The story of photographer Maika Elan’s award-winning photo essay on the private lives of gay and lesbian people in Vietnam began in Cambodia in 2010.
The Hanoi native – whose real name is Nguyen Thanh Hai – was attending the annual Angkor Photo Festival in Siem Reap, but with the 10-day workshop nearly over she was still struggling to find a subject for her major project. Everything was closed because of the Water Festival holiday.
Searching on the Internet for inspiration she found a site called pinkchoice.com – a kind of Lonely Planet for gay and lesbian people – which led her to a series of gay- and lesbian-friendly hotels in Cambodia.
She had planned to take photos of the hotels’ public spaces but after the owners told her she would have to ask the guests individually for permission to take pictures, she found herself invited into their rooms. The result was a series of much more personal portraits.
Chatting at Phnom Penh’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club over a fresh coconut this week, the 27-year-old, who is now seven months pregnant, says it was this experience that formed the basis of a second project back in Vietnam – named The Pink Choice after the website that got her started – currently being exhibited in Phnom Penh as part of the PhotoPhnomPenh festival.
Elan says that after returning to Vietnam in 2010 she became increasingly aware that the portrayal of gay and lesbian people on television, in newspapers and in films – always negative, stereotyped or tragically sad – never matched up with the gay and lesbian people she knew personally in her life as a commercial photographer.
She also found that while people she met denied being homophobic, they were still repulsed when confronted with images of gay or lesbian people actually kissing or demonstrating affection.
“A few months [after the Angkor Photo Festival] I saw an exhibition about homosexual couples – and it’s a very big exhibition – but in most of the pictures they hide the face or use a mask or turn their back,” she says. “We don’t have a good feeling when you see that picture.”
So she decided to take photos that “show the private moments that don’t make people scared but that make people feel comfortable” – something that had never been done before in Vietnam.
In May 2011, she began approaching gay and lesbian couples – through gay community leaders and friendship networks – about taking their portraits.
Some weren’t keen but a surprising number were enthusiastic about the project. The resulting photos are incredibly intimate, the result of a close connection built up over time.
“Some couples, they don’t mind if you take pictures after you meet just a few times but mostly I went to their homes many times,” she says. “But I didn’t take my camera, I just come and eat dinner or watch TV or something.
“And then I’m looking for what they normally do . . . and then I ask them for a day that I could take their picture. ”
Elan says the reaction to the photos was mixed in Vietnam.
“Of course it always has two sides, some they like, some they don’t like.
“But for me it’s important because before in Vietnam people may like or not but they never talk – and especially they don’t talk in public. But this work they talk a lot about it,” she says.
“I think it’s the first time in Vietnam in the news and newspapers that they talk directly about this topic and discuss about it.”
The Pink Choice was double-awarded for the Best Photo Essay and the Best Single Photo from the Indochina Media Memorial Foundation, was a finalist at the Asian Women Photographers’ Showcase and won first prize for contemporary issues stories at the World Press Photo 2013.
Photos from the exhibition have since been published in print and online magazines in the US, the UK, Germany, Italy, Romania, Spain, China, India and Brazil.
PhotoPhnomPenh festival director Christian Caujolle said The Pink Choice was “one of the most brilliant photo essays” he had seen in recent years.
Apart from being thematically groundbreaking and photographically remarkable, he said it was also very moving.
“For me it’s a kind of serious new documentary photography,” he said. “She totally cuts with all stereotypes about gay people in Asia or Europe or the US.
“There’s a lot of tenderness; very small attitudes, gestures, which are really moving.
“I’m thinking for example about the two gay guys bathing. It’s a kind of a marvel about love. It’s just love. You don’t care about it’s two men or not. To me that’s really moving.
“And it’s a very responsible attitude from Maika, permitting people to feel and to see, those are just people in love.”
He said the viewer could see through the photographs the relationship Elan had with her subjects.
“She just considers them not as a curiosity but normal people,” he said.
“She is happy to have met them and she established an amount of confidence which made the photos possible.”
The Pink Choice is on display at Romeet Contemporary Art Space (#34E, Street 178, Phnom Penh) until December 16.