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A photographer shares lessons learned from a photography tour in Southeast Asia

Hoi An; Vietnam; Southeast Asia Photo by Eric Van Eyke

When Eric Van Eyke signed up for Catherine Karnow’s photography workshop, he was looking to improve his skills. “I wanted to study with someone whose work I admired and who is passionate about travel photography,” says the Westways creative director. “I wanted to learn what she looks for, how she sees things, and to develop new techniques.” He never expected the profound effect the trip would have on his life.

“The experience took me out of my comfort zone,” says Eric, noting that the 16-day trip through Vietnam and Cambodia was his first international trip. “But from the moment I met Catherine and her team in the lobby of our Hanoi hotel, I knew I was in good hands.”

Catherine, a National Geographic photographer, led Eric and nine other participants through cacophonous Vietnamese cities and quiet Cambodian villages, while Catherine’s Hanoi-based producer, Ngan Do, handled travel and lodging logistics and also served as the group’s translator and occasional model. The participants walked city streets, bicycled past rice fields, and visited pagodas and temples. During group sessions, Catherine, along with her co-teacher, photographer Tricia Cronin, offered instruction and critiques and led discussions. They also worked individually with students to improve their craft.

“When I’ve traveled in the past,” Eric says, “I’d get to a place and think, ‘Oh, that’s a beautiful setting, shoot it,’ not paying much attention to the people who live there. Catherine reminded me that it’s the people who make each destination special.” Throughout the workshop, the group interacted with locals, dining in their homes and listening to their personal stories. “I caught the travel bug,” Eric says. “I now have the desire to experience the world through relationships and meaningful conversations. I call it ‘people tourism.’”

On these pages, Eric shares some of his favorite images and insights he gleaned from his journey. —Elizabeth Harryman

Ta ProHm at Angkor Complex, Cambodia

Photo by Eric Van Eyke

Photo by Eric Van Eyke

Well-known landmarks draw crowds. We learned some coping strategies: If you visit during “off” hours, there will be fewer people, so you can get clearer views of the monuments. Or you can go during busy times and embrace the crowds, using them to help tell 
the story of what to expect on a visit. These architectural marvels deserve more than just an overview; be sure to look for details, such as lichen-covered carvings.

What I learned: Incorporate people. Individuals can add 
a sense of scale and story to what might otherwise be a boring image.

Bayon at Angkor Complex, Cambodia

Photo by Eric Van Eyke

Photo by Eric Van Eyke

I came across a monk who was walking the temple grounds, listening on his transistor radio to a speech by the Dalai Lama. I was ready with my camera when he leaned through this window. His presence added a human touch and a pop of color to the stone structure.

What I learned: Always be on. Being aware of what’s going on around you will improve your chances of catching unexpected, candid moments.

Duy Hai Fish Market near Hoi An, Vietnam

Photo by Eric Van Eyke

Photo by Eric Van Eyke

The sun was just starting to come up in Hoi An when we reached the boat that would take us by river to the fishing village of Duy Hai. Our captain had to weave in and out of the fishing boats as vendors came out to buy fish to sell on shore. Following the light was crucial. Since the boat needed to change direction several times as we made our way up and down the shoreline, we were constantly shifting positions on deck.

Duy Hai near Hoi An

Photo by Eric Van Eyke

Photo by Eric Van Eyke

While exploring the streets and back alleys of the village, Tricia and I came by a man mending his fishing net outside his house. Tricia opened communication, although neither she nor I speak Vietnamese. By gesturing, she told him how beautiful she thought the net was. We spent quite some time just watching the man work—he smoked a cigarette and talked with his wife while tending to his net the entire time. Realizing the net was the key to this shot, I took the photo in a way that accentuated the net and its elegant drape while still showing the detailed and delicate work this man was doing.

What I learned: Immerse yourself. Spend time with people. Understanding what they’re doing will help you make better artistic decisions.

Land Mine Survivor Muy “Bel” Seu at Siem Reap, Cambodia

Photo by Eric Van Eyke

Photo by Eric Van Eyke

My most meaningful experience was spending time with Muy “Bel” Seu, who survived a land mine explosion, and his family at their home. Bel shared his heart-wrenching story and showed me his paintings and the jewelry that he makes to bring in money. Bel and his wife, Chanra, their two children, along with seven nieces and nephews, all live in a one-room structure with a small schoolhouse next door, built from a donation. Seeing how Bel and his family live made me realize how much I take for granted. The modest home didn’t hinder the happiness I saw on the children’s faces. Bel’s story is one of resilience and love, and it taught me to be happy in the moment and to be grateful for everything.

What I learned: Match the emotion. Recognize the mood of the people and match that energy. Some situations may seem sad, but if the people are happy, you should feel and project that, too.

Golden Silk Pheach Preservation Center at Siem Reap Province, Cambodia 

Photo by Eric Van Eyke

Photo by Eric Van Eyke

Low-light situations here came with challenges. We learned we must be aware of our equipment’s settings and limitations before entering a new environment (e.g., how high your camera’s ISO can go before images get too “noisy,” how low a shutter speed you can use before camera shake becomes a problem). Luckily, the silk-making process is slow. I used a tripod, which gave me more leeway, but I still had to consider the movement of the women and children. After spending several hours watching the women create these intricate designs, I now understand why the garments carry such a hefty price tag.

What I learned: Watch the corners. Take the time to look at the corners and all edges of your composition. What elements are you cropping out? What should you leave in? Some things you can’t avoid, so accept them; those items might help tell the story.

Old Quarter Hanoi, Vietnam

Photo by Eric Van Eyke

Photo by Eric Van Eyke

“Beautiful chaos” is the only way I can describe the streets of Hanoi. Ninety-five percent of the vehicles in Vietnam are mopeds and roughly 5 percent are cars. Then there are the bicycles and pedestrians. Like a river, the scooters and cars flow around whatever crosses their path. As long as you keep moving, you’re fine. While navigating the streets, I noticed a woman who had stopped to rifle through discarded materials. I knew which way she was walking, so I continued ahead, found an interesting background, and waited. She eventually appeared, and as she passed the hotel, she turned and looked at it—I caught that moment.

What I learned: Move your feet. As you compose your image, try different framing options and angles. Sit or lie on the ground, or find a high vantage point.

Thuy Thanh Market near Hue, Vietnam

Photo by Eric Van Eyke

Photo by Eric Van Eyke

Catherine taught us how to approach people who are just going about their life—in this case, selling produce and fish. Getting to know the people first, as opposed to leading with your camera, will allow you and the subject to loosen up. Asking a person what they’re making or selling or how long they’ve lived in a place can open up a conversation. Not only will the interaction feel more rewarding, but their stories will stay with you long after your trip ends. Once this woman and I were more comfortable with each other, it was easier for me to explore different angles and figure out the best perspective from which to photograph he

Pagoda Hue

Photo by Eric Van Eyke

Photo by Eric Van Eyke

Acting head abbot Tánh Thuân explained the daily lives of the monks as we walked the grounds. We came across some burning leaves. The high sun would normally cast harsh shadows, but the smoke created an effect that allowed the sun to make the monk’s robe glow as he arranged the material. At one point, we put away our cameras, and Tánh led us in a meditation for about 20 minutes. We kneeled in a quiet hall, listening to his voice and hearing birds outside, and I felt calm. Now, when work gets hectic or I feel anxious in rush-hour traffic, I remember Tánh’s lessons.

What I learned: Look for the light. Choose how to shoot and where to stand based on the light. Be aware of how the light is interacting with your subject and surrounding elements.

Chula Fashion at West Lake, Hanoi

Photo by Eric Van Eyke

Photo by Eric Van Eyke

Catherine’s friendship with the owners of Chula Fashion allowed us to experience a day in the life of a fashion photographer by working on a show arranged for the workshop. Shooting the models as they had their hair and makeup done taught us a journalistic approach: First, we captured the show prep. Then we photographed the models as they posed in different locations around the shop. During the catwalk fashion show, we had to jockey for position with other photographers just like at a real fashion show or similar red-carpet event. Because you can’t always be in the best position, you have to be ready to capture what you can.

Eric Van Eyke is the creative director of AAA Magazines.

AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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