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Art Challenges Homophobia in Vietnam

By Aliza Goldberg

Clad only in plastic house sandals and baggy underpants, two men lean over the balcony of their Hanoi apartment to escape the heat. 

The two, their arms lightly touching, look relaxed and comfortable, but also vulnerable. Strings of blue lights frame the couple. A blurry pink bouquet in the bottom right corner emphasizes the hidden affection. 

Their backs face the photographer Nguyen Thanh Hai, a 27-year-old Vietnamese woman also known as Maika Elan. With nothing but their buzzed haircuts to distinguish the two figures as male, the viewer makes assumptions of gender based on the portfolio's theme, "Pink Choice."

Elan reveals the struggles Vietnamese same-sex couples continue to endure, even if they can now legally live together. "When you see gay people hiding, you still can’t see them as part of our society," Elan explains to GUP Magazine, an international art photography publication. "So I wanted to show homosexuality as something that exists. I also wanted to show gay people’s private moments, because many Vietnamese are afraid of that moment. They think two men touching is something bad. I wanted to make them less afraid."

But tolerance does not mean acceptance. The Socialist Republic's decision to amend its Law of Marriage and Family may be nothing more than a pleasantry. Ivan Small, a post-doctorate anthropology fellow in sexuality studies at the University of California, Irvine, distinguishes between policy and cultural acceptance, and views with skepticism the progress in Vietnamese LGBTQ rights.

In appearance, Elan is unassuming with a glossy black mushroom cut and a wardrobe of either dark turtlenecks under overalls or collared flannel shirts. Her back stoops slightly when she speaks, a faint smile animating her words instead of hand gestures or body movements. Her subjects trust her with their stories and allow her to follow them and live in their homes. 

Shadowing average couples notable only for their homosexuality, Elan uncovers the beauty in the ordinary. Photographers observe their surroundings, but Elan also looks for what is unstated, teasing out the secrets overlooked by others. Married to a man, another photographer named Hai Thanh, Elan can understand the cultural divide despite her heterosexuality.

Her fascination with photography began as a casual activity she picked up at age 18 while a college student. Unsure of what to study at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, she began taking snapshots of life in Hanoi, where she was born and raised. But she never formally studied fine arts. As she explained to MoST, the Thai photo agency that represents her, Elan chose to concentrate on sociology as an undergraduate for the same reason she reaches for a camera—to understand different people and their stories. 

She pursued photography more seriously upon graduating college in 2006, beginning with fashion and weddings before devoting herself to documentary photography. Galleries in Asia and the United Kingdom have displayed her photographs since 2009, with her first solo exhibition in Vietnam in 2012.

Her "Pink Choice" portfolio at Hanoi's Goethe Institut received positive feedback from critics and visitors. Other projects have included vignettes in Nepal and Malaysia, work for clients such as Samsung Vietnam and Indochina Capital, and a portrayal of her father's battle with cancer.

Shown "Pink Choice," 21-year-old Vietnamese-American and amateur photographer Christina Phan says she enjoyed the portfolio, but admits, "I am sure if I showed my parents [the photographs] they'd be disgusted and think the people were abnormal." 

Xiaodan Zhang, a gender sociologist at City University of New York also finds the portfolio a powerful statement. "I am not sure if those photos will have a huge impact on people's view on homosexuality," she says, "but I would say they are probably the result of a gradual but quick acceptance of homosexuality among young people."

Among youth, homosexuality has become "trendy," according to 23-year-old Vietnamese lesbian Nu Mai, who now lives in New York. She has noticed a cultural shift over the last decade, adding that, "Growing up as a Viet lesbian, I always had to hide my sexual identity until recently, when the society has become more accepting. But looking at Elan's photography, we can sense the genuine, since the models are from different generations." 

Though Mai feels comfortable being out in Vietnam and the United States, she still finds it important that Vietnamese LGBTQ rights are "being brought out as a controversial issue and successfully gaining acceptance," especially for a diverse audience.

Elan captures a taboo subject matter by portraying daily activities, such as couples watching television, bathing, playing with their dogs, snuggling, sleeping, and lounging. In an interview for VICE Magazine UK, Elan says, "People like to say they are open-minded but they don’t act like it."

Striving to capture the mundane, Elan purposefully chooses shots that are not necessarily beautiful: a child washing his hair in a bright Hanoi alley, a classical Vietnamese opera star backstage, Southeast Asian traditional ceremonies, or an old man—her father—coming to terms with his cancer. 

Elan defines beauty in an interview with GUP Magazine this way: "I want people to believe in the moments that I photograph, I want them to believe that they are real and about real people. If you see two people that are too beautiful, they look like models. I want my photos to be of moments that people could encounter in their own lives.” 

Instead of eliciting awe through art, Elan hopes to elicit empathy.

*****

*****

Aliza Goldberg is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal and a graduate student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

[Photo courtesy of Maika Elan]

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