I learned photography through workshops and forums in Hanoi, Vietnam. This is where I fell in love with documentary-style photography. It had a creative freedom I couldn’t find in other forms. Feeling inspired, in the summer of 2010 I went to a documentary workshop in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Participants had seven days to come up with a project, and five days in I was the only one who didn’t have any pictures. My idea was to do something around culture, and while researching this, I came across a website called thepinkchoice.com, a travel guide for the LGBTQ+ community listing gay-friendly hotels and cities. At the time, I didn’t know much about homosexuality, but I wanted to learn and understand more and I decided to document the people who stayed at these hotels.
When I returned to Vietnam, I learned more about the LGBTQ+ community in Hanoi, and thought about how they were portrayed in the media. Although homosexuality is legal and generally accepted in Vietnam today, there were, and still are, negative stereotypes in TV and film. Gay characters are either tragic or comic, nothing in between. In photography, it was no better. Pictures documenting LGBTQ+ stories hid faces or showed only small details of intimacy, such as holding hands. It made me feel like being gay was a taboo, and I felt these representations didn’t empower the LGBTQ+ community.
The reality was different. My gay friends lived happily and were open about their sexuality. But wider society was only open to a degree. I found that I got negative reactions to pictures I took of gay couples being intimate, which really motivated me to continue with my project. I wanted to show gay relationships in a natural and beautiful way. By capturing couples in familiar, everyday activities, I hoped to open the eyes of Vietnamese society to the intimacy and love that these couples shared.
I met Phan Thi Thuy Vy and Dang Thi Bich Bay, the couple in this picture, through some other people I had photographed for the project. They were university students, full of life and madly in love. Like a lot of the younger couples I met, they weren’t concerned with neighbourhood talk – they were just excited to have their photograph taken. I always spend time with the people I shoot to get to know them a little before taking their picture, and I met Phan and Dang two or three times for coffee before I went to their house, without my camera, to get a feel of their place and how they spent their time.
You have two times when you can naturally capture people: the beginning of the day when they don’t care yet, and the end of the day when they’re most tired. On the day of the shoot, I only had the afternoon, as the two were busy with university much of the time and worked weekend mornings in a coffee shop. The girls were play-acting as soon as I got there – cooking, showering and talking with friends on the phone. I knew the frame I wanted, so I had to be patient. I sat behind the TV, somewhat hidden but able to capture them from different angles. Then, as the sunset lit the room, Dang lay down eating lychees, and Phan came and sat with her. Their tiredness had caught up with them, and as they gently comforted each other, my presence was barely felt: I knew I had the shot.
This was the last picture I took that day, and the final of the whole series. I find the charismatic simplicity of their home powerful, and their young love and carefree nature, not knowing what the future holds, extremely comforting.
Working on the Pink Choice changed me. The couples I photographed gave me strength to not care what other people think. My photos don’t provide all the answers, but I hope that they ignite a curiosity, a feeling that inspires me whenever I start a project – a curiosity to question and learn.
Maika Elan’s CV
Born: Hanoi, Vietnam, 1986
Studied: ‘I learned through workshops and forums – luckily I had some very good mentors, including Phạm Đức Long’
Influences: ‘My father is my biggest inspiration.’
High point: ‘Being able to take pictures of my dad for my series Like My Father.’
Low point: ‘Covid and the lockdowns.’
Top tip: ‘Be curious with the world.’