Maika Elan, spent a year photographing Vietnam’s gay couples in their most intimate moments
Gay people in Vietnam. Why is that an important enough subject to photograph so extensively?
Well, the thing is people in Vietnam there is talk of legalising gay marriage. This would make Vietnam the first Asian country to do so, so it’s a big deal, but I don’t see it happening any time soon. People like to say they are open-minded but they don’t act like it. For example, every time a story about a gay couple is in the press or on TV, either the faces are blurred or they pose with their backs to the camera. And those stories are almost always to do with drugs, AIDS or some sort of sexual scandal.
When it comes to movies, homosexuals are either idealised or, again, presented as sexual deviants. You never see the actual people. You don’t see that they are real people. I thought it’d be nice to change that.
Are you gay?
No, but a lot of my friends are. And they have known from an early age, and they are trying to live their lives as openly as possible. So the hypocrisy still bothers me.
Have you ever witnessed any expressions of homophobia against your friends or subjects?
Nothing too aggressive, but it is still impossible for a gay couple, especially if they are men, to engage in the simplest displays of affection without passers-by pointing at them. It just gets extremely awkward. For instance, I went to the flower market with this couple I was photographing, and they were just walking around holding hands and flowers, and everyone went berserk. A crowd gathered around us, and people kept pointing and saying, “No, you cannot do this here.”
The photos are very personal, and I would imagine that by facing so much prejudice these people would be wary of letting a stranger into their homes. How did you get them to feel so comfortable?
I felt really comfortable. Maybe that’s one reason. Still, just by my being there, in their private space, I disrupted their whole energy. Nothing was absolutely natural any more, and that was annoying. I had to work hard for those glimpses of natural moments; the moments when they accidentally forgot that I was there.
I had to be a little clever, too. So, usually, once I entered a house, I would ask them what the favourite room of their house was or what it is they enjoy doing together most, and then let them go at it while I took pictures. Later, I would say that they could rest and that I wouldn’t be taking any pictures. I would sit in a corner and pretend to do my own thing so they would relax, and that’s when I was really able to photograph them.
Okay. To end with, do you think gay marriage will be getting recognised in Vietnam any time soon?
I don’t really see it happening, no. The problem is that ICS, the organisation I mentioned before, is the only agency catering to LGBT rights. They do so much work, hold all these events to raise awareness and whatnot and they might have the best intentions, but things are naturally at their earliest stage. Some time ago, for instance, they staged a public marriage proposal and wedding in a school. When I contacted the couple, in order to photograph them, turns out they weren’t a real couple; it was only a publicity stunt.
That’s the first time I hear of a publicity stunt with a cause. Why did they not get a real couple?
Maybe they couldn’t find people who wanted to come out in such a public way. Then again, there is this whole bunch of people that agreed to be photographed by me. Go figure.