Interview with Photographer Duy-Phuong Le Nguyen

Duy-Phuong Le Nguyen is a Vietnamese photographer who won a Judges Choice and First Place Award in the “Water” category of the Fall 2021 Awards.

In the following interview, Duy-Phuong takes us through the process of his five year project, Holding Water.  In the series, Duy-Phuong’s photos paint a mesmerizing picture of a community of people who live on Tri An Lake, a man-made reservoir in South Vietnam.  

© Duy-Phuong Le Nguyen

Molly Menschel: Can you talk about how this project first began?  You say that you found yourself at Tri An Lake by chance.  How did that first chance visit turn into a project?

Duy-Phuong Le Nguyen: Actually, I already knew that I wanted to conceive a project about water.  My hometown is in the Mekong Delta, so water is in my memories and in my dreams.  When I was a child, I saw people who had died on the river, it was stacked in my mind.  As a child, I usually dreamed about my own death in the water.  

But the color of water in the Delta Mekong, I didn’t like too much because the alluvium makes the color look yellowish and it’s quite dark.  So when I saw a picture of the lake in Tri An, I wanted to visit it.

© Duy-Phuong Le Nguyen

Why did you want to do a project about the people who lived on the lake?

It’s hard to say why I wanted to do the project about the people who lived there.  I think maybe I wanted to do a project that expressed my feelings about water through the daily life of the local people.

And how did you propose the idea of your project to the people who lived there?

First of all, I just took simple portraits of them.  Then I tried to explain the project and I first staged photos with the children, later with the adolescents then the adults, step by step.  When I took the pictures of their children, many local people came to take a look, so they knew what I was doing.  After some time it was quite easy for me to ask the adults to participate in the set of photos.

© Duy-Phuong Le Nguyen

What did you do to gain the trust of the community?

I still remember this from Diane Arbus: “The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed.  The whole point of photographing people is that you are not interested in their lives, only visiting them.  The photographer is super-tourist, an extension of the anthropologist, visiting natives and bringing back news of their exotic doings and strange gear.”  So, when I approached the local people I let them know that I was a photographer and I would like to take pictures of them.

© Duy-Phuong Le Nguyen

In an article about your series in Life Framer, it says that the series “often blurs the line between truth and fiction.”  I love how all of the photographs in the series feel as though they have the intentionality of a fine-art image.  But my understanding is that some of the photos are actually documentary images, and some contain moments that are set up.  I am curious how you found a way to combine staged photographs with documentary photographs within the same series, in a way that feels like they belong together.  Do both kinds of photographs contain the same element of truth?  

When I first came to visit Tri An Lake I saw many of the scenes in my photos.  They were just scenes of daily life but they were real and I observed them with the photographer’s eye.  For me, all of these elements are documentary.

Did you have the concept or vision for the series when you first began, to create a mix of conceived and documentary images?

No, I didn’t have one.  I did research on the works of Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Monica Denevan.  And when I saw and edited my photos from the beginning period (the first year and a half) I knew I had to do something differently.  If not, there was nothing and nobody in the lake during the day if I waited for the moments to happen.

© Duy-Phuong Le Nguyen

Was there an element of collaboration with the photo subjects, either with their giving input on the story you were telling, or during the staging of certain photographs?

Almost all the photos in my series I knew what exactly I had to do, there was very rarely spontaneity involved.  There was the time needed to do research for each photo, and I needed time to live with the local people to find the objects and the people for my set of photos.

© Duy-Phuong Le Nguyen

How did your photo subjects respond to being a part of your project?  Did they understand the meaning behind the series or the value of it? 

No, they didn’t really understand what I did in this series.  And I think they didn’t care much.  But they liked to help me with the set of pictures.  And they felt happy when I took the photographs of them.

How did people react when they saw photos of themselves?

They’ve just liked their portraits pics.  But they didn’t really much like the photos in the series, perhaps because they didn’t really understand what I was doing.

© Duy-Phuong Le Nguyen

In your bio, you say that you “Chose the documentary form despite the fact that in Vietnam, photo-documentary is neither respected nor developed because it is, in Vietnamese minds, tied exclusively to the war and to history.”  Can you explain this further?

When I was in university to study photography I saw many documentary photographers, almost all from The West, in the history of photography course.  So I tried to ask many people around me in Vietnam what they knew or thought about photo-documentary.  Their only association was with the history and the war in the past.  They didn’t even know or didn’t care about the documentation of the city or the country in the present.

© Duy-Phuong Le Nguyen

Another article went on to say, “Simultaneously documentary and works of art, his photographic projects are barely noticed in Vietnam.  A country where the realization of a personal work depicting society is rare and considered of little value.”  It’s so interesting to me that you have dedicated yourself to creating a kind of art that isn’t valued by the culture you are creating it in and about.  

I think I have to do this because I have seen many foreign photographers come to Vietnam and take photographs.  Perhaps they just saw Vietnam from the outside, but why when I’m living in Vietnam and am Vietnamese, I didn’t take these same kinds of photos?  I’m the eyes from Vietnam.

Your bio also says that, “He would like to draw the attention of the Vietnamese people to the changes taking place within themselves and their surroundings.”  How do you do this in a culture where documentary photography is not valued?

Oh!  I always try to move on.  I think we (the Vietnamese) need to know what is happening and how the information that we’re learning in social media is different from what is around us.

© Duy-Phuong Le Nguyen

You’ve won an impressive amount of awards and your work has been exhibited around the world.  What do you see as the value of entering awards, or putting your work out into the world?  And how do you motivate yourself to do this?

Entering awards lets me know the critique – lets me know how my work looks through the eyes of foreigners and through the community of photography around the world.  I think when I apply to contests or do an exhibition, the process, the preparation makes me look clearly at what I have to do and move on.

© Duy-Phuong Le Nguyen

In a 2014 article published in Ain’t-Bad you said: “Three years of comings and goings at the lake; I’m trying to understand the purpose of my work but it’s slipping from my grasp, like water inexorably escapes the hands which want to keep it.  Fragility of the childhood, separation, loss and wait…”  Sometimes as photographers we continue to photograph certain projects, themes or people, without fully understanding why we are drawn to the subject.  Did you eventually feel that you understood the purpose of your own work?  

Holding Water was one of my first photography projects.  (I did my Volatile States project at the same time from 2010).  Realizing a long-term project was completely new to me, as I tried to plan and understand how to transfer my ideas into the real scenes as pictures.

There was a year and a half that I went and came back to Tri An every day.  Just visiting and waiting for the scenes to happen.  But there was nothing because the lake is vast.  In some places during the day there was nobody.  Lately, I can find certain places to return to where I can usually discuss and take photos.

© Duy-Phuong Le Nguyen

I did a lot of research through movies, books, music and photography.

Movies: Buffalo boy, a film of Nguyễn Võ Nghiêm Minh

Books: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Music: Nước cuốn hoa trôi, a vietnamese bolero song by Hồng Vân

Photography: Photo-Project Songs of the river, Portraits from Burma by Monica Denevan

© Duy-Phuong Le Nguyen

Since 2019 I think I’ve known exactly what I felt and I’ve understood the purpose of my work Holding Water.  So I continued to edit the rest of hundreds of photos that I took at Tri-An that I had never touched.  And I had a new look and a new statement.  I can share a bit with you here, this is the new statement of Holding Water so you can know what I’m talking about and how I understand my purpose.

There is one thing of mystery, from 2010 to 2015 I was at the lake taking photos but I never swam in the lake even one time.  One of my last days, I think I tried to swim in this lake.  So, I did, and you know what?  I never have dreams anymore about death in the water.

© Duy-Phuong Le Nguyen

Holding Water is the result of five years work from 2010 – 2015, in which Duy Phuong documented the landscape and lives of communities living on the shores of Tri An Lake in South Vietnam – now the site of a hydroelectric dam.  His poetic and intimate photos reflect on the bond between the people and the land, and the uncertainty that awaits them.  Blending Vietnamese sensibility and French aesthetic, he has the ability to balance form and concept in a way that is both provocative and restrained.

Touching the water, I feel the sensation of it slipping through my hands, the currents flowing warm and cold, cool and pleasant.  Wet marks form on the skin.

Water haunts my dreams.  It has always been a source of obsession since I was a little boy.  In my obscure childhood recollections, water stirs up unsettling feelings.  I found myself in Tri An Lake by chance, the site of one of the biggest hydroelectric dams in the South of Vietnam.  Here, water is the fate of the people.  They are the water and the water is their lives.  It is also their dreams, their hopes and hopelessness.

As my acquaintance with the place deepened, I was allowed to tag along with the people whose lives revolve around the rising and ebbing of the tides.  Somehow my life became interwoven into their daily life and interior world, amidst a sublime and spellbinding background.  Humans, nature and memories appear and vanish, like the glimmering reflections in the river of life.  The lake, with both its dreamlike characteristics and the physicality of its landscapes, merges with the people and their existence, all becoming an oneiric part of my work.  I immersed myself in the waters, carried away by its currents, the way a stranger immerses himself in the life of the local people, carried away by the intimacy and confidence they shared with me.  Water is the spirit that you can only understand by being immersed in its essence.

While conscious of the damage these dams might inflict on the lake communities in the near-future, the locals remain attached to their habitual way of life.  In sharing their personal stories, reality and fiction collided.  As well as illustrating their connection to the water – which has deepened throughout the generations – there is an underlying fear of loss.  The children who grow up here leave seeking new horizons and opportunities that will in turn shape their lives.  Some return altered by the experience, others never return or get swept away by the tides.  Youth is like the water you’ve caught in your hand: it slips through your fingers when you try to hold on.  So be still and let it go.

© Duy-Phuong Le Nguyen

To see the entire Holding Water series you can visit Duy-Phuong’s website. You can find more of his work and his recent exhibitions on Instagram @duyphuong_lenguyen

The Documentary Family Awards is an international competition in search of the insightful and meaningful ways that documentary photographers explore the interpretation of family.