When I first started my career as a photographer, I cut myself adrift in South East Asia. Here I hoped to figure out what being a “Photographer” meant. I first encamped myself in the climbing mecca of Tonsai, Thailand and here I met Dan & Lisa. Dan was also starting the same journey, though he’d just left a career at REI back in Seattle, WA. I distinctly remember photographing a random climber as he fell on his project (Asian Shadow Play 5.13c/8a+) then yelling up to ask if I could get a model release. Dan had just introduced me to the concept of a “model release” and I was a little over zealous. I think Dan was embarrassed for me…or of me. Either way, we became great friends that day 10 years ago and that relationship continues to this day.
Last year Osprey Packs assigned Dan and I to shoot a short documentary about a boat captain. The captain, Chu Bien, had helped to shuttle climbers on a shoot the previous year. This time the production crew was returning to the same location just to document this strange and beautiful man. After nearly two weeks of traveling through Vietnam shooting photos and video for several product launches, we were finally in Cat Ba. We were exhausted but thrilled to get out on the water in a live-aboard junk, do some deep water soloing, and document Chu Bien on his boat.
Growing up as the son of a shipwright, I’ve spent a lot of time on boats and know the workings of ship building pretty well. Chu Bien’s boat was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Apparently his little coracle was built the way many small craft are in the area. A mound of dirt serves as a jig and a mat of fibers is woven over that. The hull is sealed in shape with some sort of fiberglass epoxy. These boats look rather like an elongated salad bowl with fitted wood planking on top. Everything is modular and easily replaceable because in most cases it’s tied together with just nylon rope. This is Chu Bien’s floating home away from home (though pretty sure his other home also floats).
Chu Bien lives a deliberately simple life and his boat reflects his utilitarian perspective. Everything has a purpose and a place and nothing is in excess. This leaves a lot of space in his life for the joy he spreads into every moment and every interaction. He seems to constantly be searching for a way to make everything a little better.
The waters of a lot of bays in the world are natural collection points for floating plastic debris. This otherwise paradise was no exception. Chu Bien takes a lot of pride in Cat Ba and often uses his down time to motor around netting tidal jetsam. His efforts are puny compared to the scale of pollution, but it’s an effort at least - and one that gets attention. These are the kind of stories that are worth traveling the world for.
In the bays around Cat Ba, limestone mountains shoot out of the ocean and entire villages bob about in the tide. At the villages you can dock to buy fresh water, food, and beer. Everywhere you look it’s beautiful at all times of day making a shoot here almost impossibly easy. That’s not to say it’s without technical challenge though. Boat’s don’t make great tripods, and shooting with underwater housing is a…unique challenge. Convincing Vietnamese-speaking boat captains to run their limited generators so you can charge a dozen lithium batteries is a tricky negotiation.
Chu Bien speaks almost no English and despite a concerted effort I can barely say “thank you” in Vietnamese. Before this film, I’d never conducted an interview through a translator. I anticipated that it would be difficult to navigate the interview. It was more challenging than I could have imagined. That’s the biggest technical takeaway for me from this experience. An interview conducted in this fashion needs to be heavily vetted before starting in. It’s also apparent that no-matter how prepared you are for it, it’s going to take A LOT longer than you think. Lesson learned. I look forward to my next opportunity to interview in another language.
We collected a lot of beautiful footage on the trip, and while the edit proved to be a big extension of the language barrier issue, I’ve got new friends and great memories from the experience. I even got to sneak in a couple deep water solo runs during shooting (check out the crag at 04:56).
These travel jobs take a lot out of a person, chasing sunrise and sunset every day as we do. After shooting we were all pretty wiped and wrapped our trip back in Hanoi. Showered for the first time in a week, we enjoyed an evening of cheap beer and a new tattoo. Long before I’d met Dan all those years ago I’d been dreaming of this tattoo on my wrist “in the morning this will all be gone…”. Part of a poem I wrote some years before as a reminder to stay present. Back in the same corner of the world where we had stumbled through the start of our careers, now stumbling (a little) through the back streets of Hanoi, it seemed like the time and place to finally do it.
Months later as I was wrapping up the edit of the film I could see the edge of those words peaking around from my wrist. It reminded me of where I’ve come from and where I have yet to go. It also now reminds me of Chu Bien’s persistent efforts to make his corner of the world a better place. When I ground myself in the present I clearly see the way forward for my work. “Studio Iverson” pursues stories that make my corner of the world a better place. Fortunately, as a storyteller, my “corner” is pretty big.