The perks and challenges of being a lifestyle magazine photographer

It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it!

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October saw a new door open for me and I started contributing to the Saigon-based lifestyle magazine Oi Vietnam. Magazine photography is not something I’d done a lot of in the past, but it’s been a whole lot of fun so far, and you’ll be seeing a lot more of my photography in the magazine in the coming months.

Having come onboard late in October, I only had a few assignments for the November issue. The first was to promote the opening of a new branch of a popular Indian restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City – Baba’s Kitchen.

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On the morning of the shoot, I hopped on my scooter with Google Maps directions to the restaurant full of anticipation. The plan was to arrive about half and hour early and check the place out, plan the shots and test lighting before any food was prepared. Well, that was the plan…

Then I got lost.

I could not see a restaurant or anything at all when I arrived at the location Google had given me, so I put in the address once again. This time it gave me a completely different location, so I set out again.

It wasn’t the right place.

I didn’t realise until I’d ridden for so long that I had more or less left Saigon and started into another province. So I gave the restaurant owner a call. He gave me the name of a local landmark which showed up in Google Maps as being right by the place I’d originally gone to! So after refuelling the bike I sped back, feeling embarrassed at the likelihood of being late to my very first gig for the mag.

Thankfully, I arrived right on time – 11 o’clock on the dot.

I had imagined a restaurant decked out in an impressive display of exotic Indian decor. What a great array of visually stunning objects would be at my disposal to create some photos with! But instead of being greeted by an intense wash of colours and designs, I was met by an empty space with two small tables set between bare white walls. It turned out it was currently primarily a delivery service, and the tables were simply for customers to wait at if they came to pick up their Vindaloo and Naan Bread. Hmmm, this was going to be more of a challenge than I had anticipated!

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And then the food came out. It looked delicious, but I wasn’t really feeling the presentation. Baba’s Kitchen does great home-style Indian food – it’s delicious and authentic, but it’s not always pretty. My challenge was to present the food in a way that made people’s mouths water. To make people wanna pick up the phone and call the restaurant to place an order IMMEDIATELY!

So I tried different angles of each dish, but then I decided to stick with what made me feel would make me wanna eat there. It may have been the least attractive dish, but for me it was textbook Indian – the curry. The naan bread was a natural mate for the curry. So I placed them on the table and got in close, as there was not really any way to make the plain white walls attractive – after all, the star was the food. It still looked like it was lacking something, so I grabbed a handful of some kind of legume that was used as an ingredient in the kitchen and scattered them near the dishes. As I looked through the viewfinder, I knew I had my shot.

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I continued shooting dishes in various combinations and took some shots of the spices they used in the kitchen and the shoot was done. Then came one of the perks of the job: I got to eat it all.

And it was good. Oh so good!

So I’d had the chance to see a part of the city I wouldn’t otherwise have visited, met some great people (I must have chatted with the owner Robin for at least an hour – learnt a lot about India and Malaysia as he had spent quite a lot of time in Malaysia before coming to Vietnam), and had a sumptuous banquet of delicious authentic Indian food, all for doing what I love to do – taking photos.

Is this really a job? People get paid for this?!!

My other assigned shoots consisted of the launch of an Artbook by Saigon Artbook that featured three artists based in Ho Chi Minh City’s work, and “Silk of Light” – a collaboration between a local fashion designer and an artist to create works in which the fashion and art interact and inspire each other.

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Once again, I got to meet some great people I wouldn’t otherwise have met, as well as networking with other creatives. I was particularly happy with the photo I made of the artist Ngo Dinh Bao Chau with her work in the Silk of Light exhibition, and it felt great to see how happy she was with it as well. It can be stressful trying to make nice images working in sometimes limiting situations, but it’s really rewarding when it all comes together.

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Indian food wasn’t the only great culinary perk in October. I attended the shoot for the cover of the magazine (at top of this post). It was nice to get a feel for how some of these shoots run and to get to know some other members of the magazine staff, but the best thing about the day was the dessert that somebody had to eat!

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One of the staff photographers – Loc Nguyen – was the photographer on the day. He was doing a great job keeping the model relaxed while she tried to balance a heavy plate with a towering dessert on it.

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The dessert was created by one of the chefs at Ciao Bella restaurant – a cosy Italian trattoria in the heart of downtown Saigon. Halfway through the shoot, the dessert was melting and didn’t look quite so appealing, so we had them make up another before the shoot continued. That was when the first dessert had to be “disposed of”. The Vietnamese staff said they didn’t feel hungry, and it was left to me to take care of it.

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Oh. My. God!

This is the kind of dessert I would never have had the opportunity to try if not for the job. The puff pastry was light and crispy, with the sweet and tangy strawberries perfectly balanced by the cream that filled the centre of the towering masterpiece of culinary perfection. OK, maybe describing the dessert as pure ecstasy is going a little far, but I hadn’t enjoyed anything as much as that dessert since… well… since the Indian food in Baba’s Kitchen.

While enjoying great food is a great perk of the job (Japanese this month), and meeting people brings new friendships and insight, one of the things that I like the most about this job is the opportunity to see things I wouldn’t otherwise get to see or know about. This month I’ll be meeting someone who has set up an initiative that gives disadvantaged youth better prospects in life while simultaneously promoting the greening of the city and greater environmental awareness. But more on that in later posts…

This post is long enough already, so I’ll save for another post just how this opportunity came along, as that’s a story in itself!

If you’re in Ho Chi Minh City, you can pick up a copy of Oi in any Gloria Jean’s Cafe or a number of restaurants or hotels that cater to the expat or foreign crowd. This month’s has some great articles, including one on a fish and chips street stall in Saigon that’s been opened by a British expat and his Vietnamese associate – I’ll be trying some of that soon – looks absolutely delicious! If you’re not in Saigon, you can view this month’s issue online here.

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