By JESSICA JULIAO
This is the second in our series of interviews conducted by emerging photographers and CIIS students Jessica Juliao and Collette McGruder, featuring artists whose works are part of En Foco/In Focus. This exhibition, which opens Jan. 22, 2013, at CIIS, includes 56 images by 48 artists, selected from the permanent collection of En Foco, a New York-based non-profit dedicated to cultural diversity in photography.
Jessica spoke with artist Pipo Nguyen-Duy about his project, Assimulation, as well as immigration, identity, and falling in and out of love with the medium of photography.
Assimulation…simulation…assimilation…This play on words immediately engaged my curiousity, which only grew upon seeing Pipo Nguyen-Duy’s, "The Madonna and Child," a piece exploring the intersections of gender and race. Pipo’s determination to create a series that takes on these sensitive issues spoke volumes to me; I admire both his photographs and his will to challenge cultural assumptions. That he places himself in these carefully constructed images adds for me an element of intimacy.
Jessica Juliao: You mentioned in a brief introduction to your work that we are living in an exciting time in photography where there are many ways of producing and exchanging an image, from iPhones, to Photoshop, etc. How much of your work is done in a purely traditional manner and how does preserving those practices in your work challenge your workflow?
Pipo Nguyen-Duy: To tell you the truth, I am pretty fluent in digital media, but for some reason I have been holding onto film. I shoot with a 4x5 film camera currently, so my workflow does take a lot of time. It can be inconvenient at times and I have to make sure that my film does not get exposed to too much humidity when working in the tropics [Vietnam]; however, I do enjoy the magic of just waiting to see how my photographs turn out. For me, I really love that discovery, and in most cases, it’s just complete failure! You sometimes say, oh man, I wish I shot it digitally! After working in Vietnam for the past 5 months I came home and told myself that next time I will shoot it digitally, but at the same time I know that—in reality—I won’t.
JJ: In looking over your projects I was immediately drawn into your Assimulation series for its interpretation of iconic Renaissance and Baroque paintings. You seem to provoke questions of gender and race as well as self and cultural identity. How was this process for you in terms of preparing each scene and assuming the roles of these icons yourself?
PND: I do not look at those images of myself as myself. I just look at that person as a subject. For me to dress up as a woman there has to be a certain level of professionalism and detachment. I think about what I can do to hold an audience and how I can perform this. At the same time, that series created a lot of problems for me within my community. I remember when I came back to visit California and that series had come out, it made the front page of the Vietnamese newspaper, talking about this person bringing shame to the whole community. Dealing with subject matter like gender identity was not easily accepted. This series was about race, gender, and culture and how one adjusts to a new culture, specifically my adjustment as an Asian man to Western culture. In the "Madonna" I address the stereotype of the Asian male, almost always pictured either as a kung fu master or feminized. So for me to be a Madonna or a Medusa was just to negate that stereotype. Thinking about coming here as a Vietnamese refugee and getting dismissed by the culture and then all of a sudden to have this power to participate and to talk about the kind of issues that I was concerned with, it was an empowering experience.
JJ: Is there a piece that you connect more with than the others from that series and why?
PND: You know, when I think about that series it takes me back to where I was in my life. The baby I held in "The Madonna" was actually my first son, and so it is very important to me. He was only three months old when I took it. When I go back and reflect on this series, it takes me back to that specific place and time. I am reminded of what was happening for me during that series: starting my family, receiving my first grant, borrowing the traditional dress from my friend Judy, etc. That history is what makes the images special and why I connect more to one piece than another.
JJ: In speaking of your work and the level of connection you have with your images, you mentioned that it is like a relationship, finding that first interest in a subject before going forward. Can you speak more about that? Is there a specific project you produced in which the “relationship” you were forming turned into a break-up? When do you know when to move forward and when to let go?
PND: I think it is not just about the images. For me, photography has been one of those forced marriages. I mean, I fell in love and of course you are never in love for too long. Eventually you hate your partner from time to time and then you fall in love all over again. And so for me what is really magical, and what really keeps reminding me of the beauty of what we do are the stories that are connected to [our work]. It’s not just about the image, but it is also about how they are made. For example, I am much more connected to my experience of riding my motorcycle down to the countryside [in Vietnam] and working with the school children, and I remember the specificity of the location. And those things are more important than what the images look like.
JJ: It is great to hear you say that because I think sometimes we forget to experience everything that goes into creating an image.
PND: As time goes by there are moments that my relationship or your relationship to the work that you have done has changed. You get smarter and you begin to make different connections. It’s also about the thinking process, and the way that it keeps me up at night. It’s not all about the success anymore but about going back to the way you felt when you first spent hours in the darkroom, connecting and obsessing over your work. Once you make the transition from an amateur to a professional you can loose touch with that once magical place that kept you up at night.
JJ: I see that your work is carefully crafted; some projects can take years to complete, requiring a lot of patience. I am a fashion photographer working in a field where time is money and results are sometime forced out. Can you speak about your pace and how that has allowed you perfect your projects and evolve and grow as an artist?
PND: I do have deadlines but I work on multiple projects at a time, so there is never time to rest. That being said, there is a difference in your workflow and mine. In fashion there is a collaborative element with your make-up people, models, hair, scouting locations etc. I can understand staging and having that control, but in some of my images there is a constant change of schedule and urgency to get the image. While photographing children in Vietnam, I had about 5 or 10 minutes to get the photo because I was constantly being watched and could be arrested for taking the photographs. As you know, in the way that you work as well, you rehearse the images in your head for so long, that once you are in front of those things, you have a sense of what you want and just hope that everything will just flow together.