In our latest Meet & Greet, we chat to French photographer Etienne Bossot. Etienne is based in Hoi An in Vietnam and began running photo walks there in 2009. He recently began running longer photography tours to different Southeast Asian destinations under the brand name Pics of Asia. We asked him about the challenges of operating photography tours, the tourism outlook in Vietnam, and the future of photography tourism…
You were amongst the first expats running tours in Hoi An. When did you start operating, and what challenges did you face?
When I started in 2009 there were only a few photography tours in Siem Reap, Cambodia. This was still a very new thing and people did not think about looking for a photography tour in Hoi An. A lot of people have interest in photography and love going on tours, but I had to be able to reach these people with my tour. So it took a lot of work to put the photo tour available online for people to find it when looking for something to do in Hoi An. I actually spent the first 6 months walking the streets of Hoi An and giving brochures to people who had cameras, to get the thing started.
How do the locals react to groups of foreigners pointing cameras at them?
What I have been trying to do since the beginning is thinking in the long term. If I show up in a village with a group of people, and start shooting locals around, I don’t believe they would have had the patience to have us for so many years. But instead I have been trying to create long lasting relationships with them, by creating a two way exchange. In fact, when going to take photos of them, the locals are more curious about us than we are about them. They ask questions about where the participants are from, and get very interested in them. We are actually having a discussion with the locals while on the tour, which also makes the approach much easier.
Hoi An has changed considerably since my first visit in 2003, for better and for worse. What changes have you noticed, and have they made your life easier or harder?
Indeed Hoi An has changed a lot, but to me it remains this small little town where everyone knows everyone. There is more traffic, and the countryside is less and less “countryside” as roads develop. Also there are now much more tours and activities available in Hoi an so it is more difficult to get noticed. I used to be able to be seen in Hoi An by displaying my tour brochures in 20 spots in town, but I now need to be in over 100 locations for people to find me.
Photography tours are becoming more popular in Asia and beyond. In your opinion, what makes a good photography tour?
Well first I would like to differentiate 2 types of tours. There is the photography tour, which brings you somewhere where you might get good photos, and there is the photography tour and workshop, which is actually teaching photography to people. I will talk about the second kind here as this is what I do.
First thing I think comes from the instructor. People come to learn, and they need to learn about photography in a limited time. Things have to remain simple but interesting, to help people develop their creativity. The instructor also has to be dynamic to lead a group of people amongst busy locations (like markets for example) and keep everyone entertained.
Then it mostly comes from the locations to be visited and how easy it is to take photos of the people. The key is to visit places where some sort of activity is happening. After all it will be quite difficult to take photos of people just sitting and doing nothing. People coming on the tours (Westerners) are quite shy to approach the locals, and this should be facilitated so they are able to focus on what is being taught (camera settings and composition). Also, by going into busy places it makes it very interesting for advanced or pro photographers, who know they will be facing a lot of photo opportunities.
You recently broadened your remit and began organising longer tours in different locations under the name Pics of Asia. Why did you decide to look beyond Hoi An & Vietnam?
My first idea in 2010 was actually to open the same business model as Hoi An photo tour but in different cities (Luang Prabang, Chiang Mai, etc.) but I quickly realized that it would be very difficult for me to manage these tours from far away and finding the right people to take care of them.
The idea of running longer tours in Asia actually came quite naturally due to the demand I received. A lot of people who attended Hoi An photo tour did ask me for longer tours as they liked the way I teach and the fun time we are having on the tours. It also filled my craving for visiting other places that I dreamed of visiting in the past (like Myanmar for example). So at the end this is a perfect match and the thing I want to focus on in the future.
What are your favourite photography destinations in SE Asia, and why?
Well as you may suspect my heart is in Hoi An and central Vietnam. The fact that the countryside is very easy to reach and we can always find some activities makes it easy for photography. Also the people are so friendly that it is just a pleasure going around and meeting them.
I am also a big big fan of Northern Vietnam and its mountains. The area of Ha Giang or Mu Cang Chai is so beautiful, that I often tell people: “once you have seen North Vietnam everything else in South East Asia looks flat”.
But I have such a pleasure to go back to Myanmar every year, which is so plentiful of photo opportunities than it can be frustrating!
Vietnam continues to struggle to capitalise on its assets and make a success of its tourism industry, particularly in terms of repeat visitors. What can it do to make people come back?
The people of Vietnam still look at things in a very short term way. It is all about how much money can they make today, instead of thinking about the next few years. So there is a lot of ripping off, and I hear that a lot from people I meet on the tours. Some people come back to Vietnam every year because they really fell in love with the place and its people, but most people tell me they do not wish to come back as they felt they have been “targeted” by sales people everywhere they were going. People want to live authentic experiences and are very keen to meet local people. Being seen as a walking wallet does not help. But I think Vietnam has so much to offer that it should be the top destination in Asia.
Finally, give us your thoughts on the future of photography tourism.
Photography tours are now a booming thing and I see about a new photography tour in Asia almost every month. It is true that photography is so popular now that there are a lot of people who are keen to learn. That does not mean that anyone who can take a photo can teach how to do so, and I think only a few people running tours in Asia today are really good. It is a matter of personality, one needs to be able to share everything and be very comfortable around people.
I also find that given the interest people have for photography, so many people are keen on just doing photography while visiting a place. People now travel a lot and have done the basic “touring” of a country. They are now looking for more unique experience, out of the beaten tracks. And this is what I am looking for when building my longer photography tours, as these locations offer much better photo opportunities.
Thanks Etienne! For more info about Pics of Asia, visit the website. Keen photographers should check out Etienne’s helpful and entertaining tutorials, as well as his blog, which is one of the funniest Asia photography blogs on the web.