Singaporean researcher Zhuang Wubin is a well-known critic on photography in Southeast Asia who has curated various photography exhibitions in the region. He has recently shared his view on Vietnamese contemporary photography with Nguyen Nhu Huy, the artistic director of ZeroStation [www.zerostationvn.org].
Could youtell us about the Vietnamese photography you have researched so far and what you will introduce in your book?
I divided my research on Viet Nam into five parts. Firstly, I focused on photography in the north, where I surveyed the narrative and socio-cultural framework of "official" photography history in Viet Nam and attempted to temper it with other possible narratives that contrast in terms of region and photographic approach. In the second part, I examined the emergence of a "different" kind of photography that exists partially beyond the official narrative, led by Bui Xuan Huy.
In the third part, I mentioned overseas Vietnamese artists; the ways they use photographic materials and why they appeal to foreign curators more than domestic artists. In the fourth part, I focused on locally trained artists who work in a more conceptual manner and who have taken longer to emerge on the global stage. For this part I divided my focus towards HCM City, Ha Noi and Hue, which has emerged very recently as a focus of contemporary art, even though it had served as a centre of art and culture in the past.
In the final part of the book, I ended with a closer look at the documentary photographers in Ha Noi who have experienced the wars, and even younger practitioners who are influenced by the web and better sources of reference and so can tackle more sensitive issues, facing occasional censure.
What do you think about young Vietnamese photographers, their capabilities and their appearance to the rest of the world?
I think being familiar with global art structures is a real challenge for them. In 2006, Lee Kwan Yew claimed that one of Viet Nam's biggest challenges, together with having an imbalanced education structure, was a low capability of English. However, things have changed over time and the world is taking more notice. As you know, Maika Elan recently won an important international prize from the World Press Photo 2013 (WPP). She has proved that not only overseas Vietnamese artists can engage in global art space at a high level. I think any people interested in Viet Nam's photography think that way. I can confirm that Maika Elan's success has not only boosted the development of Vietnamese photography, but also the wider region's. Her accomplishment showed that Vietnamese cultural productions can compete with the best in the world. But I wish to stress one thing. Maika did not come from nowhere. She has a good body of work and has worked very hard. But there are photographers before her that have done Viet Nam proud whose names are not so well known internationally. I have no doubt about the talents of Lam Tan Tai, Bui Xuan Huy or Phan Cong Thuc and more lately Bui Huu Phuoc, Lam Hieu Thuan, Ngo Dinh Truc and Phan Quang. They are all special in their own ways. In his golden period time, photographer Vo An Ninh was very successful.
Nguyen The Son from Ha Noi, trained in China and is also doing great work. Nguyen Hoai Linh in Ha Noi has persisted for many years with long-form documentary work. Truong Thien and Phan Hai Bang from Hue are innovating photography in the central region.
As a researcher, could you comment on the characteristics of Vietnamese photography?
It is impossible to say because I would be generalising and I always resist the temptation of making such macro claims about anywhere. People often compare photos to paintings. But while we can say the impressionists were interested in rendering light, I don't think it is possible to make such overarching claims for photography because the medium is mobile and fast. By that nature, the practice of photography can only be individualised.
If we want to talk about the potential of Vietnamese photography, either documentary or conceptual, I can only return to my initial starting point. Viet Nam is a massive cultural entity. There's no way it will cease to have cultural workers, including photographers who have the potential to be great. The only issue is whether the environment allows them to be great. — VNS