What does it mean to be Vietnamese? Is it the sweltering afternoon heat, the 50-cc motorcycles that seem to swarm throughout the city, or the bit of rage rage around rush hour? To Dear Asian Youth Saigon, Vietnam is all of the above, and more, and their latest photography exhibition narrates its titular theme to the teeth.
Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt
Dear Asian Youth Saigon is a subdivision of the world-wide Dear Asian Youth. Founded in 2020, the organization has been tirelessly working towards empowering Vietnamese and making them proud of their identity – raising awareness on the goods-and-bads of Vietnam, and redefining Vietnam in the modern lens of passionate youths. The Vietnam Experience show embodied this principle flawlessly, featuring submissions from Vietnamese natives who helped to craft images that build upon our understanding of Vietnam.
We reached out to 4 of the photographers who had their work accepted in the exhibition to hear the story, inspiration, and meaning behind their photographs.
Lê Trung Hạo
Hạo is – in his own words – a ‘media enthusiast’ (rather than an ‘artist’). He’s also a junior on the rise at RMIT University in Vietnam. He is a Digital Film major who transcribes his vision of the world to others with a digital camera as his medium.
Drawing inspiration from the post-impressionist painter Van Gogh, although more from his story than from his artwork, Hạo uses photography as a release – a tabula rasa to paint his own story and communicate the unspoken turmoil in his mind.
“My work is mainly sensory related…it’s what people perceive through their eyes and ears.”
Hạo is fascinated by Vietnamese culture in more than one aspect. To him, food, accents, ancestral history, all play a part in the diverse beauty of Vietnam. He seems to be particularly interested in the vernacular of Vietnamese linguistics: how we define relationships by pronouns.
“I’m lucky enough to have been born and raised in Ho Chi Minh City, where I feel like I was exposed to a lot of different cultures. [With a camera], I am able to capture all of the small details and moments in my life which I think I wouldn’t be able to remember otherwise.”
“Being a Vietnamese is being exposed to a diverse range of different cultures, and there are a lot of memorable things about it. I would say the food culture in Vietnam makes me proud to be Vietnamese. The best way to connect with someone is through the food on the table, getting to sit and eat bún chả cá, phở, bún bò, or a sip of trà đá is honestly one of the best ways to get the people to understand our culture. I am so proud to show my foreign friends about our culture here in Vietnam through food.”
When asked about his proudest work, he alighted upon the photograph ‘Trạm Trung Chuyển Xe Buýt Sài Gòn.’ He is particularly interested in the cinematic ‘cyberpunk’ aesthetic, and modified the photo to fit that theme.
“As a media enthusiast, I am able to create and modify the look that I want in the photos and videos, and somehow create the mood that is suitable for the audience’s point of view as well.”
Through his work, Hạo hopes to inspire other Vietnamese content creators to embody the ‘Just Do It’ mentality. “All I could say is that you just have to do it to truly know about it, or to fake it until you make it, and I can promise that you will be able to achieve something one day.”
Trang Ta is a Vietnamese artist living in Montreal after years of adventures in other lands. Her art promotes self-expression and uniting with nature without costing the Earth. For her, photography, both digital and film, has been her longest-lasting practice starting since she was in middle school in Sài Gòn. Trang’s creative process is often therapeutic and mindful as it allows her and any other participants to self-ground through a hands-on approach.
It is a gentle reminder for her viewer to return to nature, purity, balance and simplicity.
Trang has been experimenting with photography from a young age, capturing life and its mundanity through her lens. Her subjects convey the beautiful yet sentimental simplicity in daily experiences, from clothing racks adorning corridors to the corner of Nguyễn Du and Công Xã Paris right after the sudden rain.
“Vietnam, but more especially Saigon, has continued to be my biggest inspiration for photography and many times, writing, just by being and evolving within itself over the years. It’s been my home, my friend, sometimes a lover, sometimes a parent, other times a stranger, but has always brought me a wide range of new emotions since I was a child and every time I came back to it.”
Despite living in Montreal, Trang has never forgotten her roots. Her authentic Vietnamese background has never left her, and she carries the value of the culture with her today, while still maintaining her own quirks as a young woman.
“I feel lucky to be able to learn and be embedded with many amazing values, stories and aesthetics of Vietnam as I grew up there while having the ability to critically analyze and respect them for what they are.”
The sentimentality of a deeply-personal Saigon is a continual object of adoration in her lens. “For me it all comes down to the people and the emotions I have that are attached to them. Vietnam is home and you can imagine all the drama, the beautiful things, the ugly things, the fun things, the sad things, that can happen at home. A misogynistic grandparent, the divorce of your parents, long distance relationships, happy or sad Tết’s, a white boyfriend, the fellow Viet high school sweetheart, the best friends, the Grab rides, the sitting in the back of the scooter being driven by people you love, busy Saigon, peaceful Saigon.”
Tôn Thất Vĩnh Khang
Despite living in Chicago, Khang is a Saigonese at heart. He witnessed the city evolve and morph into its current, complex form today. His camera has followed him from California to Vietnam, documenting his journeys around Vietnam. Khang draws inspiration from the duality of Saigon: vibrant and bustling one moment, yet tranquil and melancholic the next.
“Anyone who has walked the busy streets of Saigon knows that there are a million things happening all at once. Yet, one can always find something beautiful amidst all the chaos. It could be a street vendor with a vat of freshly steamed sticky rice, a couple on a bicycle, a pickup soccer game in the park, or simply a parked motorcycle in front of an empty building.”
Speaking of Chicago prompts some reflection within Khang on his ethnicity as a born-and-raised Vietnamese. From Tết to Trịnh Công Sơn’s music, everything about this nation shapes his experience and person.
“When photographing the streets of Saigon, I look for that one thing. Sometimes it is right in front of me and easy to spot, but most of the time I have to pay extra attention to find it. Once I found it, I’d look around and find different angles to shoot. It is a surprisingly playful process, which is why I enjoy it so much.”
His photo ‘Mạch Nha’ illustrates this vision of contrast, capturing a street vendor in front of the Louis Vuitton store.
“That scene encapsulates my Vietnam experience. Vietnam is a place where many contrasting and incongruous elements can coexist in one and the same frame. This photograph in particular represents my love for photographing the streets of Saigon – there are a million things happening all at once, and if you look for it, you’ll find so much beauty in everything that is happening.”
Khang touches on the diversity of Vietnamese identity around the world – that the Vietnamese spirit is never truly extinguished, even being far away from home. To Khang, being Vietnamese is finding that precious connection to one’s heritage through different means at different locations.
“Because we Vietnamese people are multiethnic, multicultural, and live in multiple continents, there are many different ways to be Vietnamese. Far from being a monolith, we are an incredibly diverse group of people. Nonetheless, I think that what unites us as a group is that each person has a unique connection to a shared Vietnamese culture.”
Phạm Thế Quang
Quang, or Arthur, is a senior at Luong The Vinh high school for the Gifted. His talent with photography was not supported by his parents, but, despite that, Quang is determined to stick to this path and prove himself as a photographer.
“I have a great passion for photography, I just love the sound from the shutter of a camera. And the photos captured are often so meaningful to me that I want to share them with everyone.”
When asked about his identity as a Vietnamese, Quang emphasizes on belonging and being a part of a bigger whole. In his own words, everything about his hometown is memorable, and it is difficult to pinpoint an exact thing that stands out. However, Quang does highlight harmony – the combination of an unending myriad of factors that makes Vietnam unique. With that to guide him there is never a dull moment in Quang’s lens.
“[Being Vietnamese] is a strong connection to my cultural roots and heritage. It means being part of a community with a rich history, traditions, and customs that have been passed down through generations. It means having a deep appreciation for the Vietnamese language, history, food, music, and art. Being Vietnamese also means recognising and acknowledging the sacrifices and struggles that my ancestors faced in order for me to be here today. Hence, I know I should take responsibility to continue the tradition and values of my country.”
Quang’s subjects are mostly humans of Vietnam, trying to live life and cruise the currents of time. His proudest and most profound work captured a woman selling lottery tickets at Tân Mai Market in Biên Hoà. In his own words, the mundane moment captured his attention, and he found those simple moments of a woman doing her job compelling.
“She was kind and friendly, she just accepted my suggestion of a photo with a smile. After taking that shot, I showed her the result and bought 2 lottery tickets from her. I could even see a glint of happiness in her eyes. That moment was unforgettable for me. I would say this simple portrait photo had a profound meaning for me as I just captured such an invaluable moment that most people in this city tend to ignore.”
These artists each bring a unique vision to DAY@SGN’s show. From the simplicity of Saigon after a rainstorm to cyberpunk buses, these photos each capture a unique aspect of being Vietnamese – something inherently complex and difficult to iterate into words.