5 Minutes with Alden Anderson: Focusing on Ethnic Minorities

Alden Anderson’s poignant photographs reveal his special love for Vietnam.

From the age of nine, Alden Anderson was attracted to photography. Now, with more than 20 years in the profession, the 37-year-old photographer from Los Angeles has made a mark in Vietnam with a photo series named Hoi An Flood, highlighting the beauty of the country despite natural disasters. He also has other works that document the country’s ethnic minorities.

In 2007, Anderson started working in the Hollywood film industry, focusing on visual effects done in post-production. In his 10 years in the field, Anderson worked with 20th Century, Fox, ESPN, National Geographic, Sony, and the Discovery Channel. Some of his work can be seen in Sinister 2 (2015), Date Night (2010), The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008).

He received the Sports Emmy Award for the documentary Sport Science along with others in his team in 2010 and he was the grand prize winner of Vietnam Airlines’ Vietnam Heritage Photo Awards in 2019.

In 2016, Anderson decided to leave Los Angeles and travel around the world. Cultural diversities in beliefs, languages, and traditional clothing were an endless source of inspiration. “It was the people and their stories that drove me creatively,” Anderson explains.

In January of 2018, he came to Vietnam, and in July, he met Trinh Nguyen, a budding photographer from Kon Tum who shares a special love for people and ethnic minority cultures. Nguyen and Anderson met in Danang, where she lived at that time, and fell in love. Vietnam The People was born then. The project features photos and life stories, published on Anderson’s website, 360nomad.org. The aim was to introduce the diverse beauty of ethnic groups in Vietnam to the world. So far, he has met 43 out of the country’s 54 ethnic minorities.

Speaking to Culture Magazin, Anderson explains his passion for photography and talks about his journey in Vietnam.

What brought you to photography?

As a child, I was constantly fascinated with the world around me and photography was a way to capture it. As an adult, I am inspired by the people I meet, especially people whose cultures are different than mine. I have a particular interest in older people and the ethnic groups in Asia. I love to listen to people and learn about their culture and lives. I’m inspired by those interactions.

Are you a full-time photographer in Vietnam now, or do you have other jobs?

Right now, I’m primarily focused on our project Vietnam The People, documenting the ethnic groups of Vietnam and their stories.

When tourism was happening, Trinh and I were teaching photography and doing photography tours with a focus on the people and culture of Vietnam. Since travel has stopped, we’ve been focusing on our own photography projects.

What do you think about the lifestyle, culture, and food in Vietnam?

I’ve been to more than 35 countries and the food in Vietnam is the best. The variety, flavours and freshness are unmatched. I’m continually impressed by the openness and friendliness of the people here. Any time I’ve had trouble, no matter where I am, someone has gone out of their way to help me. A few days ago, I was walking home when it started pouring rain. A guy pulled over and gave me a ride on his motorcycle and refused to take any money from me.

I’m particularly fascinated with the variety of cultures in Vietnam. With 54 officially recognized ethnic groups, it’s a source of continual discovery and inspiration.

What are some cultural differences between your homeland and Vietnam?

In the U.S., we have more of a car culture. In Vietnam, it’s a motorbike culture.

I love street food and mobile restaurants in Vietnam. We don’t have that much in the U.S. One of my favourite foods in Vietnam is made by a woman named Hà, who lives in the countryside of Hoi An. Every morning she wakes up at 3 a.m. to make mì quảng and carries it with her đòn gánh (bamboo pole with two baskets) to the old town. I’ve never had mì quảng like hers. It’s the food of the gods.

In Vietnam, farming and making things isn’t a big industrialized process like it is in the U.S. I really like that.

How is your life in Hoi An?

It is running at a slower pace right now due to the lack of tourists. We’re often out driving around the countryside, talking to and photographing the farmers, fishermen and artisans. We have many printed photos from people we’ve met and so we’re always on the lookout to find them again in the fields or villages.

Vietnam has faced difficulties this year such as the COVID-19 outbreak and many natural disasters. What have you experienced during this time?

The government’s quick reaction to COVID-19 and the country’s response following the ‘Stay at Home’ orders meant that Vietnam wasn’t affected nearly as much as other countries. I was amazed at how well organized and thorough they were in tracking each case. Now things are open, and we can travel around Vietnam freely.

There has been some bad flooding in Central Vietnam this year. From across the country, people have stood together to help those affected. They donated food, supplies and money. I was impressed. There is a strong sense of community and an urge to help people in need.

You seem to have a special love for the Vietnamese. How would you describe this?

Vietnamese people in general are so warm and welcoming. Whenever I’m out in the countryside, people smile and wave, many times with a cheerful “Hello.” The kids especially.

I’ve been invited in for tea, rice wine or food more times than I can count.

With our project Vietnam The People we have talked to inhabitants from many different ethnic groups and I’ve always felt welcomed.

“Resilient” is a word I’d use to describe Vietnamese people in the face of adversity. I recently talked to a young man in Hoi An about the flooding. He said “I am Vietnamese. Being negative and sad doesn’t make disasters go away. Therefore, we should accept it with a smile and soon everything will be back to normal.”

Is there anything that you dislike in Vietnam?

Not specifically. I do miss the cooler weather back in California. Maybe some snow.

Can you tell us more about Vietnam The People? How does it support local residents?

It is a story-driven cultural photography project that documents the people and the beauty of Vietnam’s many ethnic groups. In addition to documenting, our mission is to raise awareness of different cultures and share it with the world.

We also work to deliver printed photos to the people we’ve photographed, many of whom have never had their photo taken before. It’s not a for-profit project and is mostly self-funded.

Any donations or money we receive from prints go back to the project and to the people. When we meet someone, who is in need we give what we can to help them, whether it is food, supplies, clothes, medicine or financial support.

Do you want to share anything else with our audience?

As an American, before I came here “Vietnam” was synonymous with the war. In the U.S. it’s really part of the culture. I feel like that’s a huge disservice to the country and all of the people here. I would love for people to understand that Vietnam is a beautiful country with many diverse ethnic groups and cultures, and amazing, friendly people. I hope with our project we can illuminate these things and help change that perspective.

This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt

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