Vietnamese Women Choose: My Tradition or My Life?


My Global Women exhibit getting ready for hanging
The New Global Women: getting ready for hanging

Human inner conflict is greater than is ever visible by actions or words. Every person and every form of expression has this kind of turmoil. We can discuss it earnestly and sometimes endlessly. But talking about it is a fruitless exercise unless we make choices to resolve the conflict.


This project explores my feeling that the level and intensity of inner conflict is often much exaggerated among well-educated, worldly young women. Every woman becomes an adult faced with making choices more varied, nuanced, and difficult then usually faced by her male counterparts. Even the last several decades’ gender equality improvements in many cultures have not changed this prevalent condition. But however difficult it can be for women in advanced countries, the challenges of choice-making are compounded in developing nations. They are even more excessive in Asia.


Generally, Asian cultures still emphasize the responsibilities of ancestors, history, family, neighborhood and country as superior to the women's need for self-development. In Vietnam, a country sprinting towards first-world status, some women suddenly have the same freedom to make decisions for themselves that Western women have. But how do they deal with their overwhelming inner dialogue trying to balance their sense of self with all the traditional expectations?


Without foresight of what my own photographs would lead to, and while in Vietnam, I responded to several women's requests to make portraits of them. The first such women were recent university graduates in their early twenties. The photo sessions led to us becoming closer friends, meeting more of their peers, and me learning about their conflicts.


Our talented assistant, Hong Ky, helped us get the exhibit ready
One of our talented helpers, Miss Hong Ky

It was intriguing, and after a year it felt that I had the opportunity to learn something of the women's challenges and how they coped with them emotionally and conceptually. I added to the portraits redirecting my efforts towards what then became the first phase of The New Global Women.


From the camera images, I created photographic ideas about the women using elements of other art media such as ceramic and sewn cloth. I also employed some montage, recreating the original portraits and compounding them with other images. I wanted to see how these ideas came together and did an exhibit of that work in 2010. The works in the exhibit were quite large and helped me to understand how to portray these women and their turbulence. The works were sometimes literal, sometimes narrative, and some implied a fantasy-like take on my estimations of the inner woman.


Back in Vietnam after the exhibit, I worked with more women, but the image-making was redirected again. I had learned enough of what the women faced to be quite concerned for them. That translated for me into dreaming about how their conflicts might feel when expressed in visual terms.


I knew that being male, a lot older and a foreigner prevented me from understanding their feelings in thought and word. That left the option to put my instinctive understandings into forms of imagery to make a new and more advanced version of the project - The New Global Woman - Phase II. But the forms of the imagery could not be the static literal fixed views that the camera usually produces. My inclination was to find a construction using the women's images with images of related subjects.


I sometimes wonder if I can ever understand to even a small degree the women's feelings or their conflicts. Maybe in some way their feelings and mine regarding my conflicts over the manner of expression in these works about them, have some parallels. To express with invented imagery who the women are, what they face, what they decide, and how they feel about it, has been a conflicted path for me too.


I think the project has challenged my choices of means to construct the image in ways that are new for me:

  • One of the challenges pits the narrative potential against the conceptual, and I have opted to focus on the conceptual, pushing the need for the image to create meaning, despite the non-literal elements.

  • Another forced me to decide how much abstraction, deconstruction, and appropriation was needed to create a visual harmony that I could live with.

  • And another presented me with the ethical questions about how I used the women's images; was I using them in any way that was exploitive? After all, they are my friends, and trust me because of my age and experience. I needed to keep that trust.


One image at a time was created based on pencil sketches I made after being in a meditative state. The sketches were non-narrative, or at least made no sense as such. But they were definitely metaphorical, forcing conceptual statements out of their virtual surfaces. Thinking of the process, I often felt that expanding my idea of the photography medium's expressive forms in this way was not unrelated to the women's turmoil. Creating images that explored the women's conflicts through created metaphors was a development for me in photography, itself a medium still so young it is not unlike a developing nation.



Constructing the exhibit with a lot of help!

My intentions in this project include expressing admiration for young women everywhere through the examples of these Vietnamese women. The women are elegant, beautiful, intelligent and very real. They face their challenges with courage and humility, without losing sight of the need to grow their professional and personal skills. I believe the images of The New Global Women - Phase II allude to those qualities. I present the images wanting to ask us all to empathize with the difficulties facing young women as they make choices.

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