For me, photography is not simply a passion or a career, it’s a wonderful means by which I can explore the world, learn more about people and, in turn, discover what I am capable of personally.
The domestic space – the home – is the nearest most of us get to sovereign territory. It is the place one can most fully be one’s self. While the life of the home is often presented in stereotypical forms, it is perhaps one of the most varied and fluid human environments anywhere in the wider world. And, while it is a place, its fundamental nature is not the physical structures of wood and brick and concrete, but the intangible relationships we form with those with whom we have our most intimate connection. The bricks of companionship and the mortar of love, shaped by the patterns of daily life.
For the Vietnamese photographer Maika Elan, the domestic lives of others have become a field of humanistic research. Her work springs from a natural curiosity that is open and non-judgemental, built on mutual trust and respect between the subject and the photographer. The resulting images explore the nature of everyday domestic life for people who often find themselves on the margins of wider society. In so doing, she avoids the sensationalism so often associated with representations of ‘otherness’. The strength of her work lies in the way she captures the natural sentiment found in those simple moments of everyday home life; moments that are the foundation of personal human experience; the moments one can relax and truly be oneself.
Alasdair: What draws you to making imagery in the domestic environment?
Maika: Before I started taking photographs, everything around me just seemed very normal and boring. But, through taking pictures, I have discovered so much to be interesting, fresh and beautiful. Working in the domestic environment is very important to me because it helps me to love my people and my country more – as a result, I have also become more self-confident and loving.
How did the series ‘Inside Hanoi’ come about?
Hanoi is my little city. I was born and raised here. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of small alleys. For me, they are inextricably bound up in my experience of the city: the alleys, me and my curiosity about them… In the old quarter of Hanoi, people work, eat and sleep in the alleys, whispering in the laneways, everywhere there are smells and laughter… My pictures try to describe the people, their homes, the joy and sadness at the end of the alley in the heart of Hanoi.
You are perhaps best known for your series ‘The Pink Choice’. How did you begin this project?
It all began in 2010 when I attended a photo workshop at the Angkor Photo Festival in Siem Reap, Cambodia. My teacher was [the French Magnum photographer] Antoine d’Agata. While there, I was searching for a subject to photograph and came across a travel website dedicated to the LGBT community called Pinkchoice.com. Reading the webpages, I discovered that there were a number of gay-only or lesbian-only hotels and many gay bars in Siem Reap… At the time, this was all new to me, so I decided to explore this world…
This was not easy. Initially, the owners of the hotels and bars refused to let me photograph, even with no people in the room. They said that I must seek permission from all the guests: this was a private, not a public place. I only had three days to shoot, so I began knocking on doors. To my surprise, almost everyone agreed; they were very open and generous. So, the first photographs in this series were made in hotel rooms in Siem Reap and the title for the series was borrowed from the website through which I had first been introduced to this community.
How did the project develop from there?
Initially, I did not think I would continue to do this story. However, I became increasingly aware of the negative and impolite ways in which homosexuals are represented publicly. Homosexuality has always been legal in Vietnam, but it is often not accepted. In the newspapers, the only news about homosexuals is bad (theft, rape, murder…). In films made in Vietnam, gay men and women are either presented as ridiculous caricatures or as sentimentally tragic figures to be pitied because they made the ‘mistake’ of coming out. They were always shown as outside the community. The point is, in real life, there are many homosexual couples who love, nurture, and build a happy family life together as valuable members of the community.
Artists exploiting gay themes always seemed to highlight their differences from the rest of the community, no-one was describing their similarities. I want to avoid the stereotypes of homosexuality and capture moments of ordinary domestic intimacy. Importantly, I want to show that their loving and caring for each other is nothing deviant. These are simply normal and natural emotions and behaviours.
How did you meet the people in the images?
There were three phases in this project. Initially, I worked in my home city of Hanoi with the help of my friend, Dung. He was the first Vietnamese gay man to make his sexuality public through an autobiography. Consequently, he was widely known and trusted within the gay community. After about six months, I moved south and began researching and making new connections through various gay support centres and an LGBT online discussion forum. Finally, when the series was already well developed, I showed some of the work on social media. The project received a lot of attention and encouragement, and many couples contacted me to ask to be in the project. Interestingly, many of them had not previously made their sexuality public. They did not know how to come out and decided to participate in my project as a way of doing so.
Over a period of almost two years, I met more than one hundred couples and took pictures of seventy-two of them. After the editing process, I decided to use the images of thirty-two couples. They represent a range of ages, classes and occupations: students, workers, teachers, entertainers, business people…
How did the couples respond to seeing the finished work in a public exhibition?
They all supported the project. Some were surprised by the final image, some felt a little shy…
I remember one of the first couples I photographed in Hanoi. They were young and a little embarrassed, so they asked me to make their faces very small in the picture, so they could not be recognised. Two years later, when I exhibited the work, they came to the show and complained: “Oh, why are our faces so small? We are sad that our faces are not as recognisable as those of the other couples.” Their perception of themselves and of the gay community had changed a lot in two years; they had become much more self-confident about who they are.
How did ‘Aint Talkin’ Just Lovin’’ begin?
I began this project during a workshop held in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 2012. (Actually, all my important projects were initiated during workshops, maybe I should join more!)
What is this series about?
While I was in Chiang Mai, I got to know an artist who had a lot of cats, more than ten of them. He is a young, cheerful, and energetic person, but his life is quite constrained because he must keep returning home to feed the cats and tidy up after them. He cannot travel anywhere because no-one else would care for the cats while he was gone. He had little time left for his friends and his relationships had become increasingly limited as a result.
I was curious to know how many other people live like this. I asked around at Chiang Mai University and went to the local veterinary hospital. In this way I got to know a number of single men and women who choose to live with an animal companion instead of living with a partner. I find this interdependence between human and animal very interesting.
Can you give me some examples?
There was a young man who owned six snakes. To feed the snakes, he also bred more than three hundred rats in his apartment, a space of less than twenty square meters. The smell was shocking. I could not understand how he could live in such an environment simply because of six snakes. Was it really worth it?
But some of the relationships are poignant. There was a man who had been working in the monkey circus. The monkeys were illtreated by the circus people. So, he decided to take one of the monkeys back home with him and care for it as if it were his baby.
And then there was a man who hates dogs but has eight of them in his house. His girlfriend had died the year before. She had loved these dogs and so now he feels he must take care of them.
Do you consider that the choice of an animal as best friend is part of a wider social trend?
It is very difficult to distinguish a person who becomes lonely because they live with animals from one who is lonely and has a pet for company. There are many lonely old people living with animals, but my focus is on young people. They have a choice about how they live, and yet they choose animals as their main companions.
Your current project is about the hikikomori? Can you explain who and what they are?
A hikikomori as a person who lives in extreme isolation, seldom if ever leaving their room. He or she does not participate in society (particularly at school or work) and has no desire to do so. There may be more than one million hikikomori in Japan; that is approximately one per cent of the total Japanese population. While the degree of isolation varies from person to person, in extreme cases it can last for years, even decades.
How did the project begin?
In 2016, I had a six-month artist residency through the Japan Foundation Asia Centre. I found Japan a very interesting country, full of paradoxes: it is very modern but also very traditional; technologically developed but socially constrained; free but with many rules; everyone is always busy but also lonely. I began to learn about the social pressures in Japanese life and the consequences it brought about; the hikikomori being one of the more extreme manifestations of the problem.
Given such extreme withdrawal, how did you win their trust so that they allowed you to take photographs?
I met with some social workers and art activists, and I undertook some research on the internet. I discovered there were a number of organisations dedicated to the care and rehabilitation of hikikomori people. One of the most effective was a not-for-profit organisation called New Start. They were calling for the volunteers, so I applied to work with them.
How does New Start operate?
At New Start I learned that, in addition to the various social pressures face by young people in Japan, a fundamental cause of hikikomori is a breakdown in family relationships. Since the families cannot share with each other, New Start created a centre where hikikomori can live together in a kind of open family of about fifty people. There are classes in the basic skills of cooking and cleaning, they learn how to converse, to look other people in the eye… New Start runs model restaurants, cafes, bakeries, language classes, nature tours and care centres for old people where the hikikomori can become accustomed to interacting with other people in daily life.
How did you fit into this process?
As a volunteer, I accompanied the New Start specialists (who were a kind of surrogate family member, known as ‘rental brothers’ and ‘rental sisters’) when they went to meet some hikikomori in their homes. It takes a long time for the New Start ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ to gain the trust of the hikikomori and their family – many months or even years… Luckily, I had Oguri Ayako to help me. She is a ‘sister’ of the centre.
Even so, it took many visits before I could meet the hikikomori in their room, and even longer before I was permitted to take photographs.
As an example, can you talk about one of the hikikomori you photographed?
Riki Cook is 30 years old. He lives alone in Chiba, Japan. His father is American, and his mother is Japanese, which has left him feeling that he does not belong to any country. To compensate for this feeling, Riki always tries to excel – to be perfect in everything. He is afraid that if he makes even one mistake he will be rejected. For example, he has a great fear that one day he might forget to take his books to school with him or that he could not find the right classroom. He is gripped by a fear that if something like this happened, his life would collapse around him.
What is it you want to achieve in making work about the private domestic lives of various people, often marginalised by wider society?
I have a particular interest in the choices people make about how they live. I am always curious about the relationships people form: with each other, with their community and even with other species. In this case of the hikikomori … they make a different sort of choice – the choice to cut off all contact with friends, family, society … In a strange way, it is a kind of ‘relationship with loneliness’.
But I do not have big ambitions. I am curious and want to satisfy my curiosity. For me, photography is not simply a passion or a career, it’s a wonderful means by which I can explore the world, learn more about people and, in turn, discover what I am capable of personally.
What have you learned about yourself, through the process of making these photographs?
The most profound thing I have learned is that every limit can be overcome if you are truly sincere and persistent.
Maika Elan was born in Hanoi in 1986. She studied sociology at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Hanoi, subsequently becoming a professional photographer. She initially shot fashion and editorial assignments before moving into documentary photography. Her first documentary project – a body of work entitled ‘The Pink Choice’, which focuses on the domestic lives of gay couples in Vietnam – has been published in many print and online magazines internationally. Her work has been featured in exhibitions in countries a diverse as Bangladesh, Denmark, France, Guatemala, Indonesia and USA. In 2010, she won both Best Photo Essay and Best Single Photo from the Indochina Media Memorial Foundation, later going on to win First Prize for ‘work on a contemporary issue’ at the 2013 World Press Photo awards.
In 2023, she is the chair of the Southeast Asia and Oceania jury for World Press Photography.
Photo © Terry Barentsen
This article was first published in Chinese, in the May 2018 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. First published in English at Talking Pictures May 2020.