Widgets Magazine

Photographer Madison Fender Shares Adventures from her Vietnamese Road Trip, her Love of the North Fork and her New Show—Vietnow

Q: Your new photography exhibit documents a trip you took to Bali and Vietnam. What was that like? A: It was epic, it was amazing.

I was hungry for adventure, so I bought a one-way ticket to Bali. I had no plan, I didn’t even have a hotel to stay in. I just showed up.

I was there for a month—I was very solo and independent. I stayed outside of town, in home stays—in locals homes—but Bali was a little too developed for me. So I went to Vietnam,  for the pho—it’s a Vietnamese soup, I wanted to try the real deal. I just needed to do it.

Q: Wow, that’s very brave and dramatic—you jumped a plane to Bali without a plan, went on to Vietnam to because Bali  was ‘too developed’ and in pursuit of authentic soup. How did that go?

A: When I got to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam (Saigon) it was a culture shock. Barely anybody spoke English, it was a nightmare to get through customs, and then I ended up staying up in a hotel in the red light district—it said ‘no prostitutes allowed’ on the door.

I was totally freaked out—I put a table to block the door during the night because on the way there the cab driver was talking about sex trafficking. I got out of there in the morning and headed to the mountains and a town called Da Lat. I stayed in my first hostel, which was interesting.

Q: An accidental night in the Ho Chi Minh red light district—what a transition. How was Da Lat?

A: Da Lat set the stage for the rest of my journey, because that’s where I got my wheels.

Everyone was motorbiking, and this guy was selling an automatic scooter for $200. I bought it. There were these other people painting motorbikes so I hired them to paint mine hot pink and then I left town with nine guys—they were on motorcycles, I was on this automatic scooters. Mine the fastest, so there I was leading the crew.

Madison Fender on hot pink scooter

Q: That’s a great image, you on a hot pink scooter leading a posse of nine guys on motorcycles out of a mountain town in Vietnam. What happened next?

A: When we got to our first stop, all the guys got on a bus, putting their bikes on the bus. I decided no way, I was going to ride all the way, and at the last minute one of the guys changed his mind so we rode together. And it was crazy.

We rode at night, it was stormy—it was a six hour drive, behind big trucks, buses—there are no driving laws, so everything is pretty sketchy.

So as we were finally going down hill, the guy’s breaks stopped working. There we were: going down hill, at night, in the rain, in no-traffic law Vietnam, and he’s holding on to my bike—he put his left foot and hand on my bike to break. It worked--it was a trick we learned from observing Vietnamese who did it all the time, when they ran out of gas, need to break, what ever.

Once we got our destination, my face was black with mud. The one piece of advice I got was never drive at night in Vietnam, and I did it my first trip.

Q: If your parents read this story I’m sure their hearts will nearly stop at that image of you and the other traveler riding joined motorbikes in the night rain down hill in the Vietnamese mountains. But you’re here chatting with a new exhibit open, so how scared can they get? Anyway, what happened next?

A: We then met up with three other guys and it became a group of five of us traveling Vietnam together.  Australian, British and two Dutchmen, everyone was traveling solo.


Bram Van Der Breem, Bonnie Moorhouse, Philip Walsh, Ties Persoon and Simon Furphy with Madison (she's in the hat).

I would break away and do things on my own—I stumbled on a Buddhist temple during Tet—the big New Year celebration that lasts two weeks, and I had dinner with the monks.

906a8634-copy It’s a big deal, it’s like our Thanksgiving Dinner. I had been looking for this other temple, which was touristy, I went down the wrong road and I found this pagoda, and was meditating, and the monks found me, were like who is this person? It was great to be able to communicate without a common language--Google translate didn’t work very well.


Tet Dinner


Q: The wonders of solo international travel, and the ability to say a spontaneous ‘yes’ to opportunity. I’m sure you could share adventures for days. But let’s get back home: How did you come to the North Fork?

A: I grew up in Los Angeles, and my mom was living in West Hampton. I needed a change of pace, so I came to the North Fork, I fell in love with it, and moved. I’ve been here five years now.

Q: That’s a switch—LA to the North Fork. What do you like about here?

A: I love that the community is close-knit. I love that everyone supports local and you can live off the land. No chain stores, all local businesses. There’s a cool art scene—you’re able to make a living as an artist even though it’s small. In such a competitive world, it’s refreshing.

Also the beauty. When I first moved here it was the fall. Growing up in southern California, we never had any seasons. The fall was so beautiful, I just cried. I had no idea how magnificent the seasons can be. Each season gives you a reset in its own way.

Q: How did you become a photographer?

A: Photography kind of found me. I didn’t realize it until later on in life that I have always had a camera on me. They were usually disposable cameras but I would take photos of friends and people at school. I have a trunk full of hundreds of portaits of friends and classmates from throughout my life and I would use my allowance to get them developed. I always wanted to do broadcast journalism but I realized as soon as I got my first DSLR (a Canon Rebel XSI) I could tell a story with still images. Even a simple look in some ones eye can tell a story and I think that’s really powerful.


I started dating someone who was also a photographer. He made me realize I had a talent and I could do this professionally.

My first paying gig was a barter at Noah’s in Greenport. Frank Moeller was a fan of my work and reached out to have me photograph some food.  That was the first day I realized what I would be doing the rest of my life and I’m grateful I got to have that experience.

Q: So you started as a broadcast journalist, and then embraced your lifelong photography habit—do you want to be a photojournalist?

A: Yes, my goal is to document to real things happening in the world. I want to use my photography to document how people live in the world, to tell cultural stories-- whether it’s a woman who’s walking 10 miles for water or a teenager feeling trapped in a village.

Thing is teenagers are similar worldwide, humans are similar world wide.  There’s a way to use the image to connect us despite the obvious visual cues of a different culture in the image. It’s a way that I can show truth.

My ultimate goal is to shoot for National Geographic. Because it is not only photojournalism, it’s also art. It’s real. Artistic photojournalism. People read it all over the world. It’s a major outlet to let my voice be heard—my images be seen.

Basically what I want to do with my photography is protect people who can’t speak for themselves, educate the world, and help use my photography to make a difference.

It’s also very personal, the connection between my subject and me. It’s very intimate, even if it’s just for a split second. It won’t be my last trip—I want to make a career of travel photography. It’s just the beginning.

Q: So your current show—Vietnow at Industry Standard Bar in Greenport—is a portrait show?

A: Yes. The show shares my experiences and adventures—I wanted to bring something different and fun. As an artist it’s just fun to show what I’ve been working on—a little splash of Vietnam to the North Fork. It’s even more exciting that Greg (the chef) is bringing a menu to match the show. He’s going to be serving Vietnamese and Indonesian food for the whole week, a temporary goodbye to the burgers and Philly cheesesteaks.

Q: Do you have a favorite piece?

A: Well I’m hanging 15 pieces but I printed 25 because I can’t decide. One of my favorite images is of a Vietnamese woman sitting on the side of the road with cars streaking behind her on the road. She was so still I was able to get her in perfect focus as the cars blurred.


At that moment I had been feeling discouraged, like I wasn’t getting the images I was trying for, and that picture got me so excited, I felt like I got my mojo back.

My favorite picture from Bali is of a mother holding a child. The look in the child’s eyes is so intense I felt the energy instantly as I was taking that photo.


Q: One last thing—you went to Vietnam to find authentic Pho soup. Did you find what you were looking for? And what is Pho, anyway?

A: I ate so much pho when I was there, I couldn’t even look at it by the time I left.  It’s a Vietnamese soup with rice noodles, broth, usually beef, cilantro, chiles, lime. It’s very simple but really delicious.

The best one I had was in a dark alley at a table outside a woman’s house. I think I spent like one dollar on it.