The Good, the Bad, and the Not Beautiful: In the Street and on the Ground in Vietnam
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Riffling through a pile of photographs at the Ho Chi Minh City Child Welfare Foundation office in 1999, an instructor who taught street children how to take photographs pulled out a portrait of a young schoolgirl. It was taken too close up, he observed. “She was interrupted and has no future. Her life ends here. Everyone has to look out to the future . . . as a photographer you have to leave space for her to grow up.” The figurative was literal.
Flipping through another pile, he eyed a photograph of a young shoeshine boy. Even though the boy sat there in a “beautiful way,” one of the metal rods of the bicycle behind him appeared to bisect his head. “Why would you want to have your body divided?”
These photographs were clearly “unlucky” in a context where photographic images are often thought to have the power to predict, determine, or reveal the future. Photographic images do not just reflect or contain the past; they can also be active producers of things to come.
These shots would never be displayed.
Another one plucked from the stack exposed an old woman with her eyes closed sleeping on a bed in a rundown shack. A dirty cast covered her leg. She might have been dead. In the instructor’s eyes, this was “pessimistic.” It showed poverty and would surely never pass the state censors who screened images for exhibits the public would view.
The last photo selected depicted a middle-aged woman praying in front of her home ancestor altar. The candlelight in the room projects a large shadow on the wall that appears in the shape of some kind of figure. This was “ghostly” and for “superstitious” people it could be “very dangerous,” he said.
These photographs were amid thousands of shots captured by homeless children in a program called Street Vision. Their mission was to “document” their lives and surroundings, but in reality, the bleak parts of their “reality” would never come into view as prints. One boy took an entire roll of gà móng đỏ—“chicken with red nails” (young rural prostitutes working out of restaurants on the edges of the city) when sent out on an assignment to shoot neighborhood children working. The kids often captured sights they had been directed not to photograph, such as depictions of poverty and activities that exposed Vietnamese society in a bad light. These negatives were much too negative, so they were destroyed immediately, never to become even prints. The instructor was worried the children would find these inappropriate despite the fact that they depicted sights that surround them.
All of these images fall into the category of being cấm kỳ (taboo). They are restricted or forbidden because of folk beliefs or state ideologies, which often operate together. They are all considered ugly, although no one may say so directly. Ugly itself is a word to be avoided. It is considered a rude term that can destroy someone’s social face (that is, status and reputation) and irreparably damage social relationships. Because the surface of the face comes attached to inner qualities and character through the common practice of physiognomy (face reading), this damage could go quite deep. Xấu—meaning “ugly”—condemns.
As a Vietnamese word, xấu also means “bad.” In a language known for its nuanced expressions and extensive vocabulary, this conflation seems odd. It is both an inner quality and a surface quality. Its role in compound words adds some of the most negative and dark qualities, those with uncomfortable and extreme social, visceral, and existential consequences, such as “losing face”; “having loose bowels”; being “selfish” or “ill-disposed”; being “weak” in mind, character, and body; being “perverse”; being “unlucky and ill-fated”; and even becoming “dead at a very young age.”
As a solo word, beyond ugly and bad, xấu can mean “plain,” “shameful,” and “poor in quality.” In the dictionary, the sentence that puts it into context reveals much about aesthetics here: “The painting was ugly and found no buyer.” In other words, a visual object that is xấu is undesirable. It has no display or commercial value because it is not beautiful. Ugly makes the bad visible. So even though, and maybe especially because, it is so charged with visuality, it is something that needs to be kept out of sight.
When applied to a person, it is a largely unspoken, unutterable, and omitted adjective. Even the dictionary avoids translating người xấu into English as “an ugly person.” A person who is xấu is instead “plain in appearance.” This phrasing reduces the degree of the ugly to that of being merely common or unadorned or not beautified. The preferable way of describing someone or something as ugly is không đẹp, or “not beautiful”—which negates the beauty rather than asserts the ugly.
In Vietnam, the main reason to take a photograph is to show (and show off) the beauty of a person, a place, or a thing. What is desired of an image is its idealization—a goal or a fantasy. This directive is articulated and enforced best through the timeworn Vietnamese saying that dominates the production of the visual: Đẹp khoe, xấu che. “Show the beautiful, hide the ugly/bad.” Locating and seeing the beautiful, đẹp, is such a strong imperative that even its negation ends up prettier than the xấu. But with its dropping tone, it adds a period and signals an end to discussion. Apparently contemplation of the beautiful needs no additional words.
Because of the supremacy of beauty in the production of the visual, “the ugly”—that is, the sublime, the ironic, the realistic, indeed all the materials of documentary photography—rarely becomes visible. The Street Vision images will likely never escape from their piles. They will be buried forever unless they are destroyed. Every once in a while, though, “ugly” images do surface, sometimes with a well-planned or disguised presence and effect, sometimes unexpectedly. What follows discusses some of these occurrences and exposes some of the mechanisms that enabled them to come into sight.
Photographs of the Great Famine of 1945 (Nàn Đọi 1945)
Photographer: Võ An Ninh
“Do you know that when people are about to starve to death, they go blind?” While showing me his famous famine photographs (in 1999), the ninety-three-year-old photographer Võ An Ninh attempted to rattle me. “Are you scared?” he asked. He shot these emaciated people and piles of bones on the road to Thái Binh (a hundred and ten kilometers from Hà Nội) on one of his bicycle trips through the country. This famine, which killed almost one million northerners, was both a natural disaster and a man-made one—the result of severe flooding combined with the mismanagement of rice production and stockpiling by the French and the Japanese. It is often credited as a pivotal event in the arrival of national independence.
At the time, these photographs circulated in the southern colony of Cochinchine and raised more than a million piasters from southerners in a remarkable gesture of charity and humanity toward their northern counterparts. The images then became one of the most powerful collections of anti-imperialist propaganda in the quest to become a nation. The figures became the poster children for the cruelty, inhumanity, and incompetence of foreign invaders. Still being used in the 1990s in museums, they were displayed with a cart that had been used to haul away dead bodies. To frighten me even more, Võ An Ninh told me a story about a cart driver who would snatch up living people. “You are about to die anyway,” he would say as he threw them into the cart.
Some Vietnamese photographers consider these images to be the only existing examples of good social documentary. Võ An Ninh had also taken what was perhaps the most rare and sacred “spot-news” photograph in Vietnamese history—a shot of Hồ Chí Minh minutes after reading the Declaration of Independence in 1945 (the same year as the famine). It shows the leader sitting beside General Võ Nguyên Giáp in the backseat of a car. Normally, it was too dangerous for the two of them even to be in the same place at the same time, let alone be shown together.
Oddly (and ludicrously), Võ An Ninh denied that his photographs were political. He claimed he wasn’t responsible for how they were used. And funnily, although he became a legend for these photographs and went down in history as a founding father of Vietnamese photography, his role as an art photographer who produced beautiful views and landscapes of the colony and nation is what shaped the archetype of the Vietnamese photographer.
He himself emphasized his landscapes, which reflected his painterly conception of the craft, but employing photography’s capacity to express time, he aimed to capture the perfect moments of natural and spiritual unity, such as when the clouds and the mountains “hugged.” This unification motif extended to the quest to depict national unity. The photographer was the figure to do so by traversing the land and regions that comprised the country and nation from tip to toe—literally and figuratively unifying it through his soles and producing and reproducing the land and its beauty. Apparently, the national soul could be captured best through its soil. In the same year that Võ An Ninh took the gruesome famine photographs up north, he had been shooting vistas of the scenic and peaceful sand dunes of Mũi Né in the south.
War Time Photos (Ảnh Chiến Tranh)
Photographer: Lâm Tấn Tài
Honest and progressive in his thoughts, Hồ Chí Minh City Photographic Association President Lâm Tấn Tài, who was born deep in the south (Đông Tháp Province) but supported the northern troops in the Vietnam-American War, lamented over what he considered to be the biggest “mistake” of Vietnamese photography: glossing over the ugly realities of war. To him, photography had blown its golden moment.
Most Vietnamese war photography does not reveal the gritty and gripping hardships that often define the practice of war photography in other countries. Predisposed against documentary and spot news—events occurring in real time that journalists are capturing it as it unfolds—which often show brutality, injustice, and violence with a sharp, graphic, and visceral content, Vietnamese photographers rarely intentionally allow this ugliness to enter the frame. I have been told that photos can physically “hurt the eyes.”
Rather, projecting an ideal future is the goal, and this vision is achieved by staging scenes. Many war photographs feature smiling soldiers in bombed-out ruins or scenes of laughter and joviality among comrades on the trail. According to Tài, however, this is a deceptive kind of beauty—one where its appearance lacks the moral partners of truth and virtue. The suffering and sacrifices rarely became captured and preserved on film. Therefore, the northern/national victory ended up hollow because it could not be fully felt and remembered.
In his opinion, the obvious rationale that state restrictions forbade the shooting of ongoing battle scenes and wounded soldiers (for fear that this evidence would reveal the weaknesses of the troops, undermine morale, and, if enlarged, expose locations to the enemy) is not the only reason photographers seek to set up and record only beautiful sights and objects. He believed a strong collective Vietnamese sentimentality underlies the avoidance of ugly realities and the compulsion to produce beautiful ideal types.
A few months before he died, of cancer of the tongue, Tài generously gave me his newly printed book of war photographs taken from 1965 to 1975. With much difficulty speaking, he pointed to the three of them that made him feel the most proud.
The first one took me by surprise. It was a close-up of a young mother holding her baby. She is looking down as her son gazes up to the sky. It is softly lit, naturally beautiful, and quite spiritual. Based on our earlier discussions, it is not what I expected, but I guessed that it showed his conception of real beauty—accompanied by truth and virtue. Perhaps he showed this to me first to lessen the impact of the following shot, which revealed a dead young guerrilla named Nguyễn Văn Tâm. According to the caption, the soldier had been “tortured, emboweled [sic], and shot in the face” by “enemy soldiers” in the south, in Tân An Hội, Củ Chi. The small, gruesome photograph appears at the bottom of the page in a collage-style layout that in some way helps to bury or camouflage it despite the fact that the missile in the photograph above points directly downward at it, as an arrow would.
The final image was an utterly mundane-looking snapshot. Again, I was curious why Tài selected to show me this particular one from hundreds. The apricot-blossom branches and the title, Saigon in the Spring of 1973, made it appear as a simple New Year’s spring picture. However, the hats/helmets and their insignias on the table reveal that a meeting between the North and South was going on in a nearby room. The photo indicates that the Vietnam-US War was not just a war between Vietnamese and foreign aggressors. Rather, it was a civil war, but this was a fact that had been erased in official historical accounts by the ruling regime for national unification. Symbolically, it worked to expose a political reality that was being covered up. It did so by using “beauty” and a typical motif (an apricot blossom in a vase) as a diversion. Tài told me he was surprised that this photo had passed state censors. Afterward, I was told by another photographer that this image was “daring.”
Street Mannequin Series
Photographer: Bùi Xuấn Huy
At the beginning of 2001, a new figure in the Hồ Chí Minh City image world appeared. In “A New Character on the Street,” in the Sunday edition of the The Worker newspaper (Lao Động Chủ Nhật), the art writer and critic Hoàng Hưng introduced the photographer Bùi Xuân Huy as one who “shot a series of mannequins (ma-nơ-canh) in his way: randomly, not set up, showing the richness and abundance of street activity . . . mannequins are characters that have obsessed him in these times when fashion has been imposing itself on the spiritual and material activities in Vietnamese cities.” Not only had a new figure been observed, but also appearing, ever so quietly, was a form of social documentary, street photography, and critical thinking.
These imitation human beings caught Huy’s attention as he navigated the city on his small, dark blue vintage Lambretta. “It just happened one day on my way to work when I suddenly noticed how many fashion shops had appeared in the city,” he said. “All of them had mannequins on display, trapped behind glass doors, chained on the streets and sidewalks.” In shooting them, he said, he was responding to the transformations of the city that were occurring in front of him through a new way of seeing that had been influenced by several trips to study in the United States in the mid-late 1990s.
Huy had long been a street photographer, but of another sort in another era. In the late 1970s, after receiving a camera from his brother in France, skinny and hungry Huy earned a living shooting photos of the families who remained in Vietnam. Many of them wanted photographs to send abroad in order to keep alive connections with relatives. The photos would prove that family members, although malnourished, were still alive. It was also a way to display their thin frames so that relatives abroad would send them money for food.
Now, as a different kind of street photographer, Huy photographs mannequins as one of his subjects. They have become vessels for his ironic expressions that attempt to show the massive changes facing this city and also the country by illuminating the disjuncture between the material and the spiritual; tenses of time; institutions and hierarchies; social and individual bodies; and the struggles of being a Vietnamese subject without having any clear models or sense of purpose . . . all the while poking fun at fashion and aesthetics and throwing Vietnamese values and identities into question. For Huy, even though female mannequins might look Caucasian, they are not racially marked and can stand in for any human being living in this city. One viewer of this series remarked that their “faces are like foreigners,” which could mean either that she viewed them as Westerners or that they appeared to be strangers in their own environment. Here, the female also loses her conventional feminine beauty and becomes somewhat androgynous.
Huy’s mannequins have been imbued with a life beyond their otherwise zombielike existence. They reflect the creative frustration and powerlessness that many artists and intellectuals were and are feeling and experiencing. They are “like people who were dressed up but could not be themselves. They were told to be not what they wanted to be,” said Huy.
Huy juxtaposes the mannequins with traditional forms and institutions, a method that best expresses their constraints. One such image depicts two mannequins standing on both sides of a storefront like a pair of Buddhas welcoming visitors into a temple. The back and rear end of one of them face the building where sticks of lit incense jut out from a small altar. The character is shown as either oblivious to or disrespectful of this sacred practice.
They also become perfect figures to throw into question the institution of high art in Vietnam. At a photography exhibit in the Reunification Palace, in Ho Chi Minh City, two of them stand in front of a sign for the Ho Chi Minh City Institute of Fine Arts: “Hội Mỹ Thuật TP. Hồ Chí Minh.” One of them is painted gold and wears a version of a Chinese cheongsam that is made with a primitive print fabric. The other is a white mannequin that models an áo dài, thus marking her as Vietnamese. Both of them look toward a photograph depicting a contemporary Vietnamese woman with eyes closed who wears a mini-dress. She lounges in a seductive way while advertising Nghệ Thuật 1999, “Art 1999.” Her photo, cut into slats, promotes a new kind of lamination and display. Appearing simultaneously fragmented and unified, some people would find taboo her closed eyes and segmented body. Clearly these mannequins seem more active than the modern Vietnamese woman, who is asleep (or dead?). In this “unification” palace, the unity of the Vietnamese subject is being challenged, as is the meaning of fine art. Both of them are shown with obvious fissures.
The mannequins are like people who lack expressive powers—“trapped” and “chained.” Here, the coercive structure is marriage, along with its rituals. Dressed in white wedding gowns, they are captive in the glass display windows of bridal shops and photography studios. They become “married” to the reflections that are superimposed on them from the street and the neighborhood. Electric-power lines figuratively bisect their heads. Again, certain taboo representational modes show up.
Another shot shows a mannequin couple standing next to each other. They wear plain, unfashionable street clothes. No interaction is going on between them. They are positioned next to a shop that inscribes tombstones with portraits of dead people.
Despite a seeming lack of power, however, Huy’s mannequins hold some potential for movement. He writes:
When I saw the mannequins, they seemed like the people I saw around me in the city, always waiting for something or someone, always on the go. Few seemed to look at each other or they look at each other as if strangers. Through this series, I want to document and comment on this contradictory mix of anticipation and alienation that has become urban life in Vietnam: the advertisement of possibility and the alienation of self.
Evoking some of the paradoxical experiences of modernity, these figures in their awakenings engage the complex relationships involving ideals and ideal types, beauty, posing, staging, street life, realism, and alienation, and suggest the arrival of new dilemmas, positions, and subjectivities as well as new ways of documenting them that don’t flaunt the ugly.
Posteriors and Posterity
All of the photographs displayed above have some relationship to conventional ideals of beauty that dominate the Vietnamese image-scape. “The ugly” seems to depend on its opposite. Whereas the beautiful is shown in an upward and outward direction, to the sky and to the future, the ugly points downward to the ground and to the street, in the past (or in the past present). Whereas the beautiful is frequently exclaimed, the ugly goes unspoken. Whereas good photographs are projections and visions of what is desired, bad ones reveal personal and political pasts that need erasing or a present that needs ignoring. Sometimes, though, traces of ugliness surface unexpectedly on their own.
This final photograph appeared around the year 2001 in a shop on Lê Công Kiều Street, the city’s antique alley, where roving pickers and hawkers cart boxes of old photographs they have unearthed to sell. Occasionally visual histories of entire families are buried in them, which is unnerving because many consider photographs as conduits of sympathetic magic. Most people would rather destroy their photographs than let them fall into the wrong hands. For these even to be here, then, suggests that some family tragedy has occurred. Their presence is haunting.
This one, an odd little black-and-white photograph of a crippled man crawling in the dirt by the side of the road, pushing a beggar’s bowl, is particularly so. The face of the man will never be known. His back and behind are what confront the camera and the viewer. His deformed left arm curves around his neck; socks with holes reveal dirty heels. From this angle, the man is shown moving into the past. He crawls into the background of the photograph with the flow of the vehicles on the road. In this context, showing a backside is impolite. Literally and figuratively, the man has been defaced.
The only face present is the blurry one of a pedi-cab (xích lô) driver rolling by who turns back to look. Facing the camera, he becomes another witness to the scene. His gaze turns the act into a spectacle and further verification that this exists.
I have seen very few photographs that express pessimism so deliberately. The scene is undeniably located in Vietnam because the xích lô driver is an icon that represents the country as a symbol of honor—a disempowered, but resilient, working man. On the other hand, the figure of a beggar is a taboo subject that reveals the country’s poverty at its worst. It symbolizes a loss of family, a loss of masculine power, a loss of income: basically, a loss of identity—the worst thing that can happen to anyone. It is an indicator that economically, socially, and, therefore, politically, all is not well here. Beggars are walking (or crawling) national embarrassments because they are so utterly visible to everyone.
The composition, the angle, and the subject: all of these elements make the photograph unusual. It even seemed out of place even in the box where I spotted it. It was not old and from another time. It did not fall into any recognizable contemporary genre of Vietnamese photography. It is ironic. It is political. It is realistic. And it exposes the most shameful side of Vietnamese society.
The photo reveals a lot on its backside as well. It has been signed on the front, but on the back, in blue ballpoint ink, a title and the photographer’s name and date are carefully and beautifully inscribed: “Hùynh .n. Dãm 1989.” Where is Mr. Dãm now, and how did his photograph end up in the box? This haunts me.
The title, Dấu Vết, follows a tiny hand-printed square with a dot in the middle (perhaps an icon for a camera). It means “a trace” or “a vestige,” which indicates the presence of a person or something that no longer exists. “Vết chân” is the word for footprint and “vết máu” is a bloodstain. “Vết” also means “flaw” and “defect,” and is commonly used in conjunction with other words to designate negative marks on the body, such as wrinkles, blemishes, and wounds, or a mark on the earth, like a rut. Although this photograph is an isolated object, disconnected from its context, its intention can be clearly inferred by its marks. The word for the category of idiosyncratic marks on someone’s face that appears on official identification cards carried by all citizens is the same word in Vietnamese. “Dấu vết riêng” (individual marks) are the little signs that define a person as an individual. A trace is a presence of life of something past, a physiognomic marking, and in this context perhaps a sign of future fate.
The thoughtful signature and the insignia make it clear that this photograph wasn’t simply a snapshot; it was an act of disruption by someone with a different kind of vision. And even though this one expression may have been meant for the eyes of only a few, this small vestige and mark offers an alternative to the record of official Vietnamese history.
Unfortunately, when I showed around the photograph, it provoked very little positive response, even by people most critical of the lack of realism in Vietnamese images. “It’s ugly,” they said. “How strange,” they said. “The composition isn’t any good,” they said. “It isn’t worth the price of paper and printing material,” they said. It didn’t depict anything they hadn’t seen before. It was too common, ugly, and real a sight and therefore not worthy of representation.
Nina Hien has a PhD in cultural anthropology from Cornell University. She is a visiting scholar at New York University and teaches at CUNY. Her research focuses on visual and media studies in Vietnam and the United States. Recent publications include “Photo Retoucher” in the book Figures of Southeast Asian Modernity (2013) and "Ho Chi Minh City's Beauty Regime: Haptic Technologies of the Self in the New Millennium" in Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique journal (Spring 2012). An article about Vietnamese sand dune photography is forthcoming in the journal Visual Anthropology.