Matca: Creating Conversations around Photography in Vietnam
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Matca is an independent initiative dedicated to photography in Vietnam. Mắt Cá, in Vietnamese, directly translates as “Fisheye.” The fisheye lens provides an ultra-wide-angle view. In the same vein, Matca, as a collective, strives to turn a wide lens on an increasingly overlooked community of Vietnamese photographers to reveal, if you will, the bigger picture.
Matca was founded in 2016 in the form of an online journal by photojournalist Linh Pham with two photographer friends, Mai Nguyen Anh and Dat Vu. Ha Dao joined the team in 2017 as the editor and later program coordinator. Our website, matca.vn, hosts an ever-growing archive with more than two hundred articles in English and Vietnamese.
Since its launch, Matca has grown across many platforms. The multipurpose Matca Space for photography in Hanoi, which opened in April 2019, is where we organize exhibitions, host artist talks, and introduce photobooks, among other events. The space reflects our vision to broaden public understanding of this visual practice and give emerging photo-based artists the recognition they deserve.
Makét is our publishing project, where experiments in design and print unfold, sometimes literally. The inaugural volume, A Vietnamese Photography Village, traces the emergence of studio photography from Lai Xa, a small hamlet on the outskirts of Hanoi.
Our primary audience is Vietnamese photographers and visual-culture enthusiasts. We ourselves have always turned to English-language materials about Western photographers for inspiration; there is hardly anything available in Vietnamese. Before Matca, our knowledge of photography was very West-centric. Meanwhile, a lot of photographers here in Vietnam have been working on really interesting projects that have remained under the radar, as the outlets for such works are limited. We want works shared and ideas exchanged openly among our peers without fear of language deficiency.
The website is also available in English and offers an open archive for anyone from outside of Vietnam who wants to look into the topic. When you google “Vietnam” or “Vietnamese photography,” most likely the results neither reflect the contemporary country nor its photography scene. There will always be a place for Ha Long Bay and women in ao dai, but the works we feature reflect the diversity in both visual approaches and subjects explored by practitioners who truly understand what they photograph.
The website publishes photo projects, exhibition/book reviews, and op-eds. We don’t focus on any specific genre of photography, but rather on individual voices and authorship in photography and writing. It has become a channel to give exposure to emerging photographers and shed light on what’s going on in the local scene.
It’s also important for us to raise critical questions regarding various aspects of this practice. Although nowadays we are all surrounded by photographs, visual literacy remains a foreign concept — thus, we are trying to add different perspectives on how a photograph can be perceived, getting the audience, both as image makers and consumers, to pay attention to not only the image itself but also how it is created and disseminated.
As an editor, I reach out to both photographers and writers for their input. I specifically try to get photographers to explain their personal motivation and process. It can sometimes be a challenge, as not all photographers are used to talking about their work, but it’s a necessary exercise.
We are continually surprised by the amazing commitment that a number of photographers have for their works. We have to keep in mind that very few people can earn a living from their practice — most have to juggle their passion project, day job, and family life. The more we know about their situations, the more respect we have for them and the more responsibility we feel to amplify their visions. Our events are attended by a lot of people outside our own circle, and it’s so nice to see people from various backgrounds get together to have deep discussions about photography.
Matca is itself an ongoing exploration of Vietnamese photography history. It’s an excuse to reach out to photographers from earlier generations to learn about what came before us, which we still don’t know much about. We’ve had the pleasure, for example, of befriending Long Thanh, a darkroom master in Nha Trang, and of accessing the family photo albums of Nguyen Van Chanh, owner of a successful photo studio chain called Luminor Photo during the French colonial period.
Collaboration is at the heart of what we do. We have collaborated in various ways with photographers, writers, researchers, and cultural practitioners across Vietnam and in the regional and international community. For example, we have done a residency exchange with Objectifs, hosted an exhibition sponsored by the Goethe institute, and organized a zine-making workshop at the French cultural center L'Espace. In a sense, Matca acts as a bridge between the international scene and local photographers and audiences. We position ourselves as a leading platform for photography in Vietnam, but we are in no way gatekeepers. Instead, we are rather curious learners who want to arrive at mutual understandings.
Ha Dao practices photography through writing, curating and working on her own projects. She coordinates the programs at Matca while grudgingly accepting the new position as the only available event host.