“Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.” -Sue Monk Kidd
When I moved to Sài Gòn in 2008, 9-year-old me never had a thought about becoming a photographer and documentarian of the vibrant city. After all, we only had 1 camera in the house, and it was guarded closely by my mother — the designated family documentarian.
Year after year I was surrounded by a lively culture that was becoming less and less foreign to me. Friends would write me letters from America and ask what it was like in my new home. As I became more adjusted to Vietnamese culture it became increasingly difficult to distinguish which parts of my everyday life would be deemed as “different” and “interesting” to people on the outside.
It wasn’t until I was 15-years-old that I decided the best explanation of my home could be achieved by pictures. By sharing my photography people would gain an understanding — and hopefully appreciation — of the country I call home.
As my passion for photography blossomed I found myself setting aside all my spare time to venture off the beaten path. My camera was with me wherever I went and my eye for photography was sharpening.
I became enamored with what I discovered; the vibrant colors, the authentic hospitality and the numerous friendly faces. Despite eventually leaving Vietnam to study at overseas, my affinity for exploring alleys, chatting with vendors at the local markets or eagerly joining in on a game of street football, always remains.
Throughout this series of photos I will be telling the stories behind the faces.
My parents have always been supportive of my dreams, but they were particularly supportive of my zeal for photography. This was partially due to the fact that the entire reason for us moving to Vietnam was to start a ministry-based charity called Tiny Hearts of Hope.
My parents — Brent and Stacy Tarr — are considered “independent missionaries” meaning they do not have a sending church that supports them financially. Running a charity costs money; and getting money requires donations.
In order to receive adequate funding, my father sends out monthly newsletters detailing the goals reached and upcoming projects or trips. These newsletters are filled with everything from reports of clean water projects, education goals, and newly opened shelters for unwed mothers as well as victims of human trafficking.
These newsletters and social media posts often contained photographs taken by my mother on her Nokia flip phone. When I expressed an interest in photography, the title of “Tiny Hearts of Hope Photographer” was passed on to me, allowing my parents to focus more of their time on the ministry.
This photo was taken on a Tiny Hearts of Hope trip to the H’Mông tribe of Central Vietnam, where we distributed “Boxes of Hope.” A program inspired by the ministry done through the organization Samaritans Purse, “Operation Christmas Child.”
During distribution of the boxes, the mass amount of volunteers left me without a task, so I began climbing trees with some of the local children. One of the little boys in particular was fascinated with my camera, and pulling his two younger siblings aside requested that I take their photograph.
Afterwards, they thought the results were hysterical and we sat in the dirt laughing at my photos for a bit.
While a bulk of my work is centered around Tiny Hearts of Hope, my documentation of Vietnam goes beyond the ministry. On slow days I would load up on my 1972 Honda 50-C Cub moped, camera in hand, and drive around the city without a destination in mind.
In a city with a population of nearly 9 million people, it was unlikely that I would return home without a camera-full of vibrant scenes and portraits.
I captured this photograph at one of the many local street markets around Sài Gòn. When I asked the owner of this vegetable stand if I could photograph her, she cheerfully agreed and rushed to the back to grab her 2-year-old son for the picture.
Throughout my photography journey I have learned to be present and involved in situations as opposed to snapping a picture and walking away. Many of my best photographs are taken after I have spent some time building a relationship with the people on the other side of the lens.
Moments before this shot was captured I stepped away from dancing with these little girls and let them spin solo so I could catch the look of pure joy on their faces.
It is important to me that I respect the culture and people that I have adopted as my own. Although I prefer candid shots, I always make a point to ask permission before I begin photographing.
To learn more about Tiny Hearts of Hope click here.
To hear more about Brent and Stacy Tarr’s testimony click here.