The English poet John Keats wrote in his Ode on a Grecian Urn, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” which is a philosophy Thai Phien subscribes to.
Despite a strong social bias against his trade, Thai Phien has spent 15 years shooting nude photos in a bid to prove his personal motto, Beauty is Truth.
“I am a passionate traveler who was sentenced to life imprisonment by beauty,” Phien said when he launched “Springtime”, a collection of his works and also Vietnam’s first nude photo book, in December.
Nude photos have been shown occasionally in Vietnamese publications.
But in a country where Confucianism still holds sway, nude photographers always have to cope with a constant social prejudice.
There have only been six such photographers in Vietnam, and one of these was killed several years ago by a model’s fiance.
“I feel like a thief sometimes, taking photographs stealthily with models in a hotel room with ears at the door, apprehensive of someone knocking. Under such pressure, it’s hard to be creative,” Phien says.
The book, as well as his plan of an exhibition of his nude photos, will “bring back the justice” that the genre deserves.
“Wouldn’t you be hurt if you gave birth to an angel but the rest of the world called her a whore? That’s been the fate of my photos. My book and exhibition will help me wash out this insult.”
Many other photographers have taken nude photos but felt obliged to squirrel them away, waiting for a time when the social prejudice has eased.
Championing the Female Form
Phien, however, cannot wait.
“A photographer needs to show his works. There’s no point in taking photos just to hide them away.”
Phien hangs his nude photos on the walls of his house in a small alley in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City, so his children can see “what art is.”
His wife was not happy at first, but Phien persuaded her that the kids in fact should see more nude photos.
“If they understand this real art, they’ll naturally avoid porn web sites,” he says.
The whole society should benefit from this approach too, Phien reasons. “Growing more flowers will help eliminate weeds.”
He has also found ways to show his work to the world, one of which is to send them to international contests.
His works have been printed in many foreign publications.
“Once a book that had my photos was sent to me from abroad,” Phien recalls.
“The customs refused to let me receive it. I had to ask the Vietnam Association of Photographic Artists for help.”
Phien never accepts women’s payment for his nude shots of them.
He even rejected a US$7,500 offer to sponsor his printing of the book because the donor company wanted to show its logo in the book and its products in his exhibition.
The book of 71 photos still came out in December thanks to his wife. (“She did not ask for any logo.”) It became a best-selling phenomena.
Meanwhile, the planned exhibition has not been so lucky, having been delayed twice.
The last setback came in December, because the bureaucrats of the Hanoi Department of Culture and Information did not think the ‘right time’ had come.
Thai Phien, meanwhile, continues taking non-nude photos for art and travel publications to feed his family and foster his life’s passion.