MATCAxC4 #9: Looking in, Looking out: four emerging female image-makers from Vietnam

Matca x C4 Journal: Conversations Around Photography, Vietnam & UK is a series of 12 articles discussing various aspects of image-making supported by British Council Vietnam’s Digital Arts Showcasing grant 2021.

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While discussion about gender should not overshadow artistic merit, it is worth noting the longstanding gender imbalance in photography. According to the Female in Focus award from 1854 Media, while 70-80% of photography students are women, they account for only 13-15% of professional photographers. Although we don’t yet have the statistics for Vietnam, there is no denying that women remain a tiny minority in the industry. 

That stark reality prompts us to carry on the conversation about the role of women in photography, starting with four young female image-makers, coincidentally all born in 1997, who are actively making work and driving forward Vietnam’s photography scene. Either self-taught or formally trained, working local or international, they all share a commitment to the medium. Some go great lengths to shed light on social issues, developing close relationships with people they photograph. Some turn the lens inwards, creating nuanced explorations of the human body and personal memories of love and loss. Embracing tenderness and vulnerability, they are carving out their own place, be it in documentary, fashion or fine art.

– Nguyen Phuong Thao & Ha Dao 

Nguyễn Thanh Huế

Nguyen Thanh Hue is among a handful of Vietnamese women who choose to pursue photojournalism as a career. Upon graduation from the Academy of Journalism and Communication in Hanoi in 2019, she gained reporting experience by contributing to Vietnam’s most-read online newspaper VnExpress and later Reuters as a locally based stringer. The international news agency has served as a channel for her works to be published in major outlets such as The Guardian, CNN, The New York Times, and Aljazeera. She has recently relocated to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) to work as a freelance photographer. 

Hue’s practice falls within the socially concerned documentary tradition, with a focus on portraits of people in their living spaces. Developed from a graduation project, her early personal series offer a glimpse into the lives of migrant workers in Hanoi, showing with empathy how people from the lower strata make a home out of less than ideal conditions, such as on a wooden boat on the Red River and in cramped half-built rooms. Hue’s interest in her subjects’ relationship with their living environment shines through in her commissioned work. While covering the aftermath of natural disasters in Central Vietnam in 2020, she explored how residents rebuilt their life amidst the debris left behind by the typhoon. A recent story about Mekong Delta’s farmers switching livelihood from rice to shrimp farming portrays both economic activities and domestic scenes, highlighting a human-centered aspect of climate change. 

Hue continues seeking advanced international visual education. In 2019, she enrolled in an online course organized by VII Academy which addresses practical issues of photojournalistic work as well as the ethics of documenting the struggles of others – areas untouched by the syllabus at the local university. Born out of that workshop is a long-term documentary project about a shelter for downtrodden single moms. Founded by a single mother, the shelter provides accommodation for young women who decide to keep their babies despite having little to no support.

Tôn Tôn Bo

Photography takes center stage in the eclectic works of visual artist Ton Ton Bo. She is known as a fashion photographer, graphic designer, and director behind whimsical music videos for well-loved underground artists including Aztec Glue (2021) by Rắn Cạp Đuôi and Lavie and I Don’t Know (2020) by Wean. Since she was a freshman, Bo has familiarized herself with fashion photography by shooting fellow students’ school projects. She takes charge of the creative process by trying her hand at various roles such as prop master, makeup artist, lighting assistant and stylist, essentially becoming a one-woman production house. 

As a self-taught photographer, Bo develops her distinct style based on drawing and post-processing techniques. Fusing photography with digital art, she captured young naked bodies in weird poses and dream-like, moody settings, examining them from various angles. Speaking of the fascination with the human form, specifically male bodies, she sees it as “a paintbrush”, a useful tool to create any kind of image. In her self-described “strictly two-dimensional photographs”, the subject is flattened and distorted, stretched along the surface. 

Bo is finishing her degree in Interactive Design at Van Lang University, HCMC while furthering her experiments with portraiture and fashion photography. For Bo, photo manipulation does not stop at mastering the software. She constantly finds ways to freshen up her post-production process, one of them being seeking inspiration from other art forms like manga and VFX.

Lê Thị Thạch Thảo

Like Hue, Thach Thao graduated from the Academy of Journalism and Communication in 2019. She is currently working as a staff photojournalist for Zing News, a popular online newspaper in Vietnam. Despite the initial hesitation regarding the newsroom’s strict rules for topics and quotas, she decided to join the team after extensively covering the COVID-19 pandemic for them throughout the first half of 2021. On top of spot news, Thao also writes and shoots photo essays for their Lens section. She has worked on a wide range of pandemic-related stories, from tour guides struggling to make ends meet to young children leaving the city for the countryside as schools remain closed. 

With a passion for psychology, Thao wishes to explore her subjects’ emotions and cultivate a close relationship with them. She shares that instead of interviewing her source solely to gain information, she will take the time to listen and closely observe their body language, looking for details that might reveal their inner character. Thao is willing to travel and accompany her subjects over a long period of time, engaging in conversations or even daily activities so that they could get used to her presence. This direct connection can sometimes impact her personally, says Thao, but helps tackle the imbalanced power dynamic between the journalist and subject. 

What makes Thao’s works stand out are their intimate closeups and detailed, diary-like written narratives. Her interest in children’s issues, as explored in the graduation project about a young girl with autism spectrum disorder, often crops up in her coverage of daily news. 

Liên Phạm

Lien Pham picks up the camera as a way to record her daily life and keep in touch with her friends while studying abroad in the US. She looks inwards, documenting things she knows intimately including herself and close ones. Her first series titled Return (2019) was created when she came back home for the first time in four years, visualizing the difficulties of being away from home during her formative years. 

Lien’s personal experiences of moving and breakups inform her later works which also deal with the fragility of relationships in contemporary society. While pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Tufts University in Boston, she expanded her practice by incorporating other media into her lens-based work. In her first solo exhibition Hey, You Are Here (2020) in HCMC, she created an installation made from photographic prints on transparent tape. Consisting of snapshots and screenshots of text messages with an ex-boyfriend, the work is her gesture of picking up the pieces from a past romance, and at the same time experimenting with materials and light. 

Besides making work, Lien attempts to find other ways to engage with photography, such as organizing community activities with the Beautiful Noise collective of which she is a co-founding member. In the collective’s latest installation called Strange Archive (2021), she continues to use transparent tape to bind together stories and photographs submitted by the community. Inspired by the Strange Fruit work by American artist Zoe Leonard, the imperfectly shaped hearts contain memories of love and loss, lying scattered on the floor to be picked up by visitors.