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Phil Douglis | all galleries >> Gallery Three: Expressing human values > Policeman, Hanoi, Vietnam, 2000
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Policeman, Hanoi, Vietnam, 2000

Policeman, Hanoi, Vietnam, 2000

Balanced uneasily on the seat of his motorbike, this Vietnamese policeman is not sure if he wants to have his picture taken. His body language and expression provide a study in uncertainty and bring tension to this portrait. Tension can help define character in a subject. It is also a universal human value. I thought it worked well in portraying this somewhat edgy policeman.

Kodak DC4800
1/180s f/4.0 at 14.4mm full exif

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Phil Douglis30-Mar-2005 02:27
You have been here, Agustinus, so you recognize the essence of Vietnam when you see it. As you say, this was one of my earliest digital images, made way back in 2001, when the medium, for me and many others, was still in its infancy. I took this with a little Kodak three megapixel point and shoot camera. As you can see, I was able to say much about both this policeman and Viet Nam. It's not the camera, is it? It's why and how I made this image that makes it expressive. Thanks for your observations -- you are right, the whole here is greater than the sum of its parts.
Guest 30-Mar-2005 00:45
I have seen this photo years ago, and this photo is always in my mind. I really like the expression, the background colour which is very vietnamese, the motocycle, the police uniform...., each component of this photos really is part of a story. This is Viet Nam...
Xabier Mikel Laburu Van Woudenberg12-Jan-2005 07:22
sorry I ment defiant, I made almost a literal translation of spanish. :S
Phil Douglis12-Jan-2005 02:25
Tension, nervousness, yes. I am not sure what "desafiying" means -- could it be dissatisfaction? If so, I don't see that human value here, Mikel. But there is certainly a bit of confusion. Another human value, recently introduced into the English language by the more hip among us, would "edginess." You are right. As I pointed my camera at him, he may well have been thinking of how he would look to his boss sitting sidesaddle on a motorbike! So add another human value to the list here : apprehension. As Jen put it -- quite eloquently -- this policeman was unprepared to be photographed by a western man -- "he was not programmed to act in any way but to sit there, so vulnerable, exposing his true self."
Xabier Mikel Laburu Van Woudenberg11-Jan-2005 22:15
His desafiyng look and himself pressing his fingers certainly denote a certain nevious feeleng. You are right Phil, you almost can read in his mind his confusion of the moment and not knowing how to react, probably you were lucky to be an outsider or otherwise he wold have probably made you desist. It is curious the strange contrast of beeng or having been in a relaxed positon or resting one and how expontaniously he reacted with nerves as if his boss wold have to see him sitting peacefully on the motorbike.
Phil Douglis05-Dec-2004 01:09
Thanks you, Clara, for a superb analysis of this image. You are at your very best when you choose to call attention to both the flaws in an image as well as its strengths. I agree with your criticism of the background conflict regarding his head. I find that door window to be a bit distracting myself. You are too kind, Clara. I could actually have solved that problem by moving to my right and shooting him from a slight angle. His head would have then been positioned in front of the yellow wall. (When we can't move the subject, we can always move ourselves!)

I fell into the same trap I've been talking with you about regarding your own work -- distracting background mergers. I was concentrating so hard on his expression that I was blind to what was immediately behind him. As you say, this image still functions and functions well. But it would have functioned even more effectively if that window was not popping out of his head. Thank you for noticing this, Clara, and for being willing to comment on it. In doing so, you continue to help yourself, as well as me.
Guest 04-Dec-2004 17:50
Good frame although I would prefer him 1 feet to our left, so his head were against the wall instead the dark window. (You could not change that, Phil, I know). He is accostumed to some action and is watching you, aware, kind of "you don't get my by surprise, I am always alert, I am a cop and I rule here", but his hands together mean recollection, he is in a break, and his advanced shoulders mean he allows himself some lack of discipline.
Phil Douglis30-Nov-2004 21:56
Thanks, Nut, for giving this American photographer a Thai's view of a Vietnam policeman. Maybe this was the same fellow you saw when you were in Hanoi! Even though he did not speak English, he was able to make me understand his reluctance to appear in my frame. A moment after I made this shot, he raised his hand in front of his face -- a universal gesture that says "no more!"
Phil Douglis30-Nov-2004 21:50
Glad you appreciate the way this image expresses the flavor of Vietnam, Filip. Yellow, a primary color, is very much part of the culture there, and so are motorbikes.
nut 22-Nov-2004 20:51
Well, I saw a viet policeman sitting on motorbike like this in every morning when I was in
Hanoi. So I am not surprise to see and to repeat my thought. He don't want you to take his
photo because he don't like to be in the frame. But he is lazy to tell you about this. He can't
speak English very well, so he just sit there. I knew why viet policeman feel in this way.
Guest 22-Nov-2004 15:37
Lovely simple composition. The yellow wall acts as a nice backdrop and contrast to the Policeman's dark uniform. The colors of the wall together with the motorbike scream Vietnam right off the bat. I've travelled there before and fell in love with the country and its people. A great place to be. Nothing really to nit pick here, but if I had to I'd say that the Policeman's hat blends a bit too much into the dark patch of wall. Apart from this, you've got yourself a perfect shot here, Phil. Well done.
Phil Douglis21-Nov-2004 23:42
I can't answer that question, Nut. Are you used to seeing policemen sitting around like this in Thailand?
nut 21-Nov-2004 15:56
Why I won't surprise to see him in this way.
Phil Douglis02-Nov-2004 17:07
Jen -- this is an extremely perceptive observation on your part. You are right, we all are trying to play a role, to live up the expectations of others. As a photographer, I will often try to find moments or situations where I can capture the person behind the role, and reveal, as you say, the "true self." This policeman was caught off guard by me, being a person rather than a public official. I did have my moment, Jen, and I tried to make the best of it. And as you said in your other comment, the color of the yellow wall, a primary color, helped warm this fellow up as well. Thank you for this comment -- it is something for you to work with in your imagery as well.
Jennifer Zhou02-Nov-2004 09:31
And this warm color wall also reveals his soft gentle side of his character~
Jennifer Zhou02-Nov-2004 09:27
I think we were programed to act certain ways with something we do everyday. Like if you are a secretary, you always try to be nice with people even you don't feel like, and if you are a policeman, you always try act to be brave, strict and with power in your hands even you don't feel any of that in your heart. It is an "ideal image" the society put into our head and gradully become part of our thinking. In this picture, the policeman is unprepared with the appearance of a western man taking him pictures----he was not programed to act in any way but sitting there, so vulnerable, exposing his true self to you, Phil! You had your moment here!

Phil Douglis31-Oct-2004 00:25
I am very aware of this concept of "multiple characters," you've raised here, Zebra. People often pretend to be someone they are not. (Jen and I have often discussed this concept as the basis for incongruent imaging and I have no doubt that she will pursue it in her work.) This fellow, on the other hand, seems to be exactly what he is. A "real soul," as you put it. He is what he is.
Guest 30-Oct-2004 18:44
I think that this is a great work.You have touched a deep level of human values.Everyone have multiple characters.Cowardly man often pretend to be strong,unconfident man is often impatient to others,disingenuous man is often good at eloquence.Something surface is always opposite to the truth,because everyone want to conceal real self.To me,it is really interested to find real soul behind man's face.Phil,in this photo,I can find it.
vkching29-Aug-2004 11:21
The motocycle and the wall make the contrast.
The old type motobike reveal Hanoi is still behind the development.
Phil Douglis28-Mar-2004 20:28
Bruce, thanks for pointing out the empty basket on the bike -- I never noticed its significance before. But now that you've been kind enough to point it out, it seems so innocent. What would he put in it? Donuts?
bruce berrien28-Mar-2004 15:00
We're all human, even those of us in authority positions. A policeman on a parked scooter (with a basket, no less), uncomfortable with the attention - this is a very human moment. I would also add that soft colors and crafted details in the background support the humane feel of this photograph.
Phil Douglis28-Nov-2003 02:09
Interesting observation, Marek. What I saw when I made this picture was an authoritarian figure who was clearly ill at ease. Uniforms are costumes, and people who must wield authority often wear costumes that call attention to themselves.That high cap, arm band, and red shoulder straps shout at us. Yet in spite of all this brave decoration, this man is tense, uncertain, and for the moment, anyway, strangely vulnerable. I saw neither a Communist nor a Nazi before me. I saw a policeman on the edge, tugging at his finger, wondering what I was up to. I did not see the power of a cult, but rather a cop who, for the moment anyway, has forgotten all about his power.
m27-Nov-2003 22:42
The most fascinating thing about this is the power of the cult: A communist dressed like a nazi...
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