Models and photographers involved in nudist body painting in Vietnam are unfazed by prejudiced views as they pursue the art with passion.
She has won national and international acclaim for her portrayal of a "graceful and long-suffering" woman, but Hong Anh was not worried about "sullying" her image by modeling for a nudist body painting collection by photojournalist Phan Quang.
In fact, the Best Actress at the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) 2008 as well as the national Canh dieu vang 2008 (Golden Kite awards) says, "I don't care if people get shocked but I do care if the collection arouses negative attitudes among the audience."
The star of Trang noi day gieng (Moon at the bottom of the well) is aware that "people often think of me as a graceful and suffering woman because I played those types of characters in the movies," but says she used to model for a body painting project before Trang noi day gieng.
"Photographer Phan Quang is doing this for philanthropic purposes and he also wants to introduce the creativity of body painting, a popular art form recognized all over the world but still unfamiliar to the Vietnamese audience," says Anh.
Anh also received warm support from her newlywed husband Nguyen Thanh Son, a businessman and literary critic.
"Son totally supports me because I'm doing this for a good reason. Son's family is also not negative about this. All of the photos publicized had to receive our agreement to ensure there would be no 'sensitive' picture in the collection. Son also helped me finalize some clauses of the contract."
Anh told Thanh Nien Daily she was a bit nervous at first but when she realized how serious the project was, things began to go smoothly.
According to Quang, all the benefits from the exhibition held in March were donated to poor children suffering from heart disease in Binh Dinh Province - his home town.
"I wouldn't have accepted Quang's invitation if it happened to be just an ordinary nudist art collection that merely showcases the body of women. This is real nudist art that features Vietnamese traditional paintings on modern Vietnamese women. In other words, this is a revival of Dong Ho paintings - a distinct Vietnamese folk art - in a modern art form," says Anh.
Although it is still considered a controversial art form in Vietnam, nudist art is not necessarily taboo. Several local stars have launched their nudist art shows in the country for charity purposes including Miss Vietnam Mai Phuong Thuy, Mr. International 2008 Ngo Tien Doan, model-turned-actress Thanh Hang and male singer Cao Thai Son.
Photographer Doan Minh Tuan says nude photography still faces prejudices because the boundary between nude art and pornography is faint.
"If a photographer isn't qualified enough and if he doesn't have a proper conceptualization of what beauty is, he can easily cross over the border! In Vietnam, there are not many photographers who can do 'real' nude photography. There are no regulations but we do need fundamental knowledge of what the art is," he says.
To photographer Huynh Ngoc Dan, emotions that spring up in front of a beautiful model are real but that's just a temporary sentimental moment that is essential in artwork.
Meanwhile, renowned nudist photographer Tran Huy Hoan, who has been taking nude photos for over 30 years, says the artist's prestige and professionalism are crucial in any nude photo collections.
"My clients are normally amateur models; they could be a teacher or an office worker. We've never had a contract before, just oral agreements and we are off! It's all about the prestige and accountability of the artist. Protecting your models is protecting yourself," says Hoan, who never reveals his models' faces and who never agrees to take nude photos of married women.
Photographer Huynh Ngoc Dan has his own criteria.
"Is there any criteria to differentiate between a nudist photo and a pornographic one? I would say 'Yes'. The criteria is, when you launch a piece of nudist art, does your conscience feel guilty?"
Actress Hong Anh and photojournalist Phan Quang.
Dan adds that emotions that spring up in front of a beautiful model are real but that's just a temporary sentimental moment that is essential in artwork.
Hong Anh agrees with Dan.
"Rumors about the relationship between models and artists are sometimes disturbing. It is true that nude photos can be taken by spy cameras and leaked out. However, if you know how to prevent things like this right from the start, that wouldn't be a problem.
"While working with the artists, I can realize how passionate and how serious they are about the project. I have to limit movements and breathing as much as I can and it seems to me that the artists even stop breathing themselves as they draw on my body. We are all sunk in the world of art, and what we know as fleshy temptations or instincts are meaningless because they don't exist," she says.