With her photographs, Vietnamese-born photographer Thu Thuy Pham aims to achieve a clean and clear aesthetic. According to the motto less is more she creates images with a space to breathe and that are free from over-styling or obtrusive editing. Thuy studied photography and is about to graduate from the University of the Arts in London. Moreover, she is currently working on her very first book project, entitled Nine Women, about immigrant middle-aged Vietnamese women in Berlin, Germany. We got to know Thuy and her interesting thoughts on photography, identity and cultures.
Hi Thuy. Since there isn’t many information about you yet, please introduce yourself to our readers. Who is Thu Thuy Pham and what should we know about her?
I was born in Vietnam, but raised predominantly in Germany, and have been taking photographs of my surroundings and among the fashion industry for a few years. The main body of my work focuses on women and operates as a means for personal and societal exploration.
Why did you choose photography as a creative outlet and what were your first steps in this field of work?
Photography operates as a universal visual language, it can give a voice to the under-represented. I feel like a different person when I speak different languages, but through photography I can amalgamate these elements and formulate the totality of my being. Creating imagery provides me with the potential to delineate and explore personal ideas, but leaves open the freedom and potential for subjective interpretation and adaptation from others.
In which way has art school influenced you, your work and your view on art in general?
Art school has helped me realise the multi-dimensionality of our aesthetic environment. It has opened my eyes to exploring both the grand scale of our urban environment and the textures, contours and details of a piece of clothing. I have begun to explore and document interactions across various scales and social groups, and understand the stories and nuances that formulate relationships. Through improving my pre-production planning and technical skills I am increasingly able to communicate the complex emotions of my subjects.
What kind of photos do you like to take the most?
I enjoy taking portraits of women, with the aim of capturing their natural beauty. My side projects focus on inanimate objects, such as flowers and the built environment. Those things that quietly shape our experiences of life, often seen as prosaic but playing a role in the formation of our interactions.
At the moment you are working on a very interesting project – your very first book project. It's about immigrant middle-aged Vietnamese women in Berlin, Germany. How did you come up with the idea for this project and what inspired you to do it?
Immigrants are often unjustly categorised as an economic and social burden, which overlooks both their ambition to be self-sufficient and their cultural and artistic diversity. Many will have fled unimaginable hardship and persecution, yet are labelled as intrusive outsiders. There is no definable moment at which an immigrant gains acceptance, and even second-generation immigrants are often not accepted as native. Realising my own experiences as an in-between person I decided to trace my roots and identify who I am as an individual and artist. My project looks at middle-aged women, mother figures with whom everyone can relate and offer respect. These women have worked non-stop for decades, earning money whilst raising children, sacrificing elements of their culture and identity in order to integrate. Exploring their story brings us closer to understanding the experiences of under-represented societies. We should be asking questions of our elders and the under-represented, making sure we recognise and learn from our history and diversity.
By the way, how did you get in touch with these women?
Fortunately my mother has very kind friends who were willing to offer their time!
Will you exhibit your book somewhere or where can we get a first look?
Nine Women will have its London press launch next week, after which it will be submitted to publishers.
Lately, I've been reading a text about biculturalism and if I remember rightly, it says that people who grow up bicultural or bilingual are sometimes in a dilemma, since they don't really know where they belong to. Since you were born in Vietnam, but grew up in Germany, I was wondering whether you sometimes feel like being in a dilemma. Moreover, how important are your roots to you?
There have certainly been times when I have felt like an in-between person, neither belonging entirely to Vietnam nor Germany. Growing up in this unstable state of being was tough, an extra burden on top of the normal issues of self-identification that a teen endures. However, the diversity in my cultural and personal experiences has given me valuable language skills, meant I've travelled extensively, and been fortunate enough to connect with many different personalities. Understanding my roots helps me to understand my family, especially the way my parents raised me. I don't take for granted the struggles that Vietnamese communities have endured during recent times, and it is important for me to recognise this and honour their strength and perseverance.
Do you also draw inspiration from Vietnam or the Vietnamese culture?
Vietnam is extremely vivid and vibrant, bordering on chaotic in many places. Yet there are wonderfully refined elements of Vietnamese fashion, such as Áo dài which is almost luxuriant in its elegant simplicity. I explore the chaotic elements through interviews and documentary work, and synthesise and refine these inputs in my portraiture and still life work. I seek to capture the perseverance and enduring family values that hold Vietnamese communities together, but compose these elements in photography that is accessible and comprehensible for all audiences.
You are based between Berlin and London. Both cities are metropolises, creative and diverse. In the longer term, in which city do you feel more comfortable and see more potential for you personal work? Or are you even planning to move to a complete different city in the future?
Berlin and the German aesthetic have undoubtedly influenced me, and I will retain and explore links and working relationships here. I pursued my academic education in London because I feel it has developed into a hub for Europe's creative industries and offers access to many publications and fashion houses. I foresee myself working largely between London and New York, but will be sure not to overlook the world of variety and opportunity that exists in other cities across the globe.
Do you have any favorite artist or photographer who you look up to and who has a huge impact on you?
The work of Vivian Maier is fantastically diverse and was way ahead of its time. She gives an honest and empathetic insight into the lives and personalities of everyday American's as they go about their daily activities. I think it is important for photographers, especially in the fashion industry, to maintain exploratory aspects in their work, as they should seek to represent the needs and interests of a dynamic and evolving society. Maier's diversity of work serves as an inspiration for me to keep looking at the world through fresh eyes, rather than taking the diversity and richness of society and culture for granted.
How was 2015 so far, regarding your work as a photographer, and what plans do you have for the rest of the year?
During 2015 I have been very proactively engaging with the Vietnamese and German cultures and aesthetics that shaped me both as an individual and an artist. As my career progresses I look to maintain a signature style that synthesises the evolving influences of society with my prior cultural explorations, in order to produce nostalgic yet contemporary work. For the rest of the year I will be shooting editorials and side projects, exploring both my direct and peripheral environments. The experiences of those who raised me have influenced me without my knowledge, and I deem this my 'peripheral' environment. Through seeking to understand and capture these experiences I can better connect with my heritage, family and community, therefore extending the depth and boundaries of both my life and work, offering me fresh ideas to reinterpret my 'direct' environment.
We've been talking a lot about photography right now. But, I am sure there are tons of other things that you are interested in. So what are you up to, when you are not taking photos? And more importantly, what profession would you pursue, if it wasn't photography?
I enjoy exploring the cities I live in, constantly in search of inspirational input. I have always wanted to become a photographer. Other than that I like going to the lake and playing with my dog.
And finally, what makes you the happiest?
When I'm in the dark room developing an analog image and I see my work coming to life; the feeling can be very elevating.