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At least three of the nineteenth-century scientists who studied retinal afterimages, the wondrous and illusory optical embodiments that appear after the release of a intense direct gaze into light, severely damaged themselves by staring into the sun that seared back at them. One of them went permanently blind. Another one suffered a mental breakdown. As Jonathan Crary ironically writes, “Clearly these scientists came to a piercing reality of the corporeality of the image.”[1]

Perhaps in not quite as punctuating (and damaging) a way as peering into the rays of the powerful sun, another action that can evoke new corporealities may be found through the beholding of a photograph—an image onto which light has been drawn, either analogically or digitally. This kind of “vision” can bring a photograph and its subjects to life, carrying their magic forward through time and space. By beholding, I am suggesting a haptic mode of “seeing” and knowing through the combined sensors of eyes and hands (and in what follows, though more peripherally, ears). Further, beholding implies a manner of relationship between image and viewer that involves being beholden to an image through acts of reverence and obligation—the motivations underlying the aesthetic practices of ancestor worship and expressions of filial piety occurring through the production, reproduction, display and reception of altar portraits.

The embodiments and reembodiments that may be generated through photography initially occur through the grasp of the camera, the button push and snap caused by digits/fingers that catch, create and capture the moment of the collapse of an object and subject. Then, through the image’s post-production retouching processes and onto its display and captivation of a viewer, the act of “seeing” becomes sort of a dance between the subjective and the objective.

These transactions can be seen most dramatically in the case of the vernacular portrait, a personal and intimate photograph, because of its location so close to heart and hand and its capacity to evoke emotion, resemblance, projection, and fetishization[2]. It works both as fantasy and as fixative, creating ideals, establishing hierarchies and consolidating relationships within families and expressing them outwards. This kind of image may contain the hints of the otherwise unknowable mysteries of past lives that do hold meaning in present lives. Most photographs have a way of mediating contrasts, but portraits, because of their content, form and function, perhaps most clearly embody oppositional states such as proximity and distance, sight (the abstract) and grasp (the concrete), heads (the source of the spirit) and toes (the source of the profane)[3], and truths and lies.

Just these kinds of seemingly contradictory qualities are what initially inspired me to contemplate (and then investigate) photography in the context of Vietnam, the country that had been the colony where my father was born. One day, some years ago, my father pulled out a box of family photographs. Some of the images I had seen before, others were completely new sights, yet others were familiar but had never been properly introduced or identified to me. In the collection were a few pictures of my grandparents. They had both tragically died when my father was very small, and they had been only in their twenties. My father had no recollection of his father, and he had only one conscious and visual memory of his mother—of her body as she lay dying.

But it was the photo of his father, gaunt with the tuberculosis that killed him, which startled me. It was the first time that I registered that this was a photograph of my grandfather. And how similar was our facial structure. This resemblance and its recognition distracted me so, that a few hours later while driving and stopped at a traffic light, my foot slipped off the brake pedal and the car slid into a boat that the vehicle in front of me was trailing. Within seconds, the boat’s propeller sliced through my radiator and left me lost, shaken and speechless in a cloud of steam feeling utterly disembodied.

My grandparents and their portraits kept haunting me, and when I eventually left for Vietnam to study the use of photographic images, their presence followed closely behind. In the back of my mind I may have wished that I could resurrect them in some form, and in the process perhaps offer some peace to my father. Oddly, this was a gesture of filial piety, a thing of which I knew little about back then. And my understanding of it happened through the several acts of beholding that follow.

From Head to Toe and from Ear to Ear

One of the first points of reconnection that my family had with our relatives in Saigon in the late 1980s, was when the state appropriated many hectares of the family’s ancestral land in the Phú Nhuận district (for use as a military base and horse racetrack). The family was forced to pay for the disinterring (and subsequent cremation) of the remains of my grandparents and great-grandparents. My father was contacted for his share of the expense. At that point, I knew very little about Vietnam and my father’s past and his side of the family. He had rarely talked about them.

In traditional ancestor worship practices, the eldest son is supposed to be in charge of such matters, including the daily maintenance and upkeep of the main family altar table displaying the icons of the religion the family practiced (Buddhism, Catholicism, etc.) as well as the portraits (or name tablets) of two or three generations of ancestors. Incense is lit to entice the souls home and keep them warm while they are present. Food is offered to them, and then eaten by the living. Portraits act as the beacons and landing pads to insure that the correct ancestors have arrived at the right homes. (Otherwise, havoc could ensue if the wrong souls entered.)

But my father was somewhat of a wayward Vietnamese, at least in terms of these rituals. He had departed Saigon to study science in the United States in 1950 when the city was still the main hub of the French colony’s Cochinchine. His younger brother had been the faithful keeper of these practices and the family altar before and after his 11-year imprisonment in a Communist reeducation camp for his position as a lieutenant colonel in the South Vietnamese air force.

In 1997, when I accompanied my father to Vietnam on his first trip back after almost 50 years, we visited the urns of his father, mother and grandparents at the Giác Lâm Pagoda in Saigon (which had been officially renamed Hồ Chí Minh City). As he was lifting the urns down from the shelves and dusting them off with his handkerchief, my father transformed in front of my eyes. As a self-declared agnostic who had lived for most of his life as a fierce and fast-paced New Yorker, he became almost unrecognizable. His movements suddenly softened and became slower, and he exhibited a great deal of reverence towards these containers that held his parents and grandparents. On the urns were only small plaques inscribed with the names and birth and death dates of the dead, although above each plaque was an empty space meant for the display of a portrait. Confronted by his mother’s dates, my father realized the fact of both of their ages at the time of her death. (Incidentally, honoring the anniversary of the death day of a parent is also a huge part of this tradition, which evidently, my father had not been observing.) When he turned to clean and polish the urn of his grandfather who had raised him, he became very (unusually) quiet. But in the silence I could almost hear the sentiments and gratitude that he had repeated to me many times before: that he owed any goodness within himself to the words, knowledge and kindness that his grandfather had bestowed upon him each day while my father massaged his knees and legs. Here, gently dusting the containers off with a tactile reverence (and perhaps some massage message memories), my father became reincorporated into his Vietnamese “habitus.”[4]

Figure 1: The urns of my grandparents at Giác Lâm Pagoda, 2001Figure 1: The urns of my grandparents at Giác Lâm Pagoda, 2001© Denise Hien

The next year when my father returned to Vietnam, like a good son and grandson, he brought with him oval headshot photographs of all the ancestors of which he had made custom-sized prints. He then glued them onto their spots in the center of the urns—at last completing the picture (Figure 1).

His activities were not isolated. They corresponded to the appearance of digital photo “recovery” shops on blocks throughout the city whose practices paralleled the ritual tending of graves, which in the city had been disappearing (as mentioned earlier) with the state takeover of the land of many tombs and burial spots. These shops were the places in which big revelations, little deceptions and dedicated attempts at recovering, confirming and reconfiguring Vietnamese identities in the city in this era of digital modernity were occurring many times each day. These activities ranged from the addition of wigs onto the bald heads of monks for purposes of making successful visa applications to leave the country to the creation of family portraits in which composite portraits of families were being made by grafting together the individual photos of members who had been dispersed all over the globe and virtually “reunifying” them in Saigon living rooms. But the mainstay of this business was the production of altar portraits, the majority of them being ones of men who had died too young in the war or in post-war “reeducation” camps. These were being made through the alteration of old photographs, such as headshots for ID cards that had never intended to be used as altar images per se.

At the shops, làm đẹp or “to make beautiful” and tút lại cho đẹp (or simply tút) were the main requests (in southern Vietnamese slang) articulated by customers. Tút is derived from the French verb “toucher”—“to touch, to handle, to feel.” Tút lại cho đẹp is literally “to retouch to make beautiful.” Within these acts of beautification, the commonly assumed treatments and fixes were making the skin smooth, erasing shadows and unlucky moles, and most importantly, brightening the eyes. This activity (and animating touch) is the contemporary equivalent to the dotting of the eye ceremony in Buddhism that imbues the icon of Buddha with life and efficacy. It has clearly been extended and integrated into the practice of ancestor worship with process of tút being one tangible and concrete way to care for the familial souls that are floating out there and to express ones filial piety by making the contact, connections and exchange that touch implies.

Clearly, the technicians at the shop provide a much more profound service than anyone normally articulates. Because the instructions can be quite broad, it seems clear that a commonly understood sense of Vietnamese altar portrait aesthetics and a prescribed set of desires for their treatment exist. The technicians at the shop are often assumed to know intuitively what these are. So what may at first glance seem like a rather vague request can actually turn into a project that is much more elaborate. The technicians are trusted as the interpreters of culture, its inventors and its keepers of authenticity. And if they provide the service well, they turn into experts, artists, magicians, physiognomists and orientalists (often confirming and maintaining what they considered and termed as “oriental” or “Asian” aesthetics that could apply only to Asian faces and bodies). And then their business grows accordingly.

This is not to say, however, that they really know (or abide by) any time worn practices—or that there are any of these to begin with. This “tradition,” by the tides of technological invention, seems to be perpetually in a state of flux. After I had known one of the owners of a shop for a few of years, I gave him two photographs—one of each of my grandparents. My uncle had kept these in a wallet/pocket-sized leather picture holder that had been flipped open so many times that the spine had been taped to keep it from falling apart. I asked him to make a joint portrait of them and two prints—one for my uncle, the other for my father. Joining a couple together for an altar portrait is not particularly common—most requests are to split people apart because for ritual efficacy each soul should be individuated in its own frame. (In the final print, although they were on the same page, he had separated them into their own oval worlds.) But beyond that, I didn’t specify what he should do. The right side of the portrait of my grandmother had been burned and discolored by a stick of incense. I assumed that he would just cover up the burn mark. However, not only did he get rid of it, he also added a sizeable ear onto her head.

On the ear (the only lobe in view because her face was tilted to the side), he had added a jumbo pearl earring. I was horrified about both the ear and the earring. Perhaps he was trying to balance out the portrait with my grandfather whose ears really stuck out? But when I mentioned my problem with the ear and the huge earring, he told me that at that time (in the early 1930s), it had been customary for a woman of her class standing to wear these kinds of earrings to signify that she was married. (It is not clear that in that particular portrait she was already married since she looked so young. But he never asked.) After some debate, he agreed to downsize the earrings. Although I had requested two prints, he gave me an extra one for myself. Out of respect for me, on that copy he had left the ear naked (Figure 2). But when I visited my uncle and returned his photos and gave him the new copy, he showed me an intact version of the old photograph. It revealed that neither of her ears had ever been completely visible in the first place—they had already been retouched out of the original print.

To this day, whenever I look at that photograph, I keep wondering exactly whose ear has been pasted onto her head. But I doubt that most other customers would have been bothered by this kind of digital cut-and-paste organ transplant. In contemporary Vietnam, people who have been for many years conditioned by the ubiquity of a socialist-realist style of images in the visual landscape, would probably have easily sacrificed the realism of the portrait (on which I counted) for the correction/perfection of the image and making the subject more whole and more highly idealized.

Figure 2: my recovered grandparents, Tinh Hoa shop, 2002 Figure 2: my recovered grandparents, Tinh Hoa shop, 2002

Whether realism, idealism, truth or deception have made a stronger claim within an image, all portraits seem to hold some secrets, conceits, vanities and vanitas. Concealed for many years and then forgotten, this family photograph (Figure 3 below) resurfaced on the late 1990s trip to Vietnam with my father. Even though (and more likely because) it shows great marks of deterioration, it has become one of my most valued possessions. I imagine it as the cover image of my paternal family history that has yet to be written. As a trace, it offers me many revelations. But in doing so, it also creates many more mysteries—glimmers of truth and speculative drifts amid the knowledge that some questions would and could never be answered fully.

Figure 3: Family portrait of Bui Quang Nam, c. 1921Figure 3: Family portrait of Bui Quang Nam, c. 1921

Photographs are compelling in so much as they can be tentative and leave the viewer suspended. But the photographs of this earlier time are distinctively different from what is found in the contemporary world of Vietnam, where idiosyncrasies are commonly touched out of the picture. The aphorism of đẹp khoe, xấu che, or “show the good, hide the bad” is today one of the most salient operating principles in Vietnam, which as an entity has been attempting to reinsert itself into the global scape and promote its best image to the world after having being a non-entity for so many years. Also, through the Vietnamese state’s total control of the country’s media production and display of images, which has successfully used beauty as a regime to hegemonize the population, much conformity and conventionality within modes of representation have been created. Thus, through its difference and sameness, this photograph could throw some light onto how vision and perception have changed historically and culturally.

Taken by an unknown photographer, most likely French or ethnically Chinese, the photograph pictures a family sitting outside in the garden of a villa in the district of Cholon in the French colonial city of Saigon in the region of Cochinchine in the country of Annam in the colony of Indochine in the years right after the First World War. This was the home of the đó́c phủ sư, the district chief of Cochinchine, who happens to be my great grandfather (the same one who my father massaged every day). Later, it was the home of my father as well.

Although it seems clear that this photograph has been arranged, the sitters seem not to have been forced into stock poses and stereotypical expressions. Offered here is a sense of symmetry without coercion. A few of my ancestors look directly into the camera. Others gaze off into the distance, or some seem to be lost in thoughts inside their heads. One of my great aunts looks like she is about to smile. Most of the other sitters carry serious expressions and frowns. One of my great uncles is out of focus. (Funnily, I have been told that this uncle was a wheeler-dealer type, always on the go, and the black sheep of the family.) Each uncle has his own way of holding his fedora, a hat probably too big for his head; one skillfully clutches it by the pinch in its crown, the other cradles it in his arms. The hands and elbows of the parents are like brackets, yet ones that express their different personalities (or at least their degree of ease in front of the camera). The children and their mother wear beaded slippers. Their father crosses his legs and sports a pair of leather lace-up boots. These are the boots that my father remembers helping him put on and take off whenever he would go out to town. (Finding this out finally made some sense of my father’s request that my sister and I—as young girls—help him remove his shoes and socks upon his arrival home from work everyday. We were mortified by this task.) All arms and full bodies are not in view, which could be a source of discomfort for viewers of more contemporary portraits in which not showing the full body is often considered taboo.

Here as well, the photograph shows the handwork of a retoucher. But it is actually a mark of defacement, which anthropologist Michael Taussig considers a “labor of the negative” and argues that through this treatment, the image is imbued with a power, rescued from its otherwise mundane state, made sacred.[5] The insignia on the áo dài (the traditional Vietnamese four-paneled tunic garment with a long history of connection to the scholarly/bourgeois class) of my great-grandparents’ (and their two youngest children) that by design look virtually identical and androgynous, have been directly scraped off the photograph with a thin sharp object, although not so pointedly that the photograph has been punctured. My great grandfather had been known to wear an áo dài with a peacock feather print, but I can’t make out the emblem on this one so the attempt was successful. This defacement was apparently intended to hide the particular status that the symbol marked, but not to destroy the image. I wonder what exactly were the circumstances that made this photograph dangerous enough to need to be damaged. In what year this occurred, I do not know. But it must have been at a time when the specific sartorial symbol mattered and when the imperial hierarchy still had meaning. One thing that we can know—it was probably done with much haste and anxiety. But although the scratching had not been done neatly, the picture meant enough to be saved. It had not been burned to ash.

Its backside reveals only a few scripted words in French, which do not identify anyone, or describe the actual scene. Instead, the subject is the photographic technique—“Bromure visé au sepia”—the tint being, even then, a self-conscious style of making the print seem antique and possessing a “history”. A residual glue and paper around the edges shows that this photograph had been ripped out from its place, which in all likelihood had been in one of my great-grandfather’s five journals (three of which had long been destroyed because of their political content).

Standing almost in the center of the portrait is a ten-year-old girl who wears the same fierce expression that my father shows on his face in a family photograph taken when he was about the same age. She is my grandmother who took her own life thirteen years after this picture had been taken. I had never before seen a picture of her as such a young girl. Why did she look so sullen? So willful? So defiant? So discontented? That kind of an expression would be unthinkable in a contemporary Vietnamese photograph, and would very likely be erased (or defaced) out of existence. But for me, her glower and glare are especially precious and piercing because they reveal something true that I can grasp about her as a person before she became a wife, a mother—vanishing before she could become a grandmother...and then reappearing as an ancestor. It is not easy to reconcile her look in this picture with the calm eyes in her altar portrait. But at least here I can behold her real ear.


Nina Hien is Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow in the Draper Program at New York University.

All photographs provided courtesy of the author.

    1. Crary, 141.return to text

    2. Christian Metz, August 1985, “Photography and Fetish” in October 34, pps.81-90.return to text

    3. Here, I have in mind Georges Bataille’s piece “The Big Toe” and the distinctions he makes between the sacred head and the profane/base foot in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, Allan Stoekl (ed.), (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), pp.20-23.return to text

    4. See Marcel Mauss, “Techniques of the Body” in Economy and Society 2 (1), 1973, 70-88.return to text

    5. Michael Taussig, 1999, Defacement (Stanford: Stanford University Press).return to text