This Vietnam-based photographer uses the dreamlike ambience of shooting in film as a tool to generate unexpected and unpredictable outcomes, playing around with the lighting and mood of the scenic compositions. Taking up the role of being a model and photographer, she takes the opportunity to share pieces of intimate aspects of her life. Yatender recognises her photography journey as her playground — from teacups to mattresses, she uses the tools she has around her to enhance the experience, completing the projects of accepting your body and feeling.
How did you first get into photography, and more specifically self-portraits?
Early on in a relationship with my first love, he got himself an analogue camera and kind of experimented with everything he knew about me. It was always him behind the camera, and I was so used to being in front of his lens for a long time that I was quite confused, lost even after we separated. Things were blurry, I was young and didn’t have much faith in myself to create alone, although photography has struck me ever since.
It took me years to figure out that I too, can continue the journey by myself. My shyness (or more accurately, my loneliness) guided me to play with the camera alone at first, I wasn’t confident enough to ask anyone to be my model, and so I just cling to that game until I realised “ah, this is fun, might as well give it a try with different surroundings, landscapes, people…”
How do you find inspiration in your home country of Vietnam?
If you had asked me this question a year ago, I’d have had no answer for this. Back in the day, I found it kind of hard to find inspiration here in my homeland as I’ve always been in search of something totally different outside of my bubble. But after lots of ups and downs I went through this past year – emotionally, I’ve come to realise and appreciate the inspiration I’ve found within many small things around me. It varies from simple joys I get any time I read anything related to cinema, to old silly advice that is being passed around between me and my friends, to moments we’re feeling lost or in need of inspiration, or when I witnessed such pure, constant love for the ocean from someone and it helped me to overcome my fear of water while enjoy being closer to the ocean day by day.
Maybe it’s not so much about what I see but more about how I look at things. If you pay enough attention to your surroundings, they will eventually express something to you, and that ‘something’ is what keeps me staying curious and sane whilst being at one place for so long.
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What are the challenges in taking up the role of both model and photographer? Does this affect the outcome in a positive or negative way?
I wouldn’t call it a challenge but there are some minor inconveniences like the limitation of time, certain angles and distance that come from working with a tripod alone when trying to take photos of yourself; but overall it’s a fun process that has been very helpful for my imagination. We as adults tend to be less cautious and more relaxed when we’re on our own. Therefore, doing such things that require no other human involvement like this, means there are no boundaries, pressure, judgement… but rather space for creativity, honesty and quality time with yourself, which is a very unique experience and for sure leads to a positive outcome most of the time.
What have you learned about yourself through your self-portrait photography? Anything you wish you hadn’t?
I’ve learned to appreciate mistakes, to accept imperfection as life’s beauty, listen, understand and freely express my needs. To see and value things in various different ways, and, above all, to be outrageously consistent with my way of doing things – especially with photography, even if it sounds wrong or silly to most people’s beliefs.
There are always certain things that when I look back, I told myself I could have done better, but the phenomenal process of overcoming and treasuring life’s lessons has been helping me grow and bloom, therefore I only regret things that I don’t do.
Your photography depicts some very intimate parts of your life – I’m referring to your photographs featuring your menstrual blood. Anyone else might feel uncomfortable sharing this part of their life, especially through visuals. What is your reasoning behind doing this?
Maybe I just like to piss people off? I get it if people who feel uneasy about this kind of thing are the people who live in the male-only world or have never encountered menstrual blood before, otherwise, why would you feel uncomfortable toward something natural and extremely feminine like this!? I see it as a very human thing, somewhat acquired an intimacy level to be seen but shouldn’t be too hard to accept or understand. Besides, I really enjoy seeing different shades of blood on film emulsion, it's raw, real and umm very cinematic to me.
“To me this is all a game, I’d like to imagine myself as a kid, everything around me is a toy and photography is my playground.”
In many of your shots, you purposefully don’t look into the camera, avoiding eye contact with the viewers. How does this approach contribute to the meaning of photography to you?
Although there is often the presence of humans in my photographs, my interest is drawn toward the combination of scenic composition in the background and human bodies rather than just the face. People tend to focus on the face first when they look at a photograph but I find it quite exhausting for me to look at human faces all the time. For that reason, I feel a need to avoid eye contact and focus more on bodies and how they express/merge themselves into the scene while talking to a camera.
Your choice in shooting film adds to the ambience that your photos depict. Is this something you purposely go for, or is there a more superficial/deeper reason?
Shooting on film for me is like trying to remember a dream I once had, colour, lighting, details, sometimes even the mood might change rapidly, and you have to patiently wait for it. Unlike film, the outcome of digital is just too easy, there’s certainly no pleasure in having numbers generate your light and colour... So I guess it’s the thrill, the uneasiness, the magic of putting myself onto something real I can’t see that drove me to film.
From what I see on your website, you started your portfolio, Persona, in 2015 and is currently ongoing. Have you added any from your experiences during the pandemic? Do you personally see a distinct difference between those you took before lockdown and those taken during?
I did take some during the second lockdown here in Vietnam, you can find a few on my Instagram. Visually I see no differences between those before and during the lockdown. The slight difference is maybe the mood, I was in a very vulnerable stage when the pandemic first started. I’ve always been a loner, and I prefer to do things alone, but following something that isn’t your intention was tough. To me these photographs bring back an uneasy memory that makes them unlike the rest of my self-portraits, so to speak.
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I find particularly intriguing the photograph of you curled up in a ball in bed, pouring yourself a cup of tea from the back. Does this reinforce your imagination regarding self-portrait photography?
To me this is all a game, I’d like to imagine myself as a kid, everything around me is a toy and photography is my playground. That way, I can keep the excitement up while feeding my imagination. To do things that have no particular meaning but fun for myself, there I can observe things through a child’s eyes and pay no absolute attention to what is happening outside of my playground – which is a key part of my practice.
We Can Be Seen From a Distance, is another one of your portfolios that is ongoing. These, however, also feature other people. How do you translate your appreciation for self-portrait photography into photographing other people?
As much as I often feel a need to be on my own, I see my playground as an area that is much more cheerful to have somebody to play with sometimes, ask any kid that! I love the pure and awkwardness that comes from arranging mine and someone else’s body in a frame for the first time, to create/capture moments that only belong to us, to expand that little corner of my world just so more people can come and imagine things together.
All of your photographs have a posed element to them, whether it be yourself in a cornfield or a couple eating noodles with a face mask on. Where do the inspiration and creative ideas behind these shoots come from?
It might sound odd but I constantly seek inspiration from every corner of cinema while trying my best to avoid anything related to photography. Movies have heavily affected and enlightened my way of creating and helped open my imagination. I’ve learned so much from my favourite filmmakers such as John Cassavetes, Takeshi Kitano, Eric Rohmer… Their philosophy on filmmaking, art and life is so free, raw and honest yet so enthusiastic and passionate.
I want to keep my love for creation, photography specifically, as simple and pure as something I can enjoy every day, so I can freely form my imagination without any fear of creating things that have already existed nor worrying too much about the idea of being someone or something in the world.
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