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Culture Vulture (Mar. 20 2013)

Vietnamese photographer Nguyen Thanh Hai (better known as Maika Elan) recently won the first prize for contemporary storytelling through photography at the World Press Photo Contest for her essay of 12 photos featuring the daily lives of homosexual couples in Viet Nam. The 27-year-old professional has become the first-ever Vietnamese person to win the accolade.

Here she talks about her winning project and her creative drive.

How did you apply to the contest?

This is the second time I submitted my photos for consideration at the competition. Two years ago I sent some photos on the same topic, featuring homosexual people in Cambodia, which I took during a course on photography there.

I think the album lacked of some essential journalistic features and so I did not win any prize.

Last year, I sent a collection on the same topic because I felt I needed to share my pictures with the photographic community. I did not care much about the prize or have any expectations, so I was absolutely stunned when I won.

Did you find any difficulties when taking photos of gays and lesbians in Viet Nam?

When I decided to carry out the project, I asked for some help from Nguyen Van Dung, a gay man living in Ha Noi who was one of the first people to publicise his sexuality there, through his autobiography Bong (Gay).

He is a great inspiration for homosexual people in Ha Noi. He has been enthusiastic in helping me and offered me a lot of encouragement in the process.

However, sometimes the couples I planned to photograph later refused to join the project. In other cases couples would be busy when I was free and vice versa.

I went to their houses to take photos as a friend, coming as a visitor for a chat. I tried to take natural photos of moments from their daily life. I think I have succeeded.

I wanted the photos to reflect the beauty of real love, which can be expressed in gestures, eye contact and caring actions between partners. In my essay the love shines equally brightly whether the couple is living in a villa or a cheap rented room.

I wanted to be the first to record these moments of light, although I knew that sometimes it is just a momentary sparkle which can be very hard to capture on film.

So I faced very few difficulties really, although I know that my photos may be seen as controversial by some, especially in Viet Nam.

What do you think about attitudes to homosexuality in Viet Nam?

I think “homosexuality” is just a notion. It is a natural part of social diversity. There are good and bad homosexual people just like anyone else. I only care about that. If you are a good citizen then nobody has any right to judge you.

I think people who dare to publicise their sexuality are very brave to reveal their nature in this society.

How do you define a good photo?

In my opinion, a satisfactory photo should evoke strong feelings. If a beautiful photo doesn’t mean anything to me, then it’s not a perfect photo.

What do you plan to do next?

I want to keep my next art projects a secret. But I do want to continue my current work and organise some exhibitions on the topic of homosexuality in several localities throughout the country. — VNS

By vivian