Q & A with Ken Hoffman: photographer, community builder, change agent

Kitchissippi Times: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Ken Hoffman: By day I’m a partner in a small consulting group called One World Inc. We support NGOs that are doing new and innovative projects, and we also do a lot of work in community engagement. I am a long-term resident of Kitchissippi and have been engaged in a lot of community activities in education, the arts and other areas.

I’ve been doing photography for a number of years, and have been able to get into it more seriously in the past few years. I love travel and have a huge interest in different cultures so it is natural that I gravitate towards capturing interesting and offbeat people, places and experiences.

Ken Hoffman’s photos are being shown at a fundraising event for Children of Vietnam, an NGO that provides health services to families of children born with birth defects associated with Agent Orange.
Ken Hoffman’s photos are being shown at a fundraising event for Children of Vietnam, an NGO that provides health services to families of children born with birth defects associated with Agent Orange.

KT: You went on a tour of Vietnam in 2016. What was it like? And is it even possible to summarize the experience?

KH: This was a photo tour that was organized by Catherine Karnow, who is a National Geographic photographer. I did one previous workshop with her, in Italy. It was fantastic, so I really wanted to do another. Vietnam is a country she knows extremely well and has a strong connection to. Her father was one of the main American journalists covering the Vietnam War, and he introduced her to the country, but since then she has developed her own relationship. She has worked in Vietnam for over 25 years and travels there several times each year. No other Western photographer has that kind of connection to the country.

The tour that Catherine developed was designed to provide us with some unique experiences and really get a good sense of the country and its people. We wandered the streets of Hanoi to capture the bustle of life that spills out onto every street corner. We got up at 6 a.m. to walk around Hoan Kiem Lake in the centre of the city to see thousands of people out exercising – biking, running, doing tai chi, and hundreds of people ballroom dancing before heading off to work! We spent a day in a pagoda, having an audience with the spiritual leader and then spending time capturing the daily routine of the young monks and novices. We shot a fashion show and heard about Vietnamese artists. And we got to spend time with families that had been affected by Agent Orange. There were so many really rich experiences.

KT: Did Catherine’s approach influence yours at all?

KH: When you look at Catherine’s photos, you really see something of the essence of her subjects – who they really are as people. I wanted to learn from Catherine how she uses her camera to engage people to create these relationships, even across cultures and where there might not be a common language. But you can always find some way to communicate! Catherine is a superb teacher who helps to find these amazing opportunities to interact with people – and then the magic happens!

We asked Ken to share one of his favourite photographs from his 2016 trip to Vietnam with KT readers. “Here’s one that captures a very special experience,” writes Ken. “Walking around Hoan Kiem Lake in the centre of Hanoi at 6:30 a.m. you find thousands of people out doing activities – running, biking, tai chi. But perhaps the most surprising are the hundreds of people that you find ballroom dancing in large open spaces! It is quite beautiful. Imagine starting your day like this… and then heading off to work.” Photo by Ken Hoffman

KT: Your portfolio of photos from that trip is called “Welcome to a world in transition.” Vietnam is a very different place, where ancient traditions meet modern life, but your photos also remind us that we all share so much in common, no matter where we live. Kids playing with marbles, parents and their children, couples in the park. It’s very touching. As an outsider, or an observer, how did you “insert” yourself in those situations comfortably?

KH: The biggest thing I’ve learned is how a camera can serve as a wonderful way to make connections with people. Many people think a camera comes between you and the other person, which is literally true. But is also provides a wonderful opportunity to approach and engage a complete stranger, talk to them, get to know them, ask about their life. Most people are willing to engage with you, if you are respectful and smiling. And that’s how the best photos are made. It’s not so much about the technical side (although you need to have developed those skills) – it’s about the people side, creating a relationship and a level of trust that comes through in the photos. And it was through these people that I learned so much about this fascinating country.

KT: Some of your photos will be on display at a special fundraising event for Children of Vietnam. Can you tell us more about it?

KH: Agent Orange is still a huge issue in Vietnam. Most people assume that this was an awful thing that happened during the war and that the effects are long gone, but that’s not true. What was not known at the time was that Agent Orange causes genetic mutations, so we are now seeing – a generation after the war – a new group of children being born with mild to severe birth defects. Children of Vietnam is an NGO that was actually started by American veterans, that provides health and other support services to these families.

As part of the tour, we had a chance to spend some time with these families, to learn about their lives and to capture them in our photos. It was an extremely challenging and moving experience. But, in the end we saw parents and children having fun together and learning to manage the challenges that they face each day. And that is what we tried to capture in our photos.

I decided to organize this photo show as a fundraiser for Children of Vietnam as a way of giving back. This will be a show of some of my photos from the trip, and Catherine Karnow will be coming here for the event as a featured speaker. It will be a fun evening with some good food, wine, a great speaker, and photos!

Tickets are available at eventbrite.ca.

Vietnam – Portraits of a Country in Transition
Thursday February 8 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Somerset West Community Health Centre (55 Eccles St.)
Tickets: $50 (proceeds to Children of Vietnam)
For more information, email khoffman58@gmail.com.

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