REAL FACES, REAL PEOPLE, REAL LOVE IN VIETNAM
Maika Elan didn’t know what to expect in 2010 when she knocked on doors at a popular hotel for gay and lesbian couples in Siem Reap, Cambodia where she had traveled to take a workshop with the photographer Antoine D’Agata. Maika was surprised when most of the guests – many of whom were foreigners – told her she was welcome to take their portraits.
Maika put the portrait project aside when she returned to her country, Vietnam. 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 in Hanoi about Vietnam’s LGBT community. None of the pictures she saw revealed the faces of their subjects. Many were shot from the back, and dome 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. So she decided to tackle the subject herself. The result is a powerfully intimate look at love, shot mostly behind closed doors at home with gay Vietnamese couples.
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 2012, the country’s first public gay pride parade took place in Hanoi.
At the beginning, many of those Maika photographed were uncomfortable, and dramatized their situation when she pulled out her camera. “They were touching or they were caring”, Maika said. “But it’s not natural. It’s acting.” Most took some time to warm up to her. But after being around 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. She sought private moments – where her subjects would be free from stares and criticism, and less inclined to dramatize their relationship. Moment when they forgot Maika was there.
Antoine D’Agata said that while Maika 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”. As photographer, D’Agata continued, “I believe she is strong enough to develop as a decisive force in current mutations in Vietnamese culture.”
Text © Kerri MacDonald for The New York Times
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