In Vietnamese, the word ‘nước’ has two meanings: water, and country.
How do you begin to tell the story of a country like Vietnam, a country mired by decades of colonisation and war? How do you tell the story of a country that is not defined by its shape, but by the memory it carries?
Quang Hai Nguyen, Montréal-based photographer and Concordia student, is placed at a specific and intimate intersection between Vietnamese identity, queerness, and storytelling.
As a Canadian-born Vietnamese, they are part of the generation of Vietnamese people who aren’t products of war; and their queerness allows them the perspective to grasp the fluidity of identity, cultural or otherwise.
Through the camera, Hai is able to tease out the unique stories of their peers— different highs, lows, conflicts and resolutions. And yet, when Hai places them all in conversation with each other, a larger picture starts to emerge: the universal story of a people who have, due to Vietnam’s long history of colonisation, never had the time to build their own identity— and they are finally being given a space where “they are seen, they are heard.”
Hai’s photography has become a “safe space for love [and] community,” not only for those being photographed but also for themselves. But it wasn’t always this way.
When I sit down with Hai, my first question is— “Why the camera?”
They laugh, and immediately answer: “It was just an excuse for me to go out.”
Hai was a young, closeted teen when they first picked up the camera. They had no higher, lofty art goal: their parents didn’t see art as legitimate and therefore didn’t pass it on to their child. So instead, the camera simply became a natural gateway to meet people, to leave the house.
That gateway turned into a method of introspection— Hai examined their place in the world through projects like to: the moon, Dear Mom, and 1934-2016. The photos are undeniably gorgeous, and when Hai’s questions of identity were put on display, they produced an equally undeniable feeling in the viewer— the ‘I relate’ moment.
But something was missing.
These introspective projects asked important questions, yet produced no answers. No solutions. Hai, amidst looking for those solutions, recognized the ‘I relate’ moment, and told me: “I saw that potential.”
From then on, instead of searching inward, they turned to other people; this shift sparked their current project. in these eyes lie an endless ocean is a series of portraits: Anh, Long, Marguerite, Giang. Countless others.
In our time together, Hai places a real emphasis on the disappearing “Boat’’generation— and the new generation that is currently emerging. They ask themselves: “What story do we want to tell for them?”
Re-narrating the war can get repetitive— Vietnam has been almost exclusively characterised by its struggles. Instead, Hai makes the choice to characterise Vietnam by its people right now, by their unique, yet diverse lived experiences as Vietnamese people today.
Yes, there are limits to a picture— “a picture says a thousand words, but it doesn’t say a million,” Hai jokes. Regardless, they manage to capture the intersectionality of the Vietnamese diasporic experience. in these eyes lie an endless ocean affords visibility to a people that have been on the edge of invisibility for decades— not just Vietnamese, but local, diasporic, and queer Vietnamese. The project, while composed of a wide array of people, naturally attracts a lot of women and other gender minorities: people disenfranchised twice-over who are willing to tell their personal stories.
“It’s a very collaborative project,” Hai tells me, explaining that they relinquish control over the picture, allowing the story and the conversations to guide the camera.
Their creative process is less about the technical aspect and more about the behind the scenes. “I’m not here to just take pictures,” Hai says, “I’m also here to be with you.” They spend the time to sit and talk with the person they’re photographing. They make sure to learn that person’s unique story and how to tell it. It’s this respect between photographer and subject, this intimacy and trust born from each conversation, that truly gives Hai’s work its beauty.
The beauty of their work is carried over from art into real life as well. Through in these eyes lie an endless ocean, Hai has become a gathering force for the Vietnamese community. Their pictures are a way for that “diasporic feeling” to come out, to be shared. They recount times when people in the project come back to see it on display, creating a reunion between otherwise distant members of the same diaspora.
This community Hai has fostered is “what [they] always wanted when [they] were younger,” when they first picked up the camera as an excuse to meet people. Now they finally have it— in Hai’s words, if a project speaks to people, the community creates itself.
As part of a cultural heritage that was on the verge of being forgotten, Hai is acutely aware of the ephemerality of life. And, as a queer Asian, Hai is aware too of the pressure to just ‘fit in.’ But they refuse to be silenced. Their photography is a way of capturing the ephemeral, a way to gather a community and proclaim: we are here and we will never go.
Instead of re-narrating the same traumatic, war-ridden history of Vietnam we are already overfamiliar with, Hai does something radically simple: they show us where Vietnam is now. Vietnam locally and diasporically. Queer Vietnam. Trans Vietnam. A multigenerational Vietnam. Instead of trying to distil Vietnam down to what we know and has already been said, Hai demonstrates a more diverse way to portray Vietnam as a cultural identity.
While they certainly can manoeuvre the technicality of the camera, the secret to Hai’s photography is their humility. When I compliment one of my favourite pictures, Long, and ask how they pulled it off, Hai says: “there’s no secret.”
They tell me: “I don’t really call myself a photographer. I think part of the magic is the level of trust that is built between me –the one with the camera– and the people I meet. It allows for beautiful experiences and results to come out.’’