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​Obtaining permits for nude photo exhibitions no easy task in Vietnam

Saturday, December 16, 2017, 07:15 GMT+7
​Obtaining permits for nude photo exhibitions no easy task in Vietnam
Veteran nude photographer Thai Phien (right) adjusts a model’s posture in his studio in this photo provided by the artist

Being granted a license for artistic nude photo exhibitions remains a far-fetched dream for most artists.

Celebrated Vietnamese photographers such as Le Quang Chau and Thai Phien are no strangers to the feeling of being denied permits to hold nude photo exhibitions.

Though Phien did eventually succeed in earning approval to publish a book of his new photos, the artist’s relentless efforts to gain approval for an exhibition fell short.

Recounting his efforts to Tuoi Tre (Youth) reporters, the veteran photographer shared that he submitted his first application in November 2007, hoping authorities would allow him to exhibit his oeuvre in Hanoi.

His Xuan Thi (Women’s Youth) collection was approved for the exhibition by the city’s ‘art council’ and then-deputy director of the municipal Department of culture and Information Tran Quoc Chien signed the permit.

By the time Phien had printed event invites and transported his photos from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, media attention and public opinion had forced authorities to rethink their approval.

The culture department, under pressure from vehement public opposition, sought intervention from the Vietnam Association of Photographic Artists (VAPA), who suggested Phien postpone the exhibit.

Eventually, the artist’s determination paid off and the permit application was fully processed.

“I was elated to be holding the country’s license for the first-ever all-nude photo,” Phien recalled.

A work from Thai Phien’s Xuan thi (Women’s youth) collection.
A work from Thai Phien’s Xuan thi (Women’s youth) collection.

Finding venues, however, proved futile in the relatively conservative city and under the advisement of a friend and local culture authority, Phien decided to try his luck elsewhere.

Phien tried again in January 2008, but this time selected and hired the venue before applying for a permit from Hanoi’s then-Department of Culture and Information for the same collection for which he had previously been approved.

The application was rejected without a second though under the premise that the current social climate, including an accident during the construction of the Can Tho Bridge that claimed 55 lives, the bird flu epidemic, and economic instability.

The negative response came as another crippling blow to Phien.

In his third attempt, two of Phien’s friends who held key positions in an artistic association in the central province of Thua Thien - Hue offered to help Phien obtain a license. 

In the end, however, the provincial Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism stepped-in and turned down the application without citing a reason.

A work by Thai Phien
A work by Thai Phien

Illegally running showcase

Hanoi-based photographer Le Quang Chau shared his own struggle with applying for an exhibition permit in 2012.

“I’ve had enough of the authorities’ administration and evaluation,” he lamented.

According to Vi Kien Thanh, director of the Authority of Photography and Exhibition, the agency selected 120 of Chau’s pieces where models’ faces could not be seen clearly before seeking consent from the then-Minister Hoang Tuan Anh.

Anh response was a request that Chau’s exhibition be put aside in the wake of a recent scandal involving the Performing Arts Department.

Chau’s colleague, Dung Art, faced similar obstacles in acquiring a license.

The Hanoi Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism proposed he obtain consensus from the municipal Photographic Artist Association. 

The association avoided responding to Art’s request for nearly a month before he decided to give up.

Not deterred by Chau’s failed illegal exhibiting attempt, Dung Art decided to take a risk and hold an underground showcase in Hanoi. 

The artists announced through a Facebook event page that nearly 40 of his artistic nude photos themed Di Dem (Furtive) would be on view.

“I was on tenterhooks and could not help thinking about the consequences if detected. I went ahead anyways,” Dung Art recounted.

The ‘illegitimate’ exhibit was packed with visitors for four days.

One week later, an inspector from the municipal Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism requested that Dung Art write a report on the incident.

About a month later, Dung Art took his unlicensed display to Ho Chi Minh City where it was a resounding success.

A work by photographer Dung Art.
A work by photographer Dung Art.

Overcoming prejudices

Photographer Do Anh Tuan was among those hooked on artistic nude photos when the genre was still in its infancy in Vietnam. 

“Nude photography was considered a sin. Back in the 1980s, a nude photographer was put in prison and his work was branded as pornographic,” Tuan recalled.

“Social stigmas lingered into the early 1990s. Nude photographers like me were considered lewd,” he added.

“I wish to accentuate the charm hidden in women when they aren’t wearing clothes,” Dung Art shared, adding he has spent time capturing their beauty in ao dai, a traditional Vietnamese long gown.

He kept his wife and children in the dark about his practice, as photographers’ wives tended to suspect sexual affairs between their husbands and the naked models, especially when alone in the studio.

“I kept the stunning nude photos only to myself, as there was no one to share with.”

A work by photographer Do Anh Tuan
A work by photographer Do Anh Tuan

After decades of existence as an ‘underground’ genre, social prejudices were gradually broken down.

The genre’s milestone moment came when photographer Hao Nhien was awarded a license to hold the first-ever all-nude photo exhibition in Vietnam in September 2017.

The event, Tao Tac, or ‘The Creator’s Work’, featured 50 artistic nude works by the Vietnamese photographer in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.

Nhien’s successful attempt gave hope to other nude photographers that more licensed shows might be on the horizon and the art will thrive in Vietnam..

“No matter what the public thinks of nude modeling, they have been more receptive to women shedding off outfits in front of the lens,” Dung Art observed, adding social media has been a tremendous help in the drive. 

Deputy Minister of Culture, Sports, and Tourism Vuong Duy Bien put the Vietnamese’s deep-rooted social stigmas against nude photography partly down to Oriental values.

“Photographers and watchdog agencies are both hesitant about putting nude photos out for public view. However, there is no rule banning such works,” he noted.

Taking into consideration the enthusiastic applause for Nhien’s nude photo exhibition, Bien urged for more receptiveness for the genre.

A piece from Hao Nhien’s Tao Tac (The Creator’s Work) exhibition.
A piece from Hao Nhien’s Tao Tac (The Creator’s Work) exhibition.

Futile efforts

Social stigmas have also affected the energy, money, and time artist’s put into photo shoots.

Despite going to great lengths to sign contracts with his models and promising not to reveal their faces, Thai Phien once received a phone call from an unknown man requesting he delete all photos he had taken of a model named X., his new wife.

There were also instances in which models suddenly changed their minds and adamantly walked away from what would have been their first nude photo shoot.

A work by Thai Phien
A work by Thai Phien
A work by Thai Phien
A work by Thai Phien
A piece from Hao Nhien’s Tao Tac (The Creator’s Work) exhibition.
A piece from Hao Nhien’s Tao Tac (The Creator’s Work) exhibition.

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