Vocational Training in a New Light

An interview

In many countries, manual work and jobs such as electricians, welders, etc.,
have often been looked down on. Vocational training has also been seen as
the poor relative of university education or other kinds of professional training.
An initiative spearheaded by photographer Ralf Bäcker in cooperation with
German aid agency GIZ is having surprising success in changing the image of
vocational training in Vietnam.

Vocational Training in a New LightSGI Quarterly:  How would you describe yourapproach to photographing people in vocationaltraining schools?

Ralf Bäcker: The key is asking students to decidehow to present themselves and their futureprofession. They have responsibility for choosingthe way they appear. It becomes their project andthey are proud of themselves. This style pays tributeto the German school of photography known as“Arbeiterfotografie” or photography of workers, akind of visual sociology founded by photographerAugust Sander who documented ordinary peoplein his hometown of Köln. In his photographs, youmight, for instance, see a carpenter with his toolsstanding in a “typical” pose to present his trade.The photo is a collaboration between thesubject—in this case the vocational school student—the photographer and the surroundings. Otherstudents watching and commenting are also partof the process. This creates a new kind of space.Discussion even opened up between the teachersand students, for instance when we asked them todescribe their ideal teacher. We literally put thestudents at the center of the picture.

SGIQ: So how did this develop in Vietnam?

RB: The initial plan was for a publication tointroduce the vocational schools, but this nevermaterialized. Someone had the idea of creating anexhibition and showing it in the vocational trainingschool itself so that the photographs we had takenwere not wasted. The head of the VocationalTraining Association was the former minister oflabor, and the day before the exhibition opened,she came to see it. Suddenly the project becamevery high profile. We have created exhibitions inthree vocational schools so far, and also held anexhibition showing in Hanoi.

SGIQ: Does this project have an impact on the waythe schools are run?

RB: The taking of the photos opens up opportunitiesfor change. In the photos, we had to show theschools were following international standards.The schools saw they needed to look good and theybegan to follow these standards, at first simply toshow clean workshops in the photos. Later thisaffected the schools as a whole. There was a senseof pride in the place. Students were happy to showthe work they were doing.

SGIQ: Do you make a particular effort to portray women engaged in vocational training?

RB: We began to show pictures of women trainingas metal cutters to give a sense of new possibilities.At other schools, they had only been trained ingarment work. Some of those photos are deliberatelyconstructed, as the students were really from thegarment workshops. We are not necessarily tellingthe truth, but deliberately promoting a constructedimage. The aim is to change the image of vocationaltraining and make it something young womenmight see as an option. Young women are now veryinterested in this kind of training.

SGIQ: How important is promoting vocational skillsin Vietnam now?

RB: People are happy because while many globalcompanies are coming to Vietnam and employingunskilled laborers, the country has a seriousshortage of skilled workers. Unemployment isa big issue. People are trying to find work in theindustrial zones, yet they don’t have the skills. Thevocational training option suddenly seems moreimportant. The graduates qualify as skilled workerswho can now earn more than other workers.

Joan Anderson/ SGIQ



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