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Naked truth: nude photography in Vietnam

By: Nguy Ha Posted: August-24-2009 in
The angel, photo by: Thai Phien
Nguy Ha

“Vietnamese nude art is like a neglected and malnourished child,” says famous local photographer Nguyen Thai Phien, author of Vietnam’s first nude photo book and calendar, and potentially the country’s first nude photo exhibitor.

Clinging to traditional Oriental values, Vietnamese people have tended to evaluate the beauty of women through their character, not appearance, and consider Eve in her birthday suit an unsuitable image. Therefore, Vietnam’s nude photography was born into silence as illegitimate, and has yet to be officially recognised and treated the same as other forms of arts, Thai Phien believes.

In almost every national photography contest, top prizes go to landscapes, people’s lives, or the modernisation process, despite nude photos sometimes featuring. In many photo exhibitions, a limited number of nude works occupy a modest space. According to nude art lovers, while some Vietnamese artists have tried to open nude photo exhibitions, local culture watchdog agencies have acted with extreme caution, preferring to ignore the artform.

Since the Hanoi Department of Culture and Information decision in late 2007 to allow Thai Phien to open his nude photo exhibition christened Xuan Thi (Springtime) - the first of its kind in Vietnam - the event has yet to take place due to issues relating to its venue and time. The document, signed in December 2007 by the department’s Deputy Director Tran Quoc Chiem and sent to the photographer, reads “At present, nude art is still a new form for the Vietnamese. As part of the trend towards increased international integration, it is necessary to help shape and develop public aesthetics in step with traditional cultural values, so the population can learn to appreciate and understand this new form of art.”

According to Nguyen Phu Cuong, Deputy Director of the Photography and Fine Arts Department under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the criteria for nude photos include the work exhibiting high aesthetic values, no images of sexual organs and the photographer must have the written consent of the models taking part in official documentation.

Thai Phien says that all the models have already signed their image rights to him, so the images are rightly his, and therefore the issue of consent has already been addressed. “Disclosing the identities of my models would show a lack of respect for them. I can’t betray my models,” he says.

Another artist who has failed in receiving permission to hold a nude photo exhibition is Nguyen Kim Hoang. In a document dating back to April 2007 and signed by Nguyen Tuan Viet, Deputy Director of the Ho Chi Minh City Department of Culture and Information, it states: “The beauty of Vietnamese women is unobtrusive. The photos registered for exhibition were taken in close-up and show a woman’s most sensitive curves, so this planned exhibition does not conform to Vietnam’s fine cultural values.” This bald statement is the closest the Department has to giving a clear reason for their refusal to license Closer a female artist’s nude photo exhibition.

In Kim Hoang’s photos, a woman’s “most sensitive curves” are their chins, arms, shoulders, backs and breasts. “They are beautiful photos of curves. They are not obscene, and are not contrary to any customs. The photos were taken close-up, so maybe this is why the department might have been so cautious,” says Uyen Huy, Vice General Secretary of the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Association.

Many nude art lovers argue the use of the term “fine customs” or “traditional cultural values” is deliberately vague, and is an easy excuse for rejection. If photos of women’s breasts are non-artistic or anti-Vietnamese culture, why have so many photos of topless women from the Central Highland region received awards in international and national contests they argue? “There are many beautiful nude photos by Helmut Newton, Herb Ritts, Nguyen Thai Phien, Tran Huy Hoan, Duong Quoc Dinh…why aren’t we developing nude-related aesthetics for people, especially the young, as many are wrongly entrapped by pornographic material?” said Nguyen Quang Vinh, lecturer at the Hanoi University.

“For the time being, they (officials in charge of licensing nude photo exhibitions) don’t want to take risks. Safety first. They are afraid of potential negative responses to such exhibitions. So, when you receive a document mentioning the term “fine customs”, you soon understand that there is no place for nude photos,” says local photographer Le Quang Chau, who has been advised to delay publishing a photographic book with one section featuring nude photos.

Yet despite exercising extreme caution when licensing nude photo exhibitions, local cultural management agencies have shown signs of flexibility towards the publication of nude photos in the form of books and calendars.

Thai Phien’s first nude photo book was published in November 2007, and after its third reprint, 7,000 copies have been sold. His first nude photo calendar with 5,000 copies debuted in September 2008, and the calendar is slated for reprint in October 2008.

The recent popularity of the book and the calendar has indicated that both the populace and cultural management agencies are becoming more open-minded over nude art, especially nude photography.

Earlier, nude photos by Vietnamese artists sometimes appeared on a limited number of local magazines, including The Gioi Anh (Photo World) and Nhiep Anh (Photography) and online newspapers. Some nude photos have won prizes. The photo named Duoi trang (In the moonlight) by Le Quang Chau won a consolation prize in the 1997 national photography contest, and another photo, Su hai hoa (Harmony) second prize in 2004. With a whole range beautiful nude photos, Thai Phien has been nominated as an Excellent member of the International Federation of Photographic Art.

However, to take nude photos and bring them to the public, Vietnamese artists have had to traverse a long and bumpy road, frequently facing obstacles and accidents. Many photographers, who started to engage in nude art over a decade ago, said the biggest obstacle faced by them was social prejudice.

“When my children went to nursery school, I was Chairman of the Parent’s Association. I didn’t know what my children’s teacher thought of me while I made serious speeches but was well known for nude photography. I don’t know what my wife’s friends think when they view me, as her husband just eating and taking nude photos. What do my wife’s parents think when their son-in-law eats and then takes photos of women’s posteriors? Their glares have left me blushing on many occasions,” says Thai Phien.

Another difficulty faced by many photographers is finding models. Quang Chau said “I have taken photos for 14 years, but until now, I have had less than ten models. In the 1990s, many people regarded nude art as anti-art and talked about it as terrible and degenerate. In addition, the models aren’t professionals, so it’s really hard to take a good photo with a combination of light, shade, colour, combined with spirit, purity and sexiness of models. Sometimes, I have to talk to models for three hours before there’d be willing to take the photos. When everything is ready, they’d refuse to act as the model although they had earlier agreed. They’re sometimes not brave enough to take their clothes off.”

When taking outdoor photos, Thai Phien has experienced a lot of accidents. “One day, when my model and I saw a very nice lotus pond and no one was there, we decided to take photos. After she had stripped and reached the pond, from a distance, an old woman came rowing and shouting ‘Lotus thieves! Lotus thieves!’ The model and I had to run as fast as possible. After some distance, both of us realised that she had nothing on. Luckily, no one saw,” he recalls.

Thai Phien and Quang Chau are lucky photographers because their wives sympathise with their work. “My wife trusts me and she knows that I do it for artistic reasons. She sometimes prepares the backgrounds and lamps for me. She comments upon all of my photos,” said Quang Chau.

Besides experienced professional photographers like Thai Phien and Quang Chau, more and more young people are engaging in either taking nude photos or acting as models. A number of photo sites with nude art sections have been established in recent years.

Nguyen Viet Hung, a member of, said: “We want to master this special art. People worldwide take nude photos, so it’s very difficult to be more creative or to avoid same ideas. Besides, dealing with light, shade and colours, and controlling oneself at the same time is very hard.”

Besides enthusiastic young photographers, a number of girls have voluntarily acted as nude photo models, mainly to preserve their youthful years and support a form of art they adore. Thuy Anh, an 18-year-old student from Hanoi, says “My hip-waist-chest ratio is not perfect, but I think photographers with artistic eyes will help preserve my youthful heyday for a long time.”

Vietnamese photographers’ wholehearted devotion to nude art and their recent success in both national and international photography arenas, as well as the increasing public acceptance of nude photography in Vietnam is amplifying the art’s development.

Licensing nude photo exhibitions is expected to be made easier after 2010, Quang Chau says, noting that Vietnam is busy preparing for the 1000th anniversary of the founding of Hanoi, and perhaps the malnourished child of Vietnamese photographic art will grow stronger in the coming years.

Read more articles by Nguy Ha


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