From Bamboo Nurseries to Broomstick Sellers: Documenting Oxfam’s Projects in Vietnam

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From Bamboo Nurseries to Broomstick Sellers: Documenting Oxfam’s Projects in Vietnam

Oxfam, photo book, cover design, photography, South East Asia, Vietnam, visual storytelling, farmer, aerial photo, women, gender
Over the last couple of months, several of our team members have been working on a mission to document and visually depict the impact of 21 of Oxfam’s projects across the length and breadth of Vietnam. Working closely with the communications team of the organisation’s country office, our brief was to create a glossy, bilingual, coffee table sized book that could be presented to corporate donors as a thank you gift. The task required dispatching our two Vietnam-based visual storytellers to travel all around the country, meet the beneficiaries and stakeholders involved and capture the changes brought by each project on camera. The team also had a UK-based writer and an Indonesia-based graphic designer on board, as well as a quality assurance specialist (as always) from Britain. A key element of the process was a recorded interview with each person photographed, allowing the writer, Jo, to cast stories using people’s own words and thereby convey their voices as far as possible. We caught up with Jo to learn more about the process and the projects covered.

Oxfam, photo book, cover design, photography, South East Asia, Vietnam, visual storytelling, farmer, aerial photo, women, gender
Telling stories of change: the book’s cover spread.
Q: Tell us a bit about the various projects covered; which ones stood out for you as being particularly effective?
A: Oxfam clearly has a lot to be proud of from its work in Vietnam, so all of us on the team were really delighted to have the opportunity to showcase its impact and support its work in our own creative ways. The breadth of its programmes is impressive, encompassing climate change resilience, workers’ rights, gender equality, sustainable fishing and LBGTi rights among other issues. In keeping with Oxfam’s global mission, each project seeks to address inequality as a fundamental element in the makeup of poverty. A lot of them are based on a deep understanding of the role of policy and government institutions, and on building partnerships with these institutions. I like this approach. In my opinion, it’s essentially the role of NGOs to reduce the need for their own existence over time. So strengthening the capacity of domestic, national mechanisms to support citizens is very important.

I was really encouraged by the fact that many of the projects had environmental benefits, while also improving people’s standards of living: a win-win formula! Through educating communities on sustainable farming, fishing and harvesting practices, and helping people to diversify their livelihoods, Oxfam is not only ensuring that the resources necessary for their future wellbeing are taken care of; it’s also helping to forge a sense of ownership of, and responsibility for, people’s natural surroundings.

One great example is the environmental protection project that’s been rolled out along the Co Chim river in the province of Tra Vinh. In response to overfishing and river pollution, Oxfam has given incentives and support to 3,000 households to switch to alternative livelihoods, such as cultivating salt-tolerant rice and raising livestock. More importantly, and with great effect, it’s also educated people on why adaptation and diversification is necessary, and trained community river patrol teams to enforce sustainable fishing techniques (like appropriate nets and seasonal fishing) and call out harmful activities they discover. Shrimp farmers’ produce and income have since increased, while species of freshwater fish previously discouraged by the pollution have made a welcome return.
Oxfam, photo book, photography, South East Asia, Vietnam, visual storytelling, shrimp farming, teamwork
Inside the finished product. Here, we see Bap and Phuong, who are shrimp farmers and beneficiaries of Oxfam's Gender Transformative and Responsible Agribusiness Investments in South East Asia (GRAISEA) project. “I used to think it was normal for my husband to make the decisions”, Phuong admitted to our photographer, “but now we first discuss things, like which shrimp to buy. The training helped us see that if we work together, we can really improve our lives”.
Q: How did you ensure that your understanding of the projects and what they’ve achieved was accurate?
A: I worked closely with Linh and Lisa, our photographers, and also with Oxfam’s Vietnam-based staff. There was a lot of back and forth to clarify details about the projects, their impact both quantitatively and qualitatively, and even the spellings of village names. We pride ourselves in our attention to detail; so, when Vietnamese names were given phonetically, I did a lot of cross-checking on Google Maps! Oxfam also provided me with a project brief for each of the 21 projects, which gave me a lot of useful background information.

The audio recordings of all the interviews were my most important sources of information, though. Each project centred around a personal story of change, which I crafted from people’s own words. It was important to Oxfam that this book should come across as a collection of ‘voices’ from the field, so I tried to extract as much detail as possible from the recordings I’d received. After all, these are people who are often silenced or else far from the limelight, so this was a really exciting opportunity to convey their own words through to the page. I used a lot of quotes to help bring their stories to life. And actually, it’s the little details – like a family being able to afford a bicycle for its child to ride to school on – those small but meaningful life changes that really demonstrate the human impact of a project on people’s lives and portray the hope that’s been generated.



Q: Were there challenges writing this in the UK, far away from the field?
A: Not really. The main challenge was being absolutely sure I’d understood the Vietnamese accents of the interpreters in the interview recordings, but I learned to get my head around everything they were saying after a while. At the same time, it was really nice to hear the tropical soundscape in the background while I was sitting under dull, drizzly skies! I’d asked the photographers to give descriptions of their surroundings at the start of each interview, which proved really helpful to me in painting a mental picture. From there, my descriptive language flowed nicely.

Then, of course, I had their stunning images to refer to, so I would be looking at the person speaking, while also listening to his or her voice. The combination of the two was important in crafting the stories. I also had Skype calls with both photographers, and we constantly evaluated our way of doing things. As the project coverage progressed, I got used to each one’s interview style. All of our visual storytellers are trained in respectful interviewing techniques, so I knew that I could trust their interpersonal skills and their manner of drawing out information.
Oxfam, photo book, photography, South East Asia, Vietnam, visual storytelling, goats, climate change, flooding
Another spread from the book. Hai was loaned this nanny goat in July 2014, as part of Oxfam’s efforts to diversify livelihoods in floodplain areas, thereby decreasing inhabitants’ reliance on agriculture. By the following year, he had bred 12 young, thriving goats. “I sold eight for a fantastic profit, and then I became a group trainer to serve my community”, he told our photographer, before going on to talk about his experience of leading one of the groups Oxfam established for training on goat breeding techniques and disease prevention.
Q: What did you take away from this assignment?
A: A lot of inspiration and hope! Oxfam is implementing some fascinating and impactful projects, and this combined with our emphasis on positive change led to some very encouraging stories in words and pictures from the communities involved.

I was also really pleased to see how many of the organisation’s projects are engaging local businesses, upscaling value chains and connecting raw material suppliers to producers and producers to markets. Its activities in the Mekong Delta involve encouraging large aquaculture companies to improve regulatory frameworks and incorporate corporate social responsibility (CSR) within their agendas. Meanwhile, it’s also supporting small-scale shrimp farmers in meeting national sustainability certification standards (‘Viet-Gap certification’) and brokering agreements with retailers to buy from them once certification has been secured. From Oxfam’s experiences, I’ve seen just how important an holistic approach to development is in making long-lasting, systemic changes.


You can view more of the images from this project here.