In her ongoing series, photographer Vân-Nhi Nguyễn subverts colonial perceptions of Vietnam
“As You Grow Older was inspired by my need to not see myself in any kind of box — as a Vietnamese person, this identity feels like such a heavy thing.”
- Daniel Milroy Maher
- 15 May 2023
“While Vietnam represents for many in the West a place where a war was fought or athletic shoes are made, its people bear witness to a richer and far more complex reality,” writes Hanoi-based photographer and designer Vân-Nhi Nguyễn of her project As You Grow Older. Shot in 2022 and still ongoing, the intimate series of photos was a winning submission to the inaugural V&A Parasol Foundation Prize for Women in Photography earlier this year.
“As I grow older I tend to become more observant and critical of what I see, what I get to see, and what people want me to look at,” says Nguyễn, explaining the reasoning behind the project and its title. “What does it mean to be Vietnamese? Why can't I see just someone from the same working background as me, who looks like me, in an image not categorised according to whether they are queer, or a woman? There was an intense feeling of just needing to make this work.”
Drawing on a long history of vernacular photography, as well as colonial depictions of Vietnamese culture and people, As You Grow Older adopts the format of a family photo album in order to interrogate established ways of seeing. The photographs carry a powerful sense of subversion that belies their subtle intimacy and it is this disruptive potential that Nguyễn says is the core objective of her endeavours.
“When you look at these frontal, full-body shots of the same people in history and during the colonial period, they’re almost always presented like an object, for the settler to then categorise them, asserting themselves as the superiors,” she explains. “For me, as a Vietnamese person, to be able to turn this gaze around, to have these people who are just everyday people be so dignified and control each space they enter, is to regain the power that was stripped away.”
Peopled by both strangers and friends of friends, the images, all of which were shot in Hanoi, offer freedom of expression to their subjects. Despite Nguyễn’s curation of each environment, tapping into collective memory and understanding through cultural objects and signifiers, the subjects are given free rein to present themselves however they wish. As such, their presence within the composition is emphasised, foregrounding them against “objects” whose categorisation they once shared under a colonial lens.
An archival group photograph is one image thats stands out from the series. Taken in 1975 and showing a graduation class to which her mum belonged, Nguyễn explains that its inclusion serves to bridge the gap between the past and the present: “It’s part of a large collection of research images which I collect from the family archives of all of the people in my work. These references act as a guide to help me with set dressing, and for my collaborators to understand the image they are about to become part of.”
Nearly all of the photographs within As You Grow Older are domestic shots because, as Nguyễn attests, “the domestic is a place where stories are shared and intimacy is bred”. However, the future of the project will see it evolve to incorporate the “uncertainty and chaos” that lies outside of these spaces. Speaking on this evolution, Nguyễn says “Hanoi holds a unique geography, politics and architecture, where much can be seen but at the same time hidden, not in the way something is hidden in the West”.
Vân-Nhi Nguyễn: As You Grow Older (Copyright © Vân-Nhi Nguyễn, 2022)
About the Author
Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.