Photo Hanoi ’23: To Promote Hanoi’s International Creative Profile and Market Opportunities

Photo Hanoi Biennale ‘23 – the first international photo festival to be held in Hanoi, is taking place across 07 districts of Hanoi from April 21st to June 3rd. More than 100 photographers, artists, curators, and experts are exhibiting their work at more than 20 exhibitions and giving talks, art tours, and workshops to the enthusiastic audiences of Hanoi. The Photo Hanoi Biennale is initiated by The French Institute in Vietnam, supported by Hanoi’s People Committee on the city’s agenda to prioritize the cultural industries development.

In the interview with Hanoi Grapevine about Photo Hanoi ’23, Mr. Thierry Vergon, Director of The French Institute (IFV), described the foundation of the festival

For us, while looking at new strategies for the Ministry of Culture, it became obvious that it was important to organize, with the Vietnamese authorities, a big event to promote one or many cultural and creative disciplines.

We had many meetings in 2020 and 2021 with people involved in the art scene and the cultural scene of Hanoi and Vietnam in general, and we decided that photography was very interesting for many reasons, including the fact that photography is also a medium to promote other cultural activities. Through photography, you can speak about architecture, fashion, design, even sports or any other related topics. So photography was one of the first disciplines that we wanted to explore, also because in Vietnam there are very interesting young scenes of photographers as well as established photographers.

For the first edition (Photo Hanoi ‘21), we organized around six or seven exhibitions. We also scheduled a few other side activities. We have very good feedback from both the public, who came and was very interested, and the cultural partners, so we decided to go through with this idea of having an every two years event dedicated to photography.

Biennales are now a very common format to promote visual arts in the world. For example, everyone knows the Biennale of Venice, but there are many other important events like this one dedicated to visual art as well as performing arts, and a few of those events are dedicated to photography, like, for instance, the one in Bamako, Mali, called the Biennale of Bamako. And of course, there are also some other events dedicated to photography in the world and in the region, like Objectifs in Singapore, Photo Phnom Penh in Cambodia, and Kyotographie in Japan.

This led us to organize, with the city of Hanoi, this Photo Hanoi ’23, which will be the first real edition of the International Biennale of Photography.

How do you think that this photo biennale will be significant to the city of Hanoi in the short term, as well as in the long term?

I can only compare it to the effect that kind of event had on other cities. So perhaps first, a comparison with Kyotography, which is a big event that is 10 years old, organized in Kyoto in Japan. This event is now attracting more people than the number of inhabitants of the city. So you can imagine that for the tourism industry and the economy, it is very good.

So what we expect is also to give a really good exposure to what is happening in Vietnam. It is also very good for Vietnamese photographers and the Vietnamese public to be exposed to international works, in order to establish a dialogue between arts from Vietnam and arts from other parts of the world. It helps to create a better understanding of each other’s culture and helps the scene gain maturity by showing leading examples of what is done in photography in the world, expressing photography as a form of art but also on how to promote and expose it, which are very important aspects. There is a lack in Vietnam, for instance, of curators for photography, this is perhaps something that will help the career of experts to try to become more involved in the creation of photographic exhibitions.

When the communication is properly done and when it’s successful, for a city like Hanoi, this event is a very important tool for attractivity. For tourism of course, because culture is always a very strong way of promoting a city and more generally because it gives the city a new image in the world. For example, Paris is the first destination in the world. Why do you think it is? Mainly because Paris invested a lot in culture: museums, events, etc. A lot of people come to Paris perhaps because it’s a romantic capital but more importantly, because there are so many cultural activities and exhibitions you can spend your time on. I think it’s very important for a city like Hanoi to play this card, to develop big events like Photo Hanoi and promote attractive events for the public.

Who do you think is the key audience? And how do you capture the attention of the audience?

It is a bit soon to see who will be the main audience but I think that the first audience is, of course, the people of Hanoi. Deliberately, we wanted to have exhibitions not only in the center of Hanoi but in many districts, counting around six areas where there will be exhibitions or events, in order to connect the people of Hanoi to this event. The first public we are looking for is really Hanoians. We are also looking to reach Vietnamese people in general. We hope that people will come and attend some of the events of Photo Hanoi during this one-month exhibition. We also want the tourists to come. It is important to bring other inputs than just walking in the streets and seeing the buildings and so on, but understanding Vietnamese culture through photography. One very important public is the one interested in the visual arts and photography for professional reasons. People like photographers, curators, buyers, and gallery owners, there is a very wide range of people walking in that industry of visual arts. We want to communicate and get them more interested in this event.

An event is not built in one edition of the Biennale, here we will build the first one but then every two years we will have a better edition, a better organization, and more interesting editions, and little by little, we will build the credibility of this event and attract hopefully more and more people from a wider audience as well as specialists.

How do you think this festival will create career opportunities and promote creativity?

It is an opportunity for some of the photographers, whose work is not yet known, it is a chance for them to present their work. It is not that obvious for a photographer to present his work in Vietnam. Because there are not a lot of opportunities for photographers to exhibit their work, Vietnamese people do not even have the chance to discover their work. The first thing is to create a playground for them to present their work and also to meet other photographers. It is very important to create a collective action among photographers they can relate to.

This is a good aspect in order to give them a purpose. They know that every year they can take advantage of this moment to show their work, speak about their techniques, learn new ones, and take part in discussions.

The program of the round tables is there to help the communication between students, people, and photographers in order to bring a perspective on what is possible, how to know better about what’s happening in photography in the world, and how to build their own careers around it.

Photography is not something you find easily in galleries, most of the time, galleries expose paintings, sculptures, installations, or videos. Photography is sometimes included in what is exhibited. In Photo Hanoi, we will only show photography. It is a way to elevate and promote photography as an art, not only as a visual art but as a proper discipline. This is an important factor not only for photographers but also for people who are discovering that it can be something interesting for them. I know the fact that some people are buying art in Vietnam, but I’m not sure they are really interested yet in buying photography; therefore, it could be an opportunity to develop the market for photography as an art.

What are the festival highlights?

It is always difficult to only talk about one, two, or three names. I going to talk about a French photographer, Robert Doisneau, who was very active around the 1960s and is considered one of the godfathers of French photography. He’s never been exhibited in Vietnam. We will have during PhotoHanoi the first-ever exhibition with 30 of his original photographs. I hope this will participate to giving more insight into the history of photography to the visitors.

I would like to talk about another person who is very important in Vietnam, in the world of visual arts, and who was very involved in Photo Hanoi, who is Mr. The Son. He is a curator for some exhibitions. He is also exhibited as a photographer. He is also involved as an expert because I am not a photographer so I need some experts to come and give advice on who to select, how to work with the exhibitions, what is interesting in Vietnam, and so on. So he is a very important figure in the exhibition.

I would like to speak about two particular exhibitions, the first one is the exhibition for the opening on the 21st of April, which is a collective exhibition, curated by The Son which will be shown at the cultural center on the 22 Hang Buom. This is a very interesting example of collaboration between Vietnamese and international artists. The common theme is Hanoi is a city for photographers. It’s very interesting because you will have a large number of photographers exhibiting their own vision of Hanoi through photography. I think it’s very interesting because of course it’s an art exhibition but it’s also something about the history and the sociology of Hanoi as a cultural city but also as a big capital in Asia. This will be an expected moment of the program of PhotoHanoi.

Another one I would like to talk about will take place at the VCCA, exhibiting female photographers. This is also something we wanted to organize, an exhibition dedicated to female photographers. It is always difficult for photographers to have a career, but for female photographers, it’s even harder, so we really wanted that. Even if it’s hard, it’s possible and you have excellent photographers. So here it’s an exhibition that is curated by a female curator from VCCA and with some female photographers not only from Vietnam but of Vietnamese origin who are coming from several countries in the world. I think this will also be one of the very expected moments of this festival.

So I just want to highlight that all the exhibitions are interesting, even those that were not cited. All the artists taking part in this show are very good, very interesting. So I encourage everyone to go through the program and see as many exhibitions as possible. I think this is the only way to really understand all the richness of what photography can give as a form of art and as a form of expression.

And how about workshops and roundtables?

Here again, I don’t want to list everything, but one interesting workshop will be on the cyanotype. This is a way of doing photography that is very different from the traditional way. I think this is interesting because it gives the audience, who might not be aware of this technique, that there are many ways of doing photography with not only the camera but with other tools as well.

Regarding the round table, perhaps I can cite one of the exhibitions as it might matter in the future of the photography scene in Vietnam. We plan to have a round table around higher education in photography, especially in creative photography. As you know, there is no real Department of Photography in art schools in Vietnam, and we are wondering if this is needed and if this is something that artists or photographers are expecting to see happening. We will have a discussion with some people who are already involved in teaching photography in art schools in Europe and other parts of the world and share their own experiences with partners here in Vietnam. This is something we are working on with several partners including the VNU, they are also wondering if this is something that they want to develop in the future; a special course for creative photography.

We will also have a round table regarding Photo Hanoi itself to talk about the utility of this event. We will try to gather a few people who are really involved in other big events in photography. For instance, people who are involved in Objectifs Singapore or Kyotographie for them to share what they felt when coming to Photo Hanoi compared to what they know, and to share as well their experience about what those events had created and brought to the photography scene and to the cities where they were installed. It would be interesting for both the public and the audience, but also for the people here in Hanoi who are wondering what this event’s about and what it brings to the city.

How will this festival attract international attention?

The international dimension of this event is not only through the people that are invited to take part in the programs, but it is also in the partners that are involved in this event. This is not just a partnership between the city of Hanoi and the French Institute. We have been working also to coordinate international partnerships. So we have several countries that are involved in helping organize exhibitions and activities, like Germany, Italy, Spain, the US, Argentina, Japan, Hungary, Switzerland, the UK, and Belgium. There are already many partners who have agreed to travel with us through this journey of organizing this event. So those partners will also promote the biennale in their own networks the biennale of Photo Hanoi. It is the first step in making the event known abroad through the networks of the partners. And then, depending on every specific case, some international artists who exhibit are Vietnamese residents. So the international exposure they can give is perhaps less important than other people that we invite from different countries, who can then relay the message and what they thought of being at that event… And of course, we hope that the guests will be available to spread the message and want to come back for further editions.

What is your dream for the future development of the Photo Hanoi Biennale?

First of all, my dream is that after two or three editions, the French Institute will not be the main partner and co-organizer of this event and that the city of Hanoi will have a dedicated team that will organize this biennale of photography. We will do as much as we can to help this team build their capacities through field visits at other big events like that so they can exchange experiences with people organizing biennales or photography events.

I think it has a big importance that this event doesn’t stay between French and Vietnamese but becomes a Hanoi event with international partners. The Institute will, of course, continue to be a partner of this event.

I just want to share what happened at the Hue international festival. It started as a program built by the French cooperation, after a few years, there was capacity building with a lot of training and so on, and now the Hue Festival is 100% organized by the region of Thua Thien Hue, with a festival office that is organizing everything, and the French Embassy and the French Institute are two of the international partners that are part of the festival. This is what I think would be best for this event in the future. What I hope is that, first, the city will be able to commit to this project in the long term and find enough resources to build it. Such an event is quite expensive, here, a lot of the financial resources and human resources are coming from the French Institute, but it won’t be possible for us to carry on the project at this level of commitment.

The Hanoi People’s Committee city has to take this project as its own and see that investing money in this project is, in fact, a real investment. I remember reading that the mayor of Lyon, a city in the center of France which is also organizing a biennale, was saying that for every euro the city invests in the biennale, three euros are brought in to enrich the city; through tourism, through other investments of companies and so on. He was saying for them it’s not spending money it’s earning money.

So this is something that is very important, that the city keeps investing in culture because this allows the city to become richer. What I hope is that of course, it will become more and more famous, first in the region among Asian countries, but also in the long term as a reference for photography and for visual art events in the world. It could be one of the key places for people to come, meet artists, and discover new creativity, and what will be important is that photography can stay the main subject of this biennale. There are some experiments in scenography in the photographic display, there is a large range of experimentation that is possible. I hope this will really push creativity, not only in photography but in other fields as well. I hope as well that Vietnamese photographers will become more known in the arts in the world and will really be part of the market for photography. So I hope when I come back in 10 or 14 years there will be this big event called Photo Hanoi.

An interview by Uyen Ly for Hanoi Grapevine
Photos by IFV
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