Think pink, even when your life is not

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A young female photographer continues to portray the love expressed between homosexuals in South East Asia


A photo in The Pink Choice's series which feature gay couples enjoying life's simple joys together.

Nguyen Thanh Hai (AKA Maika Elan) gets several Facebook comments a day from friends and strangers. Some are gay, some are straight. Some like her work. Some want to help her.

Hai appreciates the attention. In a way, she has changed Vietnam's entire conception of what it means to be gay and in love.

"Most people would happily stop at [acknowledging the existence of homosexuals] and go no further," she wrote on her page at www.maikaelan.com. "How they live together or love each other remains a taboo all the same."

It all began with a student photo series called "The Pink Choice" (TPC).

The project, she explains on her site, documented the daily life of openly gay couples travelling to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

The 27-year-old freelance photographer from Hanoi says she's only halfway done; she plans to stage an exhibition and release a photo book at the end of 2012.

The project began two years ago, when she attended a 10-day photography workshop in Cambodia. While searching for subjects online, she stumbled across a website called www.pinkchoice.com, a resource for gay and lesbian travelers.

"I found out that there are hotels especially catering to gay and lesbian customers in Cambodia. The discovery astonished my lecturer, who had spent years taking photos in Southeast Asia."

Hai said she was worried about approaching the owners of these "special" hotels. She assumed they would want to remain private and outside the public eye.

"But the hotels' owners shocked me with their stunning hospitality," she said. "I decided to focus on the hotels' guests. They were too natural and happy to be missed," she told Vietweek.

The work she did in Siem Reap made up the first installment of "The Pink Choice." And the positive feedback engendered by her 16 photo series inspired Hai to begin a long-term project in Vietnam's major cities.

She began the second installment of the series in May 2011. Six months later, she received sponsorship from the Danish Cultural Development and Exchange Fund (CDEF).

Born this way

Nguyen Thanh Hai (middle) shot to fame after her double success at the Indochina Media Memorial Foundation (IMMF) an organization established to commemorate the journalists who have died covering conflicts in Indochina since 1945.

She won prizes at the IMMF workshop in 2010 for Best Photo Essay and Best Single Photo for her photos documenting Tuong (Vietnamese opera art).

Her photography career started in 2006 via her love for traveling. Since then, she has participated in photography workshops in Vietnam, Tibet, Thailand and Malaysia.

She also collaborates with many newspapers and magazines as a freelance photojournalist.

She drew her nickname, Maika Elan, from her beloved camera, the Canon Elan, which she received as a gift from a French friend in 2006.

Ultimately, Hai says her project is about changing Vietnam's conception of homosexuals as tragic victims.

Gay tragedy remains a favorite topic in the modern cinema, she said. "These films move people and even make them cry for plight of homosexuals, but they also make audiences think that gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders are born with tears in their eyes."

Agony and sorrow were not her aim.

"A beautiful photo is not as important as the good attitude it can convey to the viewers," she said of her technique.

Instead, Hai's photos focus on gay people enjoying life's simple joys "” hugging, bathing, watching TV or kissing.

Her photos feature bright color, intimate angles and a daring fly-on-the wall presence in lovers' lives. Some of her photos look as though they were quickly stolen with a point-and-shoot. Others draw on dramatic composition and lighting.

In any case, they are unique in Vietnam for the ways in which they reveal homosexual relationships as domestic and dignified.

Her work has quickly spread through Facebook. Friends, fellow photographers and even total strangers have offered to help her. Many online forums, several of which are dedicated to gays and lesbians, spread the project throughout the country.

In many ways, the project seems to have sparked a new kind of dialogue about the issue.

"I think the photos are nice and real," said Phat Phan a close gay friend who prefers to hide his private information. "But what impresses me most is the fact that they dare to make it public."

Dong Ha, a straight script editor for Mekong Film, said that the photos totally changed his feelings about homosexuality.

"The photos portray the hugging and kissing scenes in a sophisticated way. I used to feel allergic to portrayals of homosexual affection in local film and photography. I don't know why, but Maika's photos did not give me the same feeling."

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