Real Faces, Real People, Real Love in Vietnam

Maika Elan didn’t know what to expect two years ago when she knocked on doors at a popular hotel for gay and lesbian couples in Siem Riep, Cambodia. She was surprised when most of the guests — many of whom were foreigners — told her she was welcome to take their portraits.

Ms. Elan, a young Vietnamese photographer, had traveled there for the Angkor Photo Festival to take a workshop with the Magnum photographer Antoine D’Agata. Needing a subject, she found Pink Choice, a Web site catering to same-sex couples traveling together — “kind of a Lonely Planet for gay and lesbian people,” she said.

Ms. Elan put the portrait project aside when she returned to Hanoi. While she had gay friends, she wasn’t sure if she felt passionate about the subject to continue.

But her feelings changed when she saw an exhibition there about Vietnam’s L.G.B.T. community. None of the pictures she saw revealed the faces of their subjects. Many were shot from the back, and some wore masks. They were stereotypical — even harsh — depictions of love.

They didn’t look like real people.

Then she recalled the couples she had met in Cambodia, who were “really happy and very open” and far from the displeasing images she saw in Vietnamese media. So she decided to tackle the subject herself.

“I saw many different things around me,” she said via Skype from Hanoi, “and wanted to change minds.”

The result, a series of portraits called “the Pink Choice,” is a powerfully intimate look at love, shot mostly behind closed doors at home with gay Vietnamese couples.

Mr. D’Agata, who remembered her work from the workshop in Cambodia, said via e-mail that while Ms. Elan is talented, “what she has which is more important is to accept the risk to become a significant political voice.”

“Step by step, image by image,” he added.

As a photographer, he continued, “I believe she is strong enough to develop as a decisive force in current mutations in Vietnamese culture.”

Vietnam has historically been unwelcoming to same-sex relationships. But its Communist government is considering recognizing same-sex marriage — a move that would make it the first Asian country to do so, despite past human rights issues and a long-standing stigma. In August, the country’s first public gay pride parade took place in Hanoi.

Still, photographing there was more challenging for Ms. Elan than it had been in Cambodia. “In Vietnam, it’s very different, because I’m Vietnamese,” she said. Many of her subjects in Siem Reap had been foreigners, and most had thought of her as a foreigner, assuming that her work wouldn’t be seen by their families or friends.

To get started, she reached out to Nguyen Van Dung, a gay Vietnamese author who is well known in the country’s small L.G.B.T. community, and who was willing to help her find subjects. Many of those she photographed were uncomfortable, and dramatized their situation when she pulled out her camera. “They were touching or they were caring,” Ms. Elan said. “But it’s not natural. It’s acting.”

Most took some time to warm up to her. But after being around her subjects for a few days, she got a sense of their routines at home. In fact, the idea of home became integral to the work. When she followed one couple outside, she watched how their posture changed in public. They weren’t comfortable. At a flower market, where she was photographing the two men together, onlookers stopped to ask why two men would hug.

She sought private moments instead — where her subjects would be free from stares and criticism, and less inclined to dramatize their relationship. Moments when they forgot she was there.

“When I take these photos, the most important thing is I have to believe in that moment,” Ms. Elan said. “If it doesn’t give me that feeling, then I don’t take the photo.”

Ms. Elan, 26, who was born Nguyen Thanh Hai and has been shooting since 2006, doesn’t recall learning about homosexuality as a child. Her ignorance, she said, made her mind an “empty white paper.”

When she began working on “the Pink Choice,” the couples she met had already come out. But as she continued, and others contacted her, one pair told her they wanted her to help them do so. The family did not react well.

Other families asked her to remove photos of their children from an exhibit of “the Pink Choice” at the Goethe Institute in Hanoi. They said their children were sick, or unnatural. “They think that they can give them to the local hospital or something,” Ms. Elan said.

“In other countries,” she said, “the stigma from the society, but in Vietnam, the stigma comes from the family.”

And there was another, unexpected, reaction to her work. “Some people have been angry, and say it’s not enough,” Ms. Elan said. “They want to see more activity and they asked me why my photos are so sad. They want to see more happy moments.”

“I don’t think you have to have a happy smile,” she said, “if you’re beside the person you love.”

by Kerri Macdonald
Source – The New York Times