I’m Johnny Panessa from Bushwick, Brooklyn and I make toys, packaging, and take photos for a living. I first found photography through skateboarding after I started using a camera to have photographic evidence of skateboard tricks and places of when I would travel to skateboard.
What sparked your interest in travel photography?
Skateboarding and the movie Baraka by Ron Fricke sparked my initial urge to travel. I began recording every travel journey with the imagery in Baraka in mind - I was after that quiet subtlety Baraka captures so effortlessly.
What specifically drew you to Vietnam and Cambodia?
Vietnam has always sparked my interest. As a kid, I would run through the woods playing Army with the thought that I was deep in the Vietnam jungle I saw on Tour of Duty. While researching, images of the H'mong people and chaotic streets of Hanoi really grabbed me, so I headed to the northern part of the country. For Cambodia, it was the region of Angkor that really pulled me in.
What was your most memorable experience?
In Vietnam, the most memorable place would have to be the Sunday market in Bac Ha close to Sapa. The Flower H'mong people wear the most colorful outfits. Now pair that with animal slaughters, foods I never smelled before, and treks through rice terraced hills and I ended up with sensory overload.
What are your favorite pictures captured during the trip?
The image that stands out among the thousands I shot would be of a young Flpwer H’mong girl I call "The Watch". I was at the Sunday Market in Bac Ha, and was close to the northern border of China. The Flpwer H'mong regularly find their way to Bac Ha to hock their goods and services in the most colorful outfits I have ever seen. The market itself is billed as a photographers dream; there are things I witnessed there that will never leave my mind.
Another one of my favorites is "Traffic", which shows a woman holding on to the back of a moped. This image captures the chaotic feel a westerner will be affronted with the first time trying to cross a street in Hanoi. It's a learned practice. A pedestrian has to just walk into this web of motorbikes slowly, but must be determined to move without hesitation. The traffic normally then forms around the pedestrian like an amoeba, swallowing them up but never touching them as the moped drivers simply go around the pedestrian. At first it’s a bit overwhelming, but you eventually become accustomed to it. I made my first crossing next to a pregnant woman, as I figured there was no way in hell they would hit her. In a sense, you could say a pregnant woman was my set of training wheels.
What advice can you give to future travelers going to each region?
Hanoi can get a bit intense if you spend too much time there. Everything occurs on the street and sidewalk: cooking, working, eating, hair cutting - its all right there being lived right in front of you. Traffic is horrendous and dangerous with thousands of motorbikes, so a retreat outside of the city was really needed for me. I would recommend Sapa if there is time for one thing beyond the city. Take the night train there. Spend a day or two trekking through the hills and when a local wants to guide you, take it, they will take you places you will never find on your own.
I flew to Angkor and did a few days there but it's overly touristic. The temple visits can get monotonous after two days, so I think being there for about 3 days is enough.
In your experience, are there any common misconceptions in either nation you would like to debunk?
Growing up in the US, Vietnam always conjures up the past war. However, I encourage you to go there for yourself and see how forgiving and beautiful the people are. There are constant reminders of the past American occupation, but mostly you feel how the people have put it behind them. There is an extreme sense that the future is where they are focused.
Your work has been featured in several galleries internationally; please tell us a little about how that came to pass.
I was in a show at an Istanbul photography museum called New Yorker and the show traveled to other galleries. The curator found me through my tumblr and random web searches. Other than that I have shown in NY several times as part of group shows.
I just closed a solo show in Williamsburg, Brooklyn at the Picture Farm Gallery about the love story of a polluted river. It was called Along the Forge and can been seen on my website.
What’s next for you?
I would love to show Along the Forge in another city or gallery in another country...any takers?Other than that, I'm currently editing a story I shot while in Ghana which should soon be up on my website soon; thereafter shopping it around to see if I can show it anywhere.
Images Courtesy of Johnny Panessa