjects and landscapes before pressing the shutter button.

"The Banyan Tree" by Hoàng Thế Nhiệm

Every photographer offers a unique contemplation of life

After years of sailing across different countries, Hoang The Nhiem decided to switch careers in 1993. While his job in maritime telecommunications provided him with a high income, it was physically demanding and often required him to be away from his family, so he chose to ‘dock’ and return to shore.

While he waited for a new position, Hoang The Nhiem’s friends encouraged him to explore photography using the camera collection he had meticulously gathered beforehand. And so, at the end of 1993 and the beginning of 1994, he embarked on his first cross-country trip in Vietnam. Despite having traversed Southeast Asia before, this was the first time he journeyed along the S-shaped strip of land from Saigon to Lao Cai’s Sapa. The trip opened his eyes to the beauty of his country, which he found no less awe-inspiring than other places he had visited, such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, or even Russia. Inspired by the scenery, he developed the idea of capturing landscapes, and his once-neglected cameras finally regained their purpose.

Hoàng Thế Nhiệm emphasizes that each photographer has their own unique perspective, which he calls a “viewpoint”. Viewpoint is the combination of the camera handling experience and the personal life reflection, including both spirituality and the presence of family and society. Therefore, each individual’s photography has distinguished differences, which is important and worth learning from.

According to Hoàng Thế Nhiệm, being an experienced photographer does not necessarily equate to being a good photographer. It depends on each person’s life experiences and training. Conversely, years of camera experience can make people subjective and high-minded, making it difficult to open up and learn new things, new ideas, new topics or new approaches.

The realm of human life and the natural world share many similarities

Hoang The Nhiem believes that the essential aspect of landscape photography is not only to capture reality through the eyes of the photographer but also to reflect the author’s spirit, emotions, and contemplations. This requires the photographer’s sensitivity to environmental conditions, such as weather, which is an uncontrollable factor for landscape photographers. Early in his career, Nhiem was afraid of bad weather, resulting in dull and tasteless photos. However, years of experience and practice with film cameras have made him flexible, allowing him to use adverse conditions to create emotionally rich photographs that convey his philosophies about life.

Hoang The Nhiem holds the Osho philosophy in high regard as a source of inspiration in his work, as well as the traditional Buddhist thinking of his family. These ideologies serve as a foundation for observing, contemplating, and feeling every time he is in front of a natural landscape, whether in Vietnam or abroad. He also believes that Tibetan Buddhist stories reveal the connection and similarities between the realm of human life and the vast natural world, where there is life and death, reincarnation, and transmigration.

With this ideal and mindset, Hoang The Nhiem seeks to capture the subtle and exquisite beauty that lies deeply within a landscape. He no longer takes photos of what he calls “general beauty,” which most people can easily recognize, whether they are viewers or photographers. The stunning grandeur of wide shots of landscapes is an example of this. It has become a similar theme in Vietnamese photography taken by many different photographers, raising the question: where is the author’s original mark? Nowadays, the subjects of Hoang The Nhiem’s photographs are sometimes just a tree, a rock, or a road… However, all of them require the photographer’s observation skills and meticulousness to capture the nuances of the landscape.

The use of ideology is vividly expressed in the work depicting Ha Long Bay – one of his favorite works. He recalls it was a special early autumn morning, with a faint misty sunrise. At six o’clock, he rented a canoe to sail around the bay. While passing the “Fighting Cock Islet”, he noticed a fisherman on a traditional Ha Long boat fishing from afar. The shadowy figure amidst the mist appeared like a scene from a traditional watercolor painting. He quickly brought the canoe closer to capture the scene before the fisherman left. Hoang The Nhiem shares that it was a rare moment where there was a perfect harmony of color, misty weather, and the fisherman. Despite returning to Halong many times after that, he has never encountered such an opportunity again.

"Ha Long bay" by Hoàng Thế Nhiệm

A print is the ultimate form of photographic artwork

Having witnessed changes in photography over time, Hoang The Nhiem has seen technological advancements transform the field. He looks back fondly on his early days with analog photography when he meticulously selected photographic films to ensure optimal image quality and adjusted settings for the best composition.

The square format of images remains a favorite of his, which he continues to use. He compares the past to today’s modern cameras, which can do much of the work for the photographer. In the past, photography with film cameras required a certain level of knowledge and expertise. Digital cameras, on the other hand, allow immediate viewing of photos that have just been taken and the ability to delete and retake if unsatisfied. As a result, a culture has emerged in which everyone is a photographer without specific training. This is a positive aspect of digital cameras as it allows for widespread community access and the ability for individuals to capture their own memories without relying on others.

However, this has led to a negative aspect as it has made photography more superficial and subjective. Anyone can think they can shoot like a professional photographer, leading to a saturated photography market. Both viewers and photographers lack the recognition and appreciation for true artistic works. He worries that this leads to the inadvertent devaluing of the depth of the profession and undervaluing the artistry of photography.

In a chaotic market where it’s difficult to distinguish professional photography, Hoang The Nhiem believes that print is the answer. He argues that genuine photography lies in prints rather than on screens or projectors. He asserts that prints can convey the complete message, language, emotions, and depth of the photo that no other device can replace.

For Hoang The Nhiem, creating prints is an essential part of photography because what the artist sees and the camera captures may not always translate onto paper. Thus, photographers must adjust the entire process of taking photos, from techniques and lighting to color, to perfect the final product before printing. Based on his own experience, he hopes that photographers will print their works to study and be proactive in each creative stage, opening up a more accurate interpretation of the photographic visual language.

He also expresses that inspecting prints is reserved only for true artists who focus on expertise and practical experience. For common people, distinguishing between prints can be challenging due to a lack of fundamental knowledge in the field.

"Ancient Village" by Hoàng Thế Nhiệm

Look beyond the overall beauty to see the subtle uniqueness

As a landscape photographer who frequently travels across the country, Hoang The Nhiem is deeply concerned about the rapid changes in natural landscapes. Many beautiful and pristine scenes are being sacrificed for economic development and improving people’s lives.

In his eyes, this is a struggle for survival between humans and nature in modern times. Through the lens of photography, this conflict evokes strong emotions in viewers, becoming a source of inspiration for artists but also causing great sadness. He only hopes to find a harmonious balance to preserve these resources for future generations.

Hoang The Nhiem advises exhibition visitors to consider and imagine the amount of effort invested by photographers – from the process of image creation to printing and displaying at exhibitions.

It may seem simple at first glance, but it requires a lot of dedication, technical skills, and experience of the profession. Therefore, the audience should keep an open mind, letting go of their preconceptions about beauty in general, especially the overall beauty, to appreciate the subtleties and special beauty expressed by the author’s soul through their photographic works. It’s precisely that which affirms the power of the language of photography: providing rich perspectives on the same reality we’re living in.

Writer: Liên Võ for Hoa Ta
Editor: BB Trương

Interview video with Hoàng Thế Nhiệm

Purchase the artist's prints via our online store