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cultural lessons

Photography 101

Here’s a little story about how things work in Vietnam.

You see, we have these wonderful parties at the Press Club on the first Friday of the month called Friday Night on The Terrace.  We hire a photographer for two hours and pay him $50 to take lots of photos of everyone having a great time.  For a Vietnamese guy, this is a lot of money.

For reference, I should say that these pictures are used in our publicity, in newsletters and as historical data for the great occasions which take place at the Club.

I first took notice of his photographic ability after our New Year’s Eve party.  It was such a great event, with balloons and glitter falling from the ceiling at midnight.  But somehow, between about 11:50 and 12:20, there are but a few photos.  And most of the photos we do have are taken from the same spot.  Otherwise we have photos of an empty restaurant, people pointing at menus, people talking on their cell phones, and people standing in line to buy drink tickets. You’d never guess that they were all attending a fantastic party!

This prompted me to have a discussion with my Marketing Manager who had a chat with the photographer.  Our January Friday Night on the Terrace photos were great.  Very pleased.  The pep talk seemed to work.

Then February came and the photo CD had just 112 photos.  11 of them were like the one in this post.  And the rest?  More of the boring bad stuff.

So I had another chat with my Marketing Manager.  He told me that the way it works in Vietnam is that the relationships we create are very important.  And the Club has always used this photographer.  He suggested that we have a sit-down meeting with the photographer and show him which photos are good photos and which ones are bad ones.

Here was my line of questioning:

If you go to a flower shop and order a bouquet, should you have to teach the florist how to make the arrangement?

If your motor bike breaks down and you take it to a mechanic, should you have to teach the mechanic how to fix the bike?

If I hire a “professional” photographer to take pictures at a party, should I have to teach him how to use the damn camera?

Of course, my manager understood my positioning, but insisted that we need to give guidance to the photographer, to be more clear about the types of photos we want.  He assured me that if we nurtured the relationship, we would see a good result.  So I sat in the meeting with my manager and the photographer.  The photographer’s cell phone vibrated the entire 20 minutes we met.  He nodded as I showed him examples of good photos and bad photos, making sure to use a “helpful” tone in my voice so as not to have him loose face.  Before he left, he said he agreed and that he appreciated the information.  I explained to my manager that the March event was the big test.

Today when I returned to the office from my trip to Berlin, I had just 104 photos to view on the CD.  That’s nearly $2 per photo.  I paid for blurry, uninteresting, menu-pointing, line-standing, non-publishable photos.  So I told the manager today that will will no longer use that photographer. He said he cannot just cut him loose (because that’s also loosing face and no one wants to be the bearer of bad news).  He suggested that we should hire someone else first and see if they are better.  The excuses flew as he told me that even a foreigner they used in the past could not take good photos.  He let me know that Mr. Thanh is the only photographer he knows and that if I wanted to hire someone new, I had to search on my own.  Never mind about that being unacceptable.

My new friend Muna, who is the editor of East West Magazine has already put me in contact with someone she finds talented and affordable.  While I am thrilled at the prospect of a real, live, professional photographer, I know that this little drama is not over.  I’m sure that I have stepped on toes and created discomfort.  I cannot get my hands around the idea that my manager would rather continue to pay for a bad service, simply because he’s used the same guy for awhile and doesn’t want to make the guy feel bad.

My Marketing Manager and I are coming from two completely different worlds on this one.  I refuse to pay for a bad service and he simply doesn’t want to rock the boat or loose face.


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