by Sheung Yiu

© Simone Sapienza from the series 'Charlie surfs on Lotus Flowers' 

To young Sicilian photographer Simone Sapienza, post-war Vietnam is special because of its paradoxical existence, the materialistic freedom brought by capitalism is contrasted with the tight grip of the ruling communist party. Visualising the reconciliation of western and traditional value in communist countries has become one of the most prevalent topics after the 2000s, but unlike many photographers, Simone ditched the conventional documentary approach and instead created a sequence of poetic visual metaphors that prompt viewers to question their presumptions about the country. The young photographer also co-founded Gazebook, a photobook festival in his hometown with a simple vision - create a nurturing environment for photographers and audience to discuss photography in a more easy-going and chill atmosphere.

Why Vietnam? What brought you attention to Vietnam as a Sicilian photographer? What aspects of Vietnam are specifically interesting to you?

Simone Sapienza (SS): I started to become curious about Vietnam while I was writing an essay about photojournalism and Instagram. Vietnam was a breakthrough for war photographers - they pictured so much cruelty without any filter therefore governments started to ban photographers from the field. It was the starting point for embedded photographers.

However, after that I became ever more curious about Vietnam, thinking about how many Hollywoodian movies were made about the Vietnam War and questioning myself about what the modern Vietnam looks like beyond the perfect travel photographs.

I'm just 25 years old, I can't remember anything about the Vietnam War and all the protests against it over the world. At school, in Italy, teachers don't really focus on the Vietnam War. I started to Google and research and all the economical, actual, aspects came up. Vietnam is supposed to be the new Asian Tiger by 2050 - like the new China. Vietnam is mainly composed by under 40s' - almost 70%. I felt so much energy, I got that feeling - I had to go.

© Simone Sapienza from the series 'Charlie surfs on Lotus Flowers' 

Can you briefly introduce your project? Your theme and your research process.

SS: My project 'Charlie surfs on Lotus Flowers' is a wide metaphor, like the title itself. I tried to combine the energy, exoticism and economical wave of Vietnam with the political power ruled by the Communist government. I was curious about what people thought about economy and politics. Well, according to a national survey, almost 95% agree with free-market economy, while speaking with many people I felt a general lack of interest about politics. My research was deeply focussed on the history and actual economy in Vietnam, mainly in Ho Chi Minh City. Then, I keep in mind the main key words and I start to take picture that represent them. Power, economy, energy, exoticism, politics. These were the most important topics. I'm not really descriptive, it's not classic reportage neither spot news. I tried to combine metaphor language and documentary background. I just change the usual aesthetic, even combining different - but still complementary - approaches.

© Simone Sapienza from the series 'Charlie surfs on Lotus Flowers' 

I knew you travel to Vietnam earlier this year to finish this project, what places have you visited and what are their significance?

SS: I preferred to visit the South Vietnam, above all Ho Chi Minh City. The fall of Saigon was the actual end of the Vietnam War. Now, HCMC is the main city for the economical development. So much capitalism there. It's like USA won on the economical, capitalistic, side. But these are just tags, people there don't really care, they just want to live better, forget the past, look into the future, as brighter as possibile. I visited also the main cities in Central Vietnam - like Hue and Da Nang, that had important value during the War, for both sides.

Being a photographer is about getting into the right place as well as pressing the shutter at the right moment. How do you get access to the occasions? How do you find your subject and communicate with them despite the language barrier?

SS: I don't know if photography is still about pressing the shutter at the right moment. I'm ever more far from that Bressonian point of view about photography. Time flows, pictures leave, people don't. I'd like to engage more the viewer into my pictures - let him questioning the picture, its content, even myself and himself too. The meaning of the project will come up slowly along the series. Just spend time with the images, dive your sight into them - don't have just a fast look. We are overwhelmed by pictures everyday. Look around you. For one time at day, slow down.
I spoke in English with students in HCMC during my research. There also a lot of expats that were living in USA or Europe, then come back to live in Vietnam - they speak a really good English.
I come from Italy where - especially in Sicily - body language is the first language.

Can you tell us more about the story behind the photo of a group of Vietnamese in formal attire who happen to be attending a ceremony. How does that relate to your theme?

SS: The group of people includes the President of Vietnam at that time (February 2016) during the opening of the Street Flower at HCMC during the Tet Holiday. The other picture of the man interviewed was during the 86th anniversary of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

© Simone Sapienza from the series 'Charlie surfs on Lotus Flowers' 

They were public event, I was following English website about news and events in Vietnam. They represent political power as members of the Party or Government, then still connected with "power" as key word in my project.

Besides working on your own photo projects, you are also a founder of Gazebook, a Photobook Festival in Sicily. Can you tell us more about that? What is your incentive and what are your goals?

SS: I'm a co-founder of Gazebook - Sicily Photobook Festival. I liked the idea to create a festival that was more easy-going in the relationship between audience and guests, where to discuss and learn about photography combining content and chilly environment. "Festival" comes from the latin word "Fest", meaning party. We tried to recover that root - if you are relaxed, you'll enjoy more and you'll be more open-mind for a debate. It's also a declaration of love for Sicily, where I come from. It is so special and unique, then Gazebook was a way to put it in relation with photography. Finally, my work as co-director for the programme and guest panel, it is just another way to express my ideas about photography, especially through photobooks.

© Colin Pantall, Gazebook in Pictures, A talk (Tony Gentile talking about his brilliant book, A Sicilian War - more on this later)

© Colin Pantall, Gazebook in Pictures, A dinner

I hope that Gazebook will represent ever more an important pole for photography and culture in Sicily. However it's important that ever more people will sustain each other along the whole year - 3 days in a year wouldn't be enough. Anyway, there is already a good wave in Sicily, like the free events organised by Minimum Studio at Palermo or Photo-Road Festival at Gibellina. Good vibes!

This year edition we are organising some workshop about photobook and funzine with Michela Palermo, Fiorenza Pinna and Chiara Capodici - 3/3, Olivia Arthur and Philip Ebeling - FIshbar.
We are also promoting a Slideluck call for multimedia, named 'When Photobooks make love with Multimedia' to find a relationship between them. 


Simone Sapienza