“It all started with me working in developing countries,” says French photographer Joan Bardeletti of his most recent work Housing Stories, which documents the inequalities in the wake of rampant development in countries like Vietnam. “I really wanted to look behind the development data, because although development worldwide is getting better, the greater inequality that goes with it tends to get hidden, and that’s a world issue.”
In his work, Joan turns his lens away from the romantic scenes that conjure notions of the old Saigon that once afforded it the moniker of the Pearl of the Orient, and instead zooms in on the plight of individuals and families battling to live a decent life and trying to win a roof over their heads.
“I decided to focus on something very simple, which is housing, and to highlight the difficulties people have getting access to it,” says Joan from his base in Barcelona where he’s currently working on a new project that will enable aspiring photographers greater opportunities to earn income from images taken on their phones.
Joan became aware of the societal upheaval underway in Vietnam triggered by unprecedented economic growth through his research online, and wanted to document its impact on the population through videos and photos.
Housing Stories zeroes in on low-wage earners living in Ho Chi Minh City where the population has expanded 70 percent in the last 20 years, as rural workers migrate to the city chasing dreams of better pay and a better life for them and their families.
“I identified two key issues. The first one was the resettlement process that affects people who have been living in Ho Chi Minh City for a long time, but now their buildings have either become unsafe to live in, or they’ve become valuable for investors in real estate,” says Joan. “So they are relocated with the promise of reasonable compensation, however, it’s only enough for them to be able to afford to live far from the city centre in satellite cities, which means they have to leave their jobs, their kids have to leave school and they become disconnected.”
It’s projected that Ho Chi Minh City’s population will have grown a further 40% by 2025 reaching 14 million people, heaping even greater pressure upon an already strained infrastructure, something that Joan gained an understanding of while he was here for 10 days last year documenting the situation. What he witnessed was issues compounding one on top of the other.
“The second issue was that the gentrification process of areas downtown means rents are going up very quickly. For those living on the ground floors, and who may still be able to afford the rent, they’re suffering from the elevation of streets which have been constructed to avoid flooding. Outside their homes or businesses, they now have a one metre high wall [which directs flood waters into their homes].”
Yet, despite the apparent inequalities in housing conditions across the city and its outskirts, Joan was struck by one example where 80 people were living in one house by the factory where they worked “in the middle of nowhere.” This case, he says, drove home the point that for many people, living in these conditions is actually an improvement on what they are used to back home in the provinces.
“They weren’t complaining about it,” he says. “I thought I’d go there and people would tell me they couldn’t cope living in these conditions, but what I saw was people living together who’d come from much harsher conditions — it was an improvement for them. When you compare it with living conditions in most of Europe, however, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s incredible’.”
Photos by Joan Bardeletti