Capturing an honest moment instead of the “perfect image”, Wendy Huynh tells the stories of ESEA women
The documentary photographer records stories she finds inspiring and beautiful in an exploration of race and identity.
- Jyni Ong
- 24 June 2021
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
For a while, London-based photographer Wendy Huynh wanted to find a way to discuss issues relating to the East and South East Asian (ESEA) community through her work. Having grown up in the outskirts of Paris, raised by Chinese immigrant parents from Vietnam, Wendy tells us, “I never really questioned my origins, or even what racism was.” Due to the image perpetuated by the media, growing up, she understood the main goal was to fit into the Western way of life, even if that meant “denying my family’s culture,” the photographer says looking back on her formative years.
It wasn’t until years later that this mentality started to shift. By talking with friends, in the past few years, Wendy has realised the importance of embracing one’s culture, sharing mutual experiences of racism and in turn, “create a stronger community to support each other.” Inspired by the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement last year, Wendy started to reflect on race-related issues and how race affects identity while living in a majority white country. “In order to start this conversation on Asian hate,” she continues, “I decided to create a series of portraits of East and South East Asian women so we can finally give a face to a community that is too often stigmatised.” Drawing attention to the issue as a rise in Asian hate crime spiked due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Wendy decided to pitch the series to The Guardian, a crucial choice for the story to reach a wide audience.
When it comes to Wendy’s photography practice in general – one forged within the genres of documentary, portraiture and fashion – she finds inspiration in her surroundings explored wholeheartedly in her magazine Arcades. “Photography isn’t only about taking a picture, editing and publishing it, especially in documentary work,” she explains. For Wendy, her work goes much deeper than the image. Research, production, a social approach, and the relationship with the subject are all equally important facets that go into making an image. In this way, she takes the time to get to know her subjects beforehand, ensuring she can best tell their stories. “That’s what I find amazing about documentary photography, it’s not just a matter of taking beautiful pictures, it is much more profound work that helps you understand your subject and its context. It really helps you grow within your practice.”
As she prepared to shoot Portraits of East and South East Asian Women, there were a few considerations front of mind. For one, she acknowledged how the Asian community has been all-too-often misrepresented in the media – depicted in a submissive or inferior light in comparison to white counterparts. “I really wanted to showcase faces and stories I find inspiring and beautiful in order to give a true and honest face to the community,” Wendy adds. Focusing primarily on women’s experiences to kick off the series, she shines a light on people across London including the headteacher of Mandarin at the Hackney Chinese Centre, chefs, DJs, artists, writers and more.
A series that features ESEA women from all walks of life, the comprehensive documentary series brings together some friends, some friends of friends, not to mention women Wendy has “always wanted to meet.” In addition to providing a platform for their stories, Wendy found the experience of talking to each and every subject therapeutic. She goes on to say: “Seeing the series at the end felt like a strength and motivation, like we had something in common that unites us all.” Wendy journeyed across London and its outskirts to visit each subject’s home or a familiar environment and take the photographs. It was imperative the photos were set in a place the subject felt safe, adding to the overall communication of everyone’s personalities, like “entering into more intimate spaces.”
Shot on film, Wendy opted for a Hasselblad with a waist-level viewfinder which allowed the subject to see her while she was taking the photo, without being obstructed by the equipment. Taking into consideration the subject’s experience, she used film not only for its aesthetic qualities but also because it’s a less intimidating production for people who are not used to being photographed. “It’s about quality shots over quantity and capturing an honest instant moment instead of trying to create a perfect image,” she adds. Though the purpose of the shoot was predicated in response to racism and prejudice, Wendy wanted the series to evoke the opposite: to express a feeling of calm and positivity in light of such events.
A celebration of the ESEA community and its diversity, the series hopes to empower others and feel more united in spirit. Wendy finally goes on to say: “I also hope the Asian community can become less afraid of showing who they are and speak up when needed. These are the first steps we all need to do in order to start having conversations around racism.” In meeting the subjects for this first round of photographs, Wendy feels driven to carry the project forwards, turning to other cities in Europe and the US to capture myriad other experiences, in turn, starting with her hometown in the Eastern suburbs of Paris. “Documentary work is what drives me and I feel determined to keep giving a voice to the people and places we don’t often hear about or see, hoping to inspire others by telling and uplifting their stories.”
GalleryWendy Huynh: Portraits of East and South-East Asian Women (Copyright © Wendy Huynh, 2021)
Wendy Huynh: Portraits of East and South-East Asian Women (Copyright © Wendy Huynh, 2021)
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.