Photos provided by Nikolaj Svennevig, from his series Rice Fields
It’s one of those photos that everyone takes in Vietnam, a photographic cliché. Along with the woman in an ao dai riding a bicycle and those photos of smiling children, the archives of Vietnam vacationers are filled with lush paddy fields, rice farmers happily culling them. Only when you see something so starkly different do you realise what you’ve been missing.
Danish photographer, Nikolaj Svennevig, sees something else in these paddy fields, under darkening skies.
“Though they have their beauty,” he writes, “the green paddy fields quickly become visually trivial to me. But during the planting and harvest seasons another world opens up. Seeing whole families cutting, carrying and threshing with their bare hands stands in stark contrast to the modern Hanoi and what I otherwise know from Denmark. It’s like miniature time travel.”
Drawn to stories that hold the “conflict between Vietnam’s cultural richness and its ascent to a modern developed society”, during last October’s harvest he visited some rice fields around Hanoi to observe what was going on. Armed with two lenses — his EF 35mm f/1.4L and his EF 24-70 f/2.8L — he began to shoot.
“Initially I shot without any intentions,” he writes. “But going through my files from the first day in the mud, I was drawn to the darker images.”
While the series is still in progress, there is some truth to these grim depictions of harvest season. With Hanoi’s air quality index in crisis, the incomplete combustions of the leftover rice straw are a concern.
“Pillars of smoke rise from everywhere throughout the harvest season,” writes Nikolaj, “since burning the rice straw seems to be the only way of disposal.”
It’s estimated that over 80 percent of paddy fields are burnt during peak harvest. This engulfs Hanoi and the surrounding areas in smoke for up to two months at a time. With burnings typically taking place in the late afternoons, falling temperatures aid the spread of pollutants further afield.
Though smoke and greyness dominates most of these photos, Nikolaj hints, it’s not really the point. “It is possible that the style is pointing more inwards,” he writes, “rather than trying to comment on the society or the people in the pictures.”
To see more of Nikolaj’s work, go to nikolajsvennevig.dk