Story of a portrait of a Vietnamese woman

Vietnam, in the ancient town of Hoi An, it’s a new day of my trip and I decided to take a bike to explore the countryside and the villages far away from the city.

While cycling through a small fishing village, to my left, I see three people sitting in front of the front door, intent on repairing a long green fishing net. The scene seems just very nice, natural and simple, but is the woman at the centre that immediately catches my full attention.

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First, I look around, starting to draw the photo.

Within seconds, I observe everything. An elderly woman, sitting on the floor, repairing a green fishing net. She has a very sweet face and  wrinkled, but there are signs of a beauty that old age cannot erase.

The older woman wears, simply and in a way also elegance, a skillfully woven cloth rag on her head, opened on the forehead, revealing grey hair, collected in an orderly manner. Wearing a light and refined t-shirt, in a colour, lilac, that illuminates the face and gives a touch of colour to the whole scene. In the background, a wall with a nice texture marked by time, and a brown door. Everything is so beautiful and well balanced, no disturbance, fortunately.

Probably, I am in front of the most photogenic portrait I’ve ever had, until now.
The scene, as a whole, is already beautiful.

From vision to realisation of the picture

I get off the bike and walk toward her, but I feel a bit of anxiety because I’m afraid of upsetting the balance of that time of life, and influence the naturalness and spontaneity. I want to be there, but at the same time, I would like to be invisible.

So, returning to be rational, I know I have only a few minutes, then everything will vanish forever because street photography is not replicable, does not wait and that time is unique.

I have to quickly decide which lens to use, I can not change focal while i’m in the action, with the risk to ruin everything and miss the moment. I must use only one. I want a portrait of the woman, I have to decide between 50mm and 90mm. I like her face, but if i use the 50mm, I can not get too close, so I decided to mount the Leica Elmarit 90mm f2.8

I’m not yet on the scene, they have not seen me yet. The first thing I do, to have awareness of the state of my camera, is taking a random picture. Then I look at it and I use it as a starting point. Unconsciously, I begin to process all the values and combinations. I want her to be in focus and blurred background, so i set the aperture value between f4 and f5.6. I would go down to f2.8, but as i have very short time, I’m afraid to lose focus.

Here I am, now on the scene, but before focusing on the woman’s portrait, I want to photograph the whole scene, so to frame all the subjects. Damn, I have the 90mm, I-m a bit too tight, I have to take the picture before getting too close. So I stop on the sidewalk, get down on my legs, and, click, click, I snap a few pictures but I realise that the shutter speed is too low, I need faster time, I need more light.

I raise the ISO from 400 to 800, all in an instant, while shooting. I must not lose time, it’s time to shoot the woman. I step to the side to get first a full portrait since I’m already at the right distance. The woman looks at me and smiles, but continues to work on the net.

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Three more steps forward

Well, I have not ruined the scene, thank goodness, but I have to hurry, the longer I stay, the higher the possibility that everything changes. This is the most important moment, I do three steps forward and I approach the woman, in the heart of the scene, hoping she does not move or change her mood or, worse, her position.

I’m so excited and full of adrenaline.

I only see her through the viewfinder of my Leica, now it is just me and her, and finally I “see” the photo that just before I had built in my head. I focus on the rangefinder, slowly turn the lens focus ring, the two images are still split, another little turn and, yes, now they fit together, she is in focus… but it is not yet time… I want to have eye contact…

I can not ask her, it must be all natural, but I implore her in my head … look at me, now, please.

Yes, now she looks at me, for an instant, with a small smile that lights up her beautiful oriental face, eyes barely open, the light is perfect. I shoot. Click! Click!

I take the chance and I make a landscape and portrait picture, and I would like to continue for hours, but I feel that the time is up, my adrenaline is gone,, I feel I have got what I wanted and I can not have more.

Photography is the medicine of the soul.

I am extremely happy, I thank the lady with folded hands, once, twice, three times, she returns with more smiles and keeps working on the fishing net.
I get back on the bike and keep cycling, feeling photographically satisfied. I don’t check the photos on my camera, I’m too scared to have it wrong, although inside I know of have them right. But I want to continue to enjoy the moment, by reviewing everything in my fresh memories fresh.

There will be other subjects and other photo opportunities, other emotions to live, but none will ever be alike, and this is what makes me madly love photography.

Portrait of a Vietnamese woman
(Leica M typ 262 with Elmarit 90mm f2.8)

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