Originally from a tiny little town of 2,780 residents in Ohio, Quinn Ryan Mattingly has now found a home among the 12 million inhabitants in the massive metropolis of HCMC. He first arrived in 2007 to visit a friend, quickly fell in love with the country, and has never left since. As a documentary and editorial photographer, his clients include The New York Times, Le Monde, Travel & Leisure, Getty Images, Ogilvy, Philips, and many more. The Guide spoke with him about living and working in photography in Vietnam.
Have you always been a professional photographer?
Not really. When I first came to Vietnam and previously in South Korea I was an English teacher for the first couple of years, then I started getting quite bored. I have been taking photos for a long time and I realised it was something I would like to do as a career. I got a job with The Word magazine then things just took off from there. Gradually I started getting more assignments and building my portfolio.
What are the exciting and challenging things about working as a photographer in HCMC?
The exciting thing is that there are stories and a lot of interesting faces and characters everywhere. The challenging bit is the language, of course, as I would like to speak more with my characters. Sometimes some of my work can be touchy and emotional but it is part of the job.
What is your style when it comes to photography?
I am very ‘documentary’, which means none of my photos are staged, except of course fashion shoots, which are very different. Everything you see on my website is what happened, the moment I saw it, the moment I captured it without setting it up. I didn’t ask my subjects to do anything. That’s the way I generally work most of the time.
I am all about emotions and capturing people’s stories and faces. People in Ohio and HCMC are very different and I am very interested in capturing their human emotions. You should put different things in the photo, different layers, different stories, so that when you go back and look at the photos you know what has happened. Once I saw seven photographers standing in the same position taking photos of the same model. For me, that was too straightforward. I would prefer to try other ways to shoot, to take pictures from different angles.
You have been very active on Instagram recently. That’s how I found out about you …
Yes, I have been very active lately. Instagram featured my account and I got another 100,000 new followers. Now I am trying to share something from my archive every day. I’m also a part of Everyday Vietnam on Instagram, which is a collaborative project with ten other Vietnamese and expat photographers. It is interesting as we are based in different places and everyone sees things very differently.
Tell me about a recent assignment that caught your interest.
I AM ALL ABOUT EMOTIONS AND CAPTURING PEOPLE’S STORIES AND FACES. PEOPLE IN OHIO AND HCMC ARE VERY DIFFERENT AND I’M VERY INTERESTED IN CAPTURING THEIR HUMAN EMOTIONS.
Two weeks ago I was in Hanoi for an assignment with booking.com. I have a colleague who is normally based in town and we switched our roles with each other: he shot in HCMC and I shot in Hanoi. It seemed odd but actually it worked out.
I have been to Hanoi many times and it is a city I think I know well, but each time I find something different; when they burn money on the street, the lively evenings in the Old Quarter. I was taken to Bai Giua, the little island on the Red River, where I have never been and that was fascinating.
Do you have any personal projects you are currently working on?
I have been doing stories on the modern day effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam for a few years. Countless stories and images of dioxin victims’ plights have already been recorded, yet my project continues to show that this is happening right now, in order for us to never forget.
Besides photography, what has kept you here for the last eight years and will keep you here in the future?
I have been a volunteer with street kids at Bamboo Shelter for a long time. I worked with them since the first day I arrived in Vietnam and used to stop there every day to spend time with them, help them with their homework, talk to them in English, take them to the dentist. Of course it can be difficult, as sometimes you sit down with them one day and the next day they are gone, either they ran away or their parents came and took them. But I am very close to them and I do whatever I can to help them so that they know somebody cares for them and they are not just some boys living on the streets. There is one boy who was four when he came to the shelter. He is now 14 and still there and I still come to see him.
Is there anything you miss about Ohio? There must be a huge difference between Ohio and HCMC?
Oh my God! Yes! I miss my dog and a few little things. Vietnam makes me crazy sometimes but I am much happier here. It’s more fun. I will be here for the foreseeable future, getting married to a Vietnamese girl early next year, and my career is here so nothing makes me want to run away yet.
Do you have any advice for a new expats in town?
I guess you should not just go to work as a teacher and go to bars every day. I have seen so many people doing that. You need to get out of HCMC to the countryside, and talk to people. For me, volunteering and spending time with the kids has been a great way to get into Vietnamese culture. And don’t forget to learn the language. If I could go back, I would learn Vietnamese as soon as I arrive.
Quinn’s portfolio can be found at http://quinnmattingly.com/. He also runs photos tours and workshops at Saigon School of Imaging, http://www.saigonimaging.com/