I wish to deconstruct some of the different types of Western observer lens and emotional responses that Vietnam is encountering. While I refer to Vietnam because that is the site for some of my creative practice, my article points to the different ways in which we ‘desire’ and ‘want’ to approach place based on our own individual and collective experiences. These experiences include the consumption of mediated experiences through news broadcasts, cinema, visual art and recounts of the personal stories of others who have been there. I have been to Vietnam eleven times between 2002 and 2010 and observed the transformation of places in urban centres. Each time I visit my preconceptions are challenged by changes. I have also observed that colleagues’ preconceptions are invariably framed by cultural memory as well as their emotional responses to places. In this article I argue that creative practice including video and photography provides a way to help deconstruct the affective tensions between place, memory and emotion.
I am using my lived experiences as a “theoretical manoeuvring” (Probyn 1993, 106) so that my enunciative position is reasonably transparent in this essay. I documented my observations including emotional responses through visual media and notes which maybe be treated as Geertz’s (1973) methodology towards a thick description. Obviously there is a difference between the field notes of a trained anthropologist and a creative practitioner; nevertheless, the visual diaries and written journals of a creative practitioner do contain thick descriptions. I documented street life through video and photography as a part of my creative practice in post Doi Moi Vietnam as well as keeping extensive diaries of found images and observations.
The validity of photographs and videos as ethnographic data “revolve largely around the problems of the act of picture taking itself” (Horvat 2010, 127). The argument centres on the construction or framing of the image, which is associated with subjectivities and emotional registers beyond the visual apprehension (Edwards, 2005). Nevertheless, “an ethnographically based photographic image indicates one culture viewing another” (Horvat 2010, 127), in my case an Australian viewing Vietnam. I do not shy away from my own subjectivity and emotional registers, instead, I suggest that rather than detracting from knowing, they can add a “critical edge” (Bondi 2005, 433) through challenging rational objective ways of knowing. Photographs and video are playing an increasing role as ethnographic data. Sarah Pink argues:
Photography, video and electronic media are becoming increasingly incorporated into the work of ethnographers: as cultural texts; as representations of ethnographic knowledge; and as sites of cultural production, social interaction and individual experience that themselves form ethnographic fieldwork locales (Pink 2001, 1).
Conceptualisation of places and the spaces derived from places through photography and video (literally) is increasingly being appropriated by ethnography as well as by memory studies scholars (Hirsch, Huyssen) to analyse a landscape’s or urbanscape’s meaning in terms of memory and the ambiguities imbued in its affective atmosphere (Anderson 2009). I will focus on expressions and images that invoke feelings of love, trust and disgust within some memory discourses that frame perceptions of places within the urban environments in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. My approach through creative practice deliberately “unsettles claims to the position of the rational knower” (Bondi 2005, 433) in order to expose some emotional connections to the patinas of places and their affective atmospheres in the urban landscapes I encountered numerous times over a period of eight years.