Alexandre Garel, a professional photographer from France, first came to Vietnam 11 years ago at the invitation of his friend. As an architecture lover, Garel was sad to see so many heritage buildings in Saigon being destroyed. He decided to keep their memories alive by taking pictures. In an interview with The Saigon Times, Garel shared his journey to find inspiration for the job. Excerpts:
The Saigon Times: Why did you decide to stay here?
Alexandre Garel: I fell in love with a girl, who is now my wife, and so I stayed back. Back then, I worked for a magazine, and when I was moving around the city, I discovered various buildings. I remember asking my boss why we weren’t focusing on doing a “building of the month” series—information about the building, what it was built for, who was the architect, etc. After I lost my job 10 months later, I decided to do the series myself. This is how “Sài Gòn: Portrait of a City” was born.
What is your impression of the people and life in Vietnam?
At first, I found them quite rude. In Thailand, everyone greets you by saying “Sawadika”, but this was not the case in Vietnam. People don’t say “xin chào” here. You open the door, and nobody says, “xin chào anh”. You have to say hello; nobody says hello first here. But the longer I stayed here, the more I liked it. Because the people don’t smile just like that, but when they do, they smile genuinely.
Why did you choose to take pictures of old buildings?
Because when I was here, there were already other photographers covering a variety of topics—from the ethnicity and the rice fields to the “nón lá” and the “áo dài”. I realized that heritage was not covered. Since I love architecture, I started to take pictures of buildings. When I came here about 10 years ago, many heritage structures in Saigon were being destroyed. But I didn’t have the knowledge to do anything about it. Every time I moved out of Vietnam and returned, I could see an old building being destroyed. It felt like the need of the hour to catalogue all the houses to keep the memories alive as heritage was not being preserved. So, the best way to preserve it was by taking pictures. The French built many of the houses, making it an even more sensitive issue. I am French, and I am proud of my culture like you are proud of yours. So I want to preserve it.
What drives your passion for architecture?
My father was an architect, so I learned some of it from him, but I never realized I had the knowledge until I started this project. The more I do and continue to do it, the more passionate I become. After 2015, I also discovered modernist Vietnamese architecture, and today, I embrace modernist architecture even more than I do the colonial. The more you dig, the more you learn and the more interested you get. You have to immerse yourself in a job to fall in love with it and get passionate about it.
How do you feel when you see old buildings in Saigon being demolished and replaced by new ones?
If they are replaced by beautiful and useful buildings, it’s okay, as although it is sad, it is an improvement. But in many instances here, it is not an improvement, so in that case, I feel very sad. Destroying heritage is like destroying your history.
When you take pictures, you can see Saigon changing. How do you feel about these changes?
I don’t like it. They are trying to turn Saigon into a Shanghai or Singapore. They want to develop it, make money, and build high towers. But I can see so far that many of the buildings are empty. Take, for instance, the 213 Dong Khoi building; it was amazing and could be turned into a nice hotel. They didn’t see the value of this building and didn’t preserve it. And today, they just made an extension of the People’s Committee building, which was a wrong move. This building was unique, and you had only one such building in Vietnam. They didn’t preserve it and I feel very sad about that.
Tell us some difficulties you face while working?
Some?! There are difficulties every day. “Không được” (No), this is what I learned from the Vietnamese. Everywhere I go, there is “không được”.
What is your favorite place to take pictures?
My favorite place was Ba Son. It was unique and quiet. When I walked through Ba Son, I had the luck to work there two-three days and it was like taking a time travel machine. It was a very unique experience.
Do you have any projects in the future?
I am doing another one right now; I started it one-and-a-half years ago. I will go back to Hanoi in May to photograph it because the weather there is a problem.
Do you plan to live here or move to another country?
Maybe I will move because once I finish taking photos of Vietnam, I need to photograph other places. So, I will have to move. I did everything I could for Vietnam.
Alexandre Garel published “Sài Gòn: Portrait of a City” in 2020. It took him almost 10 years to take the photographs for the book. He also published “Southern Vietnamese Modernist Architecture” along with Mel Schenck, an American architect, as well as “Yangon: Portrait of a City” in Myanmar. It took him four-and-a-half years to finish the book.