On August 5, 2012, Vietnam held its first ever gay pride parade in capital city of Hanoi. That same year, Vietnamese photographer Maika Elan began shooting The Pink Choice, a series of portraits (named after a website for LGBTQ travelers) revealing the personal lives of gay Vietnamese couples.
“Even though many people seem to be open about homosexuality in Vietnam,” Elan wrote, “it turned out to be untrue when I showed many of them photographs of homosexual couples in intimate moments. Most of them found the photos disgusting and unacceptable.”
Legal, but not equal
Vietnam has reportedly never criminalized same-sex sexual relationships and the country enacted same-sex marriage at the start of 2015. Nevertheless, same-sex couples still get denied the full spectrum of legal rights given to heterosexual married couples.
Furthermore, a 2014 report on LGBTQ rights in Vietnam showed that many LGBTQ people still suffer violence and discrimination at the hands of homophobic family members: Some families force their gay relatives into conversion therapy or into marriages with members of the opposite sex.
The negative reactions to Elan’s pictures made her want to take even more photos of same-sex couples. She wanted images that conveyed natural, beautiful and romantic love, ones that captured same-sex couples doing casual daily activities — existing in shared living spaces, affectionately touching and connecting in small but loving ways — pictures that any couple could relate to.
Depictions of gay couples in Vietnam are outdated
According to Elan, Vietnamese media depictions of homosexuals tended to focus on deviance — with “homosexuals portrayed in ridiculous clothing and make-up, mincing, shrewish or rude manners,” she says — or on tragedy, making gay and lesbian couples seem sympathetic yet “vulnerable and regretful.”
Elan wanted depictions of homosexuals that revealed people who felt happy about their identities. She hoped her pictures would give heterosexuals a chance to empathize with gay couples through little-seen happy moments of loving, nurturing and life-building.
Gay couples from Vietnam, in front of Elan’s camera
She reached out to Nguyen Van Dung, a gay Vietnamese author well-known among the country’s small LGBTQ community. Dung helped her find subjects.
In her interview with The New York Times, Elan said that many of the couples seemed nervous or started acting overly affectionate when she first pulled out her camera. Others seemed tense and uncomfortable in public, so she spent days with the couples and began shooting them in the privacy of their own homes.
While some viewers disliked her final shots (some even asked her to remove photos of friends and family from a public exhibition), others found her photos sad and asked why her subjects weren’t smiling.
She replied, “I don’t think you have to have a happy smile if you’re beside the person you love.”