A secret world between the light and the dark

(No.9, Vol.3, Oct 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

A portrait of Thi Tho photographer. Photo provided by Thi Tho

In 1996, I asked an errant photographic artist MPK in Dalat about the contemporary photographers with whom he took the most interest. MPK replied immediately, ‘Thi Tho’.
In those days, Thi Tho was still single and lived with her parents along with a black-and- white photo enlarger that lay in the corner of the house. Her parents’ home was flooded with cases of refreshments. Perhaps they were dealers for soft drink companies. Thi Tho spoke to me beside her enlarger. She protected the transparencies from moisture by leaving a small electric light bulb on all day. There were no dehumidifiers like they have today. The films were numbered in order and carefully noted. Without hiding anything, Thi Tho showed me the original film. They did not look truly perfect as they do once they are viewed in photographic print. Thi Tho managed the darkroom techniques painstakingly and meticulously.
Thi Tho said, ‘When I first came of age, I studied with a photography teacher in the South. He was a professional photographer and I learned from him a passion for creativity.’ Thi Tho immersed herself in a world of ideas and cravings in which thoughts are transformed into works of art. At first, the works appear difficult to fathom, but although they are hard to comprehend, they cause the viewer to pause and contemplate with questions like ‘Why?’ and ‘How come?’
The photographer Dao Hoa Nu is well-known for photographs that vividly reflect workers’ lives, photographs of romantic young women, photographs of activities familiar to people, and photographs of illusory landscapes. In stark contrast, Thi Tho brought forth contemplative and melancholy works. At that time [the 1990’s], the term ‘conceptual photography’ had yet to enter common usage. Thi Tho’s photographs resembled a discreet, private, contemplative world.
One photograph of a rickety boat was titled ‘Adrift’ by Thi Tho, as if to suggest a metaphor for impoverished fishermen. Another of her famous photographs with the peculiar name ‘Homesickness’ depicts a cemetery with cross after cross until, off in the distance, there is a home. There are many ways to contemplate the photograph. Photographer Phạm Thị Thu expressed to me, ‘It’s as if even all those souls perpetually yearn for the place they had left behind.’
Thi Tho once confided in me, ‘Actually, when I took that photograph, I felt a longing for my home.’
One day, in Hanoi, I received a portfolio of black and white photographic prints, which Thi Tho sent as a gift. At that time, I had already quit working as a photojournalist and had taken up writing. Thi Tho told me that she would soon start a family and that, perhaps, with the endeavour of wifedom, she would desist from creative art. Southern Vietnamese women continue to adhere to the old tradition of prioritizing their concerns on their family.
Time passed. Now, Thi Tho has a daughter, who is already of marriageable age. Thi Tho’s husband is also a photographer. Mr Dzung Nguyen frequently shoulders the housework to allow his wife to embrace her camera and travel throughout Vietnam. Along with a team of Hai Au photographers, she carries out production tours for days on end. Not long ago, Dao Hoa Nu said to me, ‘I’m pleased that Thi Tho is still passionate about photography. From time to time she is able to leave the city, and Thi Tho takes photographs like never before—many new photographs!’
I visited the home of Dzung Nguyen and Thi Tho at the top of Pham Van Hai St. in Tan Binh District near Tan Son Nhat Airport. They renovated the basement of their house into a photography café. Many distinguished photographers in Saigon gifted them their most notable creations for display.
Thi Tho appeared much happier and facile compared to the time she concerned herself with the wedding photography studio.
‘This year in 2012, I won three photography awards,’ Thi Tho related to me. She won second place in a photography competition on the theme of the lotus in Vietnamese culture, the B-prize from the Photographers’ Society of Vietnam on the theme of ‘Mothers,’ and first place in a competition for creations on the countryside held by the Ho Chi Minh City Society for Literature and Art. Thi Tho has also won awards abroad.

Farmers harvesting jute in Thanh Hoa District, Long An Province, near HCMC, 2012.

It looks as though Thi Tho desires to seek out that potent feeling of creation. However, she also notes, ‘Past competitions did not restrict subject matter, so it was possible to submit photographs for participation in competitions in many genres that accepted many styles. Now they hold competitions according to concrete subject matter. For example, in a competition on lotuses, you have to go take pictures of lotuses in order to participate.’
Thi Tho’s award winning photograph depicts a scene of rowing a boat on a lotus pond in the rain. A torrential storm was pouring down, but it was precisely that moment of asperity that brought Thi Tho a potent contrasting image: The lotus continues to extend through the vicissitudes of life.
Conceptual photography is now rather popular on the art scene. People nowadays not only like to view photographs, but also want to reflect on them along with the artists. Photographer Phạm Thị Thu related, ‘In the South in the past, there was an eminent conceptual photographer, Mr Pham Van Mui. In our generation, Thi Tho is one of the successful conceptual photographers. In her photographs, Thi Tho always brings forth some issue from life. Her images may be familiar, but they are impressive.’

Cooking pho (noodle) at a pho restaurant in Bac Ha market, northwestern Vietnam, 2012. Photos: Thi Tho

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