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Design, Photography

The ice cream store and why a combo is better than a single strike

Advertising for Nia Bella ice cream store. Photography & design by Studio MadsMonsen.

A combo is better than a single strike. I realised that when playing karate kid arcade games. The combo move was always better than the single kick or punch. Advertising agencies often have an art director/copy writer team. A killer combo of visuals and words. They realise that the team can be more creative than an individual.

Starting out as an apprentice, I realised the perception amongst my peers was to get a “proper” photography degree if you wanted to succeed as a commercial photographer. An apprenticeship was ranked lower. When I started on a photography degree course, I realised that I would spend my time and money on something I already knew very well. I still remember my evaluation meeting with the head of photography department where I raised my concerns and realised that the only thing they had taught me was a split toning technique for black and white printing. I realised that I was in the wrong place.

I asked my graphic design tutor, as we had a weekly two hour graphic design class as part of the course, which school she would recommend for me to apply to, as graphic design was something new and it had caught my interest. I received a list of names, some I heard of, some I hadn’t. Then I asked about a school that I had a friend of mine attending. She looked at me and then told me flatly to forget about that one, I would never get accepted there, it was out of my league.

I could have listened to her, but then I would not be where I am today. I realised that nothing is impossible if you really want to achieve it. I managed to arrange a meeting with the other school. I was given a chance. I got accepted. I still remember the expression of her face when I told her that I got accepted at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art & Design. Gobsmacked is an understatement.

Graphic design and photography. That is a good combination. I am grateful that I ended up with what Isaiah Brookshire calls a +1 skills combo.

Those skills are handy when your business partner propose that you invest and start up an ice cream brand.

Naming a business is similar to naming a child. Being a parent I already know how time consuming that process can be. On the other hand, a very tight deadline puts the brain in creative hyper drive and delivers faster than mother nature. Thus, Nia Bella was born. Prematurely? Maybe, born nonetheless and screaming for a logo. Time for a coffee break. Armed with a Artline pen and a drawing pad, various options were tested and discarded until one was deemed worthy of exploring.

Concept drawing. Giving a gift and cartoon cuteness galore.

Concept drawing. Deciding on shape, working on element options.

Concept drawing. Final route to explore further.

Only when I had a direction worth exploring, it was time to put to use an iPad application that another graphic designer introduced me to, Paper.  I realised that it eased up the colour exploration and design process tremendously. Once the overall look and feel of the logo had been achieved I could email myself the result.

Paper in action.

Only then it was time to start Illustrator and do a refined vector version as seen implemented on the business card image.

Nia Bella business card.

Now it’s time to enjoy a scoop of ice cream, that I just realised. As our slogan says: “Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.”


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A portrait is not a portrait – the tale of two portrait sessions


Shan arrived at the studio with her mother and Ian arrived with his business partner. They both arrived at different days.

Shan lives in Singapore and wanted to have more images for her model portfolio and we had decided via email to do simple portrait/beauty style shots. Ian, on the other hand, lives in Vietnam and needed a business portrait of himself for his newly founded business.

“A portrait is not a portrait” the same way they say “This is not a pipe” or, as often heard in the region,  “Same same but different” .

Two very different outcomes indeed, both in photographic style, composition, as well as mood and tone. Enjoy!





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Fortune favours the prepared mind – The race for a sunset location in Tra Vinh

Sunset in Tra Vinh.

We roamed around the country side all day, passing fields being harvested and stopped wherever we felt would be a good location. As the daylight started to decrease its strength, we started contemplating a suitable location for a sunset shot. Something visually interesting that could serve as a silhouetted foreground. After a wild goose chase along narrow countryside lanes a fraction of the standardised size of an European pavement, we reached the conclusion that we would not find what we were looking for along these paths. Racking our brains for an answer as dusk was setting in, we decided to head back to one of our first places of the day, a field with a small river running next too and with a wooden footbridge.

This was the very moment the effort of carrying a tripod all day paid off. These images could not have been captured unless at an increased ISO setting, a trade off I did not like. Without a tripod, we probably would have headed off to the local restaurant earlier as driving after dark on countryside roads are not something you really want to do. Not on a weekend anyway, when the rate of drunk drivers increase as the evening sets in and more alcohol has been consumed. Enjoy the sunset, we sure did!

Sunset in Tra Vinh.

Sunset in Tra Vinh and capturing the right moment.

Sunset in Tra Vinh.

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The Mouse, The Snake & Facing your Fears in Tra Vinh

The Mouse

Saigon 5am a Friday morning. We are setting off on our road trip to our destination, Tra Vinh. 10.30am we check in to our hotel with sore buttocks. A few pitstops on the way, each one proved more and more difficult to dismount the bike as the soreness increased. It was worth it. We will be back. I ended up with 3400 raw captures over those three days we stayed. It will take me much longer to process and edit those images than the trip itself, however, the first story is the one about the mouse and the snake.

The hotel restaurant, like many other restaurants, kept a few containers with live stock. You could order fresh seafood and, more unusual, at least to the restaurants I frequent,  you could also order live snakes.

I didn’t spot it until the following day, arriving for breakfast I saw the mouse. Standing in the only free corner with three sleeping snakes in the others. The poor mouse was terrified. It was trembling and had no escape route. It was scared. It did not want to look back at the snakes. Only stared into the corner. We felt sorry for the mouse but also did not know what to do about it. Snakes will only eat live bait. That I learned on my trip back to Norway. At Akvariet i Bergen, they use long tongs to hold dead mice and bounce them around so the snakes believe they are alive. It is illegal to feed live mice to snakes in Norway. In Tra Vinh it was clearly different.

The Snake

In the wild, snakes will hunt mice. That is a normal action for a snake and a normal fate for a mouse. Taking the mouse out of the cage would only expose the mouse to another option of death. Finishing our breakfast with our minds still thinking about the mouse, we went out and saw the mouse was no longer trembling in the corner. It had accepted its fate and faced its fear. The mouse had walked straight up to the snake. At a point it even touched the snake. The snake wasn’t interested in waking up, leaving the courageous mouse standing there, ready to face death.

This triggers other thoughts. About mortality. About ourselves and our time in this world. Will we be scared and afraid or will we be able to face and embrace death as this mouse did? It is also a reminder to not get stuck in the rut of the routine and let life pass without doing what we want to do. In my Facebook stream I recently read “When was the last time you did something for the first time?” For me, that was a few weeks back and hopefully sometime real soon. I wish the same to you, do something new soon.

Facing your fear


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“Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.” – Dianne Ackerman

“The master of the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play,
his labor and his leisure,
his mind and his body, his education and his recreation,
his love and his religion.
He hardly knows which is which;
he simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does,

leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing.
To him he is always doing both.”


Walking through the halls of Saint Martins for the first time, we completed the tour by heading down to the darkroom areas in the basement. The standard was far from the neatly kept and clean darkroom area I had seen at the Surrey Institute in Farnham. It went against all my previous darkroom training of keeping order. But that didn’t matter as soon as I saw a student walking past with the negative carrier tray for the darkroom enlarger filled with all kinds of layers and filters, making a triple big mac looking small in comparison. Coming from a tradition darkroom background with one negative inserted and printed at the time, being here felt right. A playground where anything goes. Try and fail. Try and fail harder. Faster. Smarter. Learn.

Heading back to the archive, ending up selecting one of my previous photo walks with Ian, images that already resulted in a previous blog post, I started re-working. Simple layering in photoshop. First step of exploration. More steps to come. Enjoy!

No 1

No 2

GIF animation.

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TEDxLive 2012 “Radical Openness” – TED x Mekong

Name tag for TEDx Mekong’s event.

Yesterday, I was fortunate to be one of the participants of the TEDxLive 2012 “Radical Openness” event that took place in cities worldwide, simultaneously streaming a live stream as part of the highlight of sharing ideas and connecting people around the world. 56 countries were connected, with over 140 cities participating.

“Radical Openness”. Radical is a scary word, a panelist said. Another quipped in that it is appropriate to our current time, where everything moves faster than anything possible 10-15 years ago. Internet changed our pace. Change has to start and come from inside you, the third panelist added to the conversation.

Being open, having an open mind. Do you have an open mind? Not as often as I would like to believe I have. An answer most of us can relate to. Having a closed mind must be easy. You simply block everything out and act with certainties. An open mind has to reflect and analyze. Having an open enough mind to accept that there is a possibility that you are wrong. Fail harder. Fail 7 times and stand straight on 8. Have your beliefs shaken to the core. Embrace change. Open up and change your way of thinking.

How do you deal with a beggar? Being acknowledged is what we all desire. Ignore a person and you will hurt them more than you could imagine.

These are all extract from the conversation that took place. A sample only. From 6.30pm to 9pm Saigon felt different. The live stream went well. No technical issues.

12 years ago when internet access was slow, this would not be possible. Saigon is moving ahead with radical speed. Connected. Ready to learn.

Hopefully open enough to change the perception of Copy & Paste as the panelist member highlighted. He had seen too many students as well as businesses, copying a successful concept abroad and pasting it into Vietnam, without considering if it would fit or not. Not everything that works abroad will work here. The business settings, perception and cultural values are different. Too many variables are different. Embrace ideas and creativity.

Next TEDx Mekong will take place in August.

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Walkabout in Saigon – The second tour with Ian

Ian, the photo tour guide.

Ian is a brilliant guide. A photo walk together with him is always inspiring and a joy. This time we met up in District 5 and walked around several pagodas. Ended up having a small, refreshing break, both to quench our thirst as well as clear our eyes from all the incense smoke, before continuing our journey. The different styles and atmospheres were inspiring, however, this time I ended up focusing on details. Enjoy the show!

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Bergen Aquarium – The annual visit amongst penguins, spiders and snakes

The Penguins.

One of the highlights of the annual trip to Norway is the visit to Akvariet. Always a treasure grove for images. Enjoy the show!

The swimmer.

Snake time.

Snake posing as Gene Simmons.

Snake lair.

Snake skin.

Mr Snake.

Ms Snake.

Spider time.

Ocean explorer.

Something fishy.

The yellow fish.

I spy with my camera eye, something green.

Ready to tango.

A balancing act.

Show down.

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The Crossing – A ferry ride to Tra Vinh

The Crossing.

The ferry ride deserves a blog post on its own. Beautiful day. Perfect weather. A smooth sailing. While most of the men whipped out their cigarette packs and lit up in the shade, I walked around in the sunshine and used my camera, much to their surprise. A non-smoker, a sunshine loving stranger snapping away, why on earth would he do that. That was their reaction, judging from my mind reading skills. The ferry was completely filled with cars, trucks and motorbikes, but looking at the images below, you get the impression I travelled by myself. Enjoy the view!

The Ferry I

The Ferry II

The Ferry III

The Ferry IV

The Ferry V

Self portrait. (On the left hand side in case you wonder.)

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Site inspection and the accidental tourist in Tra Vinh City

Driving around Tra Vinh City centre.

It started with a phone call. Followed up with a meeting and some coffee. An invite was given and I gladly accepted. Soon I found myself on the way to Tra Vinh, to visit the production facilities of my new client. An impressive site. An equally impressive production line and working environment. I stayed for the night at their guest room that puts plenty of hotel rooms to shame. Woke up to a beautiful sunrise and continued the tour from the day before.

All went well and it was time to head back to Saigon. The car arrived and the driver asked if I would like a small tour around town and off we went. Remarkable contrast. Leaving a site that works with nano technology to enter ancient temple grounds and statues. All within an hour. Enjoy!

Walking through small woods before reaching the temple area.

Smaller temple area.

Statues at your service.



The statue, the tree and the sky.

Spotted inside a truck on the ferry when making the crossing back to Saigon.

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Photography, Recommended

Meet the Ebretta and the V-Tronic, the electric vintage looking scooters

The Ebretta and the V-Tronic

Saigon Scooter Centre (SSC), have just launched two electric scooters, a Lambretta and a Vespa, perfect for inner-city travel. Speed of up to 60km per hour and a traveling distance of 40 kilometers on a full charge ought to be enough to whizz around town in green style.

Patrick, from SSC, brought the bikes over to the studio for a product shoot session. We have photographed everything from small nuts and bolts to petrol tanks and complete bikes previously. Over 1500 individual parts have been photographed up to now. Patrick also organise the annual Charity Scooter Run that we are proud to be one of the sponsors to.

We spent the afternoon photographing the two bikes, the results you can see here, and by the way, Patrick will have the first bikes available for delivery in August, that’s only a few more months, so if you are interested, head over to his site here.

Which one do I prefer? I must admit I’d go for the Lambretta.

The V-Tronic Vespa.

Old style voltmeter.

Frontview with seat open.

The battery controller.

The batteries, one on each side.

Charge outlet. Industry standard cord. 3 hours for full charge.

The full view.

Ebretta, full view.

Close up.

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The portrait of Ostrich

I met Ostrich at Big Mountain, Vung Tau. On a Sunday family outing. It’s roughly seven months since I last took a trip and blogged about it. The roadworks between Saigon and Vung Tau are still in progress, however, traveling time is now less than 2 hours by car. The ticket price has now increased as it is an all inclusive fee. The Alpine Coaster was thus enjoyed numerous times until the afternoon rain hit.

This time we walked a different route and discovered another area and thus meet Ostrich. I walked inside the small farming area and stood face to face. We exchanged glances and decided that Ostrich was indeed worthy of a portrait. The session was brief, but not as brief as a corporate portrait where the subject deemed his time too important to only grant two frames of his time. Ostrich was more willing to pose. I got more frames. More frames equals more options, so, lo and behold, here are Ostrich’s portraits.

Ostrich I

Ostrich II

Ostrich III

Ostrich IV

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Vietnam’s Liberation Day and the beach holiday to Mui Ne

Beach time

End of April and beginning of May have two public holidays here in Vietnam. 30th April is the liberation day, or Victory Day as it is also referred to, and 1st of May is the International Labour Day. This year, those days fell on a Monday and Tuesday respectively. A very long weekend indeed, and Tet holiday-like queues were expected. The People’s Army Newspaper wrote that public transportation had run out of tickets prior the holiday and that the train system alone, had to accommodate twice the amount of travelers for the holiday. Last year’s holiday had 211 reported traffic accidents with 172 fatalities over a 4 day period. The traffic police dealt with 44,200 traffic violations and the State collected US$ 548,000 in fines only for those four days.

With that as backdrop we set out on the Saturday 28th, heading for Mui Ne and the beach, without any reservations. The day before I had celebrated my double 20 day with family and was still in denial that I have entered a new era. Starting my age with the cipher 3 was already tough enough and now the cipher 4. Troi oi! or Oh My God, as they say in Vietnamese.

Anyhow, we made it safely to the beach, leaving Saigon after lunch time and arriving in the late evening. Found a hotel within reasonable time and woke up to a wonderful day, breakfast at 6am. Then the beach before hitting the pool before checking out at 12. Luggage in the car and off for lunch. Then the hunt started. This time it took much longer. No vacancy was the only answer until we ventured further down the coast.

First opening did not serve breakfast, did not have a pool and the beach was hidden by high tide. Second place did have beach access but the privately owned place with the owner sitting bare chested with his drinking buddies and playing cards did not fit in with a family with small kids. And on we went. Three times lucky as they say. Third stop had breakfast, had a pool and proper beach access. We checked in and left for dinner. Next day was a repeat of the first day. Breakfast, beach and then pool. Pure bliss. Checked out at noon and headed for lunch. Afterwards, a sightseeing drive along the coast before heading back to Saigon.

Here are a few shots I managed to squeeze in during the long weekend. Enjoy!

Beach view

Building sand castles

Enjoying the afternoon sunset

Walking the dog

Road stop

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The Saigon Zoo shoot out

Photographer Yves and Model Maissa

Maissa contacted me some time ago. She hoped we could do a photo shoot together. I contacted a photographer friend of mine. I hoped we could do a shoot together. In the end, we managed to arrange both time and place.

A previous used location, the Saigon Zoo. The challenge is to come up with something new, something different to what I had done there before. To get the creative juices flowing, a friendly “competition” goes a long way. Yves and I swapped places and roles for each location, jumping back and forth from being assistant to being photographer and always keeping a friendly banter. Two photographers, same location, same model and two different sets of images produced. All done within a few morning hours. Plus some coffee time afterwards. It is always nice to be able to catch up over a cup of coffee.

Here is what I managed to shoot, enjoy:

Model Maissa at Saigon Zoo

Model Maissa at Saigon Zoo

Model Maissa at Saigon Zoo

Model Maissa at Saigon Zoo

Model Maissa at Saigon Zoo

Model Maissa at Saigon Zoo

Model Maissa at Saigon Zoo

Model Maissa at Saigon Zoo

Model Maissa at Saigon Zoo

Model Maissa at Saigon Zoo

Model Maissa at Saigon Zoo

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Purpleasia and Landor Associates – A strategic partnership

The Executive Brand Brunch at Strata, Level 50.

On March the 1st, Purple Asia and Landor Associates hosted an Executive Brand Brunch at Strata, Level 50 at the Bitexco Financial Tower in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City and not only did I get to cover the event, I also got to enjoy the presentations as well. Branding is an interest of mine and goes all the way back to my student days in London, UK. I spent my first internship at Coley Porter Bell and then secured an internship at Bagshawe Leahy that turned into a full-time design position. Branding and packaging design I have first hand knowledge of and my designer friends nicknamed me “Mr Back of Pack” due to my typographic obsession with the back-of-pack text that you find. Nutrition labels with proper ligatures for starters. My farewell gift was the aptly named software Fontographer.

So being able to watch the presentations from both Landor Associates and Purple Asia, I felt right at home and ten years younger.

Corporate literature.

Monica Au, Managing Director of Landor Associates.

Finger food and mingling.

Enjoying the view from Level 50.

Heading to the presentation room.

The entry greeting, air hostess style. Find your seat and buckle up.

Everybody seated and the presentation starts.

The event was covered by the television channel FBNC.

A captivated audience.

Jacqui Clement, Managing Director of Purple Asia.

Taking notes.

Matt Millard and Monica Au after the official signing of papers.

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Styling with JnG Couture

Styling by JnG Couture

Parallel with the fashion shoot for JnG Couture, we did another shoot that JnG Couture styled, enjoy:

Styling by JnG Couture

Styling by JnG Couture

Styling by JnG Couture

Styling by JnG Couture

Styling by JnG Couture

Styling by JnG Couture

Styling by JnG Couture

Styling by JnG Couture

Styling by JnG Couture

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Lacoll in the air

Dance. A dancer. Fashion. The new Lacoll collection. All elements to be combined in the studio. This is one of those assignments that you are glad you paid extra to have a faster flash duration on your studio flashes, as you will capture movement in the air. For the light setup itself, I took the inspiration from my former flat mate Merlin Hendy. Merlin specializes in dance photography and his work is both stunning and captivating, you can see for yourself here.

Here are a few samples of what we achieved:

Lacoll collection in air

Lacoll collection in air

Lacoll collection in air

Lacoll collection in air

The Lacoll Poster

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Collaboration with JnG Couture – Part II

JnG Couture – Part II

As before, we went on location, but instead of outdoor, it was indoor. Only one piece to shoot, so a few samples of different crops. Enjoy:)

JnG Couture – Part II

JnG Couture – Part II

JnG Couture – Part II

JnG Couture – Part II

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