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Can a Camera Lift Someone Out of Poverty?

By Guan Tan


 An elderly Vietnamese woman having a smoke.


 A coastal market shot at daybreak.


A Vietnamese grandmother and grandson duo.


 Mai Loc calls this the "water flowers".


 A Vietnamese woman harvesting salt.


Nha Trang-based photographer, Mai Loc, pictured with the Nikon DSLR that he now shoots with.


 The Canon AiAf Prima SOL solar-powered film camera that was gifted to Mai Loc.


 On the cover of the film camera, a solar cell.


There are innumerous photographers out there — so much so that it's difficult to justify who is more deserving of a profile or feature. Photographers swear by the changing prowess of a photographic device. In that little plastic body, which houses glass and metal parts, is an uncanny ability to manifest intangible creative thoughts, and eventually change lives. 

It doesn't necessarily have to be a well-oiled mean machine such as a Leica M9, a Canon 5D Mark III to affect some sort of change; even a simple Canon Prima AiAf Sol (a film camera fuelled entirely by solar power) has to power to lift someone out of poverty and into international acclaim. 

Mai Loc turns 52 this year. He was born into the lowest rungs of Vietnamese society. "I used to live in poverty. Where I lived, it was a graveyard so I lived together with dead people." In his childhood, he dropped out of school to work to support his family. "I had to give up my studies when I was 16, and only spent ten years in school." He worked as a street food seller, a coffee smuggler, transporting coffee beans from his hometown "Nha Trang to Saigon". Later he mined for gold in the mountains, contracted malaria and gave up the job. He finally settled on renting a Cyclo, a bicycle taxi, and stuck with it for the decades ahead. 

The bicycle offered him a stable income – US$1 or S$1.33 per day – but not one without social stigma. "When you do decide to work as a Cyclo driver, this is one of the poorest jobs in Vietnam. most people think Cyclo drivers are bad and have low education. No one trusts you." His lifelong struggle with the Vietnamese society eventually led him to consider suicide. "To be honest, once I almost wanted to kill myself to get away from this life," he recalls. 

At the end of 1994, Mai Loc picked up a Norwegian couple on vacation and kept in touch via snail mail. In 1997, the couple returned to Vietnam to attend Mai Loc's wedding. "They gave me a solar-powered camera and 21 rolls of colour Kodak 35mm film as wedding presents. The Canon AiAf Prima Sol, made in Japan." Mai Loc quips. 

The camera puzzled him. "I did not know if it was a camera or a radio." Mai Loc took pictures of his family for fun.

The camera proved to be insufficient. "I was not really interested in photography as I was still poor and I had no idea about art." Photography only came true for Mai Loc when the Norwegian couple gifted him US$6,000 later in 1998. "With the money... I bought a motorbike and started to work as a motorbike tour guide, taking tourists from the South to the North... The further I went, the more I got to see with the camera." Mai Loc's revealing photography of Vietnam won him photography awards. He owns a photography gallery now in Nha Trang city. 

"In the beginning, photography was fine to live on as I could sell my photos to tourists. But nowadays it's really getting harder." Today, the earnings from his photos contribute to the rent of his gallery. He continues to work as a photography tour guide "to earn some extra money for my family's living." 

The extra income from photography has improved Mai Loc's life. "Compared to what I earned before when I was working as a Cyclo driver, it's helped my life, [made it] a little bit more comfortable." However, Mai Loc stresses that even though he earns more now, he still worries about his family's finances. 

Now that every tourist has a smartphone with an in-built camera, Mai Loc's solar camera and photography suddenly became inadequate. On its own, the camera seems incapable of lifting his family out of poverty. 

Yet, to Mai Loc, photography has made him a wealthy man. "I feel that I am rich. Not rich in money but I am rich in love, rich in knowledge, and rich in my spirit and soul. Each photo I have taken is a story, telling people what's beautiful in life." 

Mai Loc's photographs are available for US$55 to US$400 online. Visit his gallery at 99B Nguyen Thien Thuat Street, Nha Trang city, Vietnam.