British photographer Jon Sanwell goes beyond the clichéd images of Vietnam. Words by Edward Dalton


Certain images associated with Vietnam have become clichés; the conical hats, the yellow walls around Hanoi and the endless rice paddies with more shades of green than Kermit the Frog’s family portrait.


When British photographer Jon Sanwell followed a friend’s tip to the brick factories along the Red River, he found something he had never associated with Vietnam before.


The buildings there are a three-dimensional canvas of earthy tones of orange and brown, and called out to him in such a way that he knew this would become a project demanding more than one visit.


“There’s a kind of strange beauty in the buildings, and the patterns and textures around them,” says Jon, 43.


The attractive arrangements created by the bricks and the changing colours as they dry in the sun are two of the factors which made the process so photogenic.


Full of Character


Despite only recently turning to a career in photography, Jon has already established a style for his work.


“The human element, whether a close-up portrait or a figure in a landscape, can really make a picture for me,” he explains.


Photographing people in their everyday surroundings allows him to say something about a person’s character or life, without needing words.


An important aim of this particular project was to document the lives of the brick factory workers, without objectifying them or romanticising the hard labour they’re involved in.


“In many of the pictures, the workers’ faces are obscured,” Jon says. “I like those pictures, but I wanted to include more traditional portraits too.”


Welcome, Stranger


By including these portraits, Jon intended to ensure the workers are not dehumanised.


After several years of living in Vietnam, Jon has grown used to people welcoming him and his camera, even if they are somewhat bemused by someone wanting to take photos of what they might consider to be mundane and difficult work.


On his second visit to the area, he wanted to get inside one of the factory buildings. Unsure how to proceed, he did what many photographers do; hang around and wait for something to happen.


“I didn’t want to just march in like I owned the place,” Jon says. “After I’d spent a little time taking pictures outside, one of the workers gestured for me to follow him up the wooden ramp to the entrance and I found myself inside.”


Photos by Jon Sanwell 

Edward Dalton

Ted landed in Vietnam in 2013, looking for new ways to emulate his globetrotting, octo-lingual grandfather and all-round hero. After spending a year putting that history Masters to good use by teaching English, his plan to return to his careers adviser in a flood of remorseful tears backfired when he met someone special and tied the knot two years on. Now working as a wordsmith crackerjack (ahem, staff writer) for Word Vietnam.

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