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In Vietnam, Souls Captured on Paper

Once upon a time, hand-painted portraits were more valued in Vietnam than photographs. But with the arrival of digital cameras, the country’s remaining portrait painters have faded to black. In the old royal city of Hue only one remains: Master Huu Vinh T

A shrine in Vietnam (Alex Valavanis)
A shrine in Vietnam (Alex Valavanis)
Jochen Temsch

HUE -- What, that's not him? The tour guide is completely baffled. "I don't believe it!" he says in the accent-free German he learned as a student in East Berlin, back in the days of West and East Germany.

For years, the guide has been leading foreign visitors through Hue, the old royal city on the Perfume River in the central part of Vietnam. It's a city he knows like the back of his hand, which is why the guide is having such a hard time accepting that he's so stumped in this case.

He's been asking fellow locals for directions, but we always seem to end up in the same places that sell stuff for tourists – the usual kitsch, overly bright depictions of rice farmers with conical hats and water buffalo.

No. The artist we're looking for is Hue's last portrait painter.

At least, that's how they referred to him at the hotel, where the concierge said: "The best thing to do would be to try the Old Town." It was a matter of professional honor for the guide, who borrowed a motorbike and two helmets from a friend thinking this would help us locate the artist faster – but we still weren't making any headway.

This odyssey says a lot about the dying craft that was once so in demand and that fulfilled a particularly important function. Before the days when everybody could afford a camera, a sitting with the portrait painter was the only way to preserve one's features for the afterlife.

The cult of ancestors is common for Buddhists in Vietnam. Popular belief has it that when the departed have no place where they are remembered, they roam about and become bad spirits. So every family has a house altar on which portraits of relatives from past generations are placed. These can be photographs, but ideally they are drawings that don't fade with time.

And yet today, Hue residents don't even know where Master Huu Vinh Tran lives.

The time to smoke two, maybe three cigarettes

After an hour of crazy driving around through the rain and chaotic traffic, we finally find him. He's sitting on a wooden stool in a windowless garage. The floor is stained. The walls are painted lime green and are hung full of drawings: old women sitting straight-backed near floral displays, little boys with neatly parted hair, earnest-looking young women, soldiers with rifles, all depicted in black and white as realistically – at first glance at least – as photographs.

At our approach, Tran comes to the open door. He stares out at the sheets of rain coming down. He's smoking an unfiltered cigarette and he's not in a good mood. "No time," he says. "Too much to do."

Maybe Tran suddenly realizes how implausible that sounds, because for some reason, he grudgingly answers a few questions. Does he consider himself a craftsman or an artist? Tran shrugs his shoulders. "My paintings tell real stories," he says.

He's been painting for nearly 40 years. Tran is 55. His emaciated face makes him look a lot older, but his slender body is that of a boy. After studying at art college, he made a living drawing visitors at Hue Citadel before opening his own studio in this garage. "The 90s were the best times," he says.

That was when the economy was booming in Vietnam. But people didn't yet have digital cameras. Before that, only rich people could afford his portraits. In the 90s, however, people of more modest means were also coming to have themselves portrayed. Some would ask him to make a drawing from the faded photograph of a relative. Each job took about a day, and would earn him $30.

"The paint is expensive," he explains. He mixes it from black powder that comes from France. "It seeps into the paper and stays forever; it doesn't fade," Tran says.

But the real value of his portraits lies elsewhere. "When a person's portrait is created by an artist, their soul is captured on paper. Photographs can't do that," he says. Tran says he's painted old people, babies, the whole crew of a ship that was sunk by the Americans – and his wife, who died not long ago.

Tran decides he's done talking with us. But, in the time it took him to smoke two, maybe three, cigarettes, he has left a vivid portrait of himself in his visitor's memory.

Read the original article in German

Photo - Alex Valavanis

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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