The Vietnamese photographer Chiron Duong is joining The Selects Gallery, a New York based gallery that is focused on Fashion photography. The young photographer, who was the recipient of the Picto Prize for Fashion Photography in 2020, has a lot to say. In this interview, we hope to shed light on this talented young artist whose work inspires and challenges us.
Upon first glance, one can see a blurry, almost dream-like brush of bodies contorting, twisting, brushing up against one another, and blending into a seamless array of colors. Despite their lack of definition and clarity, one can feel an undeniable connection between the two figures, as well as between themselves and the composition.
This is what one sees when they look at Chiron Duong’s Twins series of 2020, works which in their conception highlight connection between body, soul, and nature, and the human ability to connect with another. Inspired by the glowing effect of mushroom spores, the twins of this series remain their own individual selves while also harmoniously intertwining to form a collective consciousness. Made during the height of the global pandemic with striking blues– a color which, in Vietnamese culture, signifies calmness, hope, and growth– this work reflects not only our need to connect to nature and to each other, but our resilience and ability to form those connections even amidst the most difficult times.
Hailing from Vietnam, Duong cites Vietnamese cultural traditions and Eastern cultural traditions on the whole as a large part of his work. Vietnam’s rich cultural and artistic identity is prevalent throughout his work, influencing his concepts, color composition, and symbolism. In addition to its deeply rooted nature in Duong’s Vietnamese heritage, his work is also influenced by Vietnam’s relationship with other Eastern cultures as well as its history and relationship with the West. From this marrying of cultural identities comes a rich portfolio of work which preoccupies itself in how human beings interact, both personally and on a cross cultural scale.
The Twins series is just one example of the authoritative hold that Chiron Duong’s innovative works, many of which can be seen here, hold over their viewer. The prestigious jury who decided the recipient of the Picto Prize For Fashion Photography in 2020– including its president Sarah Moon, as well as fashion photographer Paolo Roversi, Benjamin Lindbergh of Studio Lindbergh, and Sylvie Lécallier, the head of the photographic collection of the Palais Galliera Guillaume, among others– is an attestation to Duong’s ability to create fantastical worlds which are in and of themselves also rooted within the human form. His photographs exist in a liminal state between fantasy worlds and reality, soaring above us while simultaneously being deeply grounded.
At what age did you begin taking pictures?
Chiron Duong : When I was in early high school, the show “Vietnam next top model ” was first launched in Vietnam. That was the very first model show on national TV. It brought a new wave of culture so my friends and I discussed it a lot. I still remember how overwhelming and challenging it was when it came to photo shooting in the show. To a high school student like me, that was a lot of shiny newness. I think this somehow influenced my photography passion. However, owning a camera was too much for a high school student.
Until the age of 17, my friends and I liked to take spontaneous photos after school for fun. I decided to save up money to buy an old compact camera instead of a phone (we liked to have smart phones to be fancy). I learned how to make fashion concepts from the show, then we practiced them together. I think that was the first time I started photography.
How did you get into fashion photography? What initiated your transition from architecture to fashion photography?
Chiron Duong : It’s fortunate that fashion is a discipline in the architecture university that I studied. So that I got to know about fashion design more, and got chances to cooperate with friends who major in this area.
I transitioned from architect to fashion photo, as architect and fashion have a lot in common. I solve functional problems and reconcile with art. The other reason is, fashion photography makes me feel so relaxed and enjoyable after a project. It’s just like a silky soft flow of fashion river mixed with shapes of architecture and it makes me more balanced.
There are many fashion designers –Thierry Mugler, Virgil Abloh, Pierre Balmain, Tom Ford, Gianni Versace, and many more– who studied architecture before entering the fashion Industry. Fashion and architectural design seem to have visual and structural similarities; What drew you to fashion photography instead of becoming a fashion designer?
Chiron Duong : Even though My major is Landscape Architecture and Planning, I am more interested in social issues, community, the connection of natural and human environment, rural and urban. And as photography made me feel more balanced after school, I started to combine my interests in the photos. That is also the reason why I have a passion for photography along with my major. I started the first series of photos in the genre of conceptual art, fine art photography, documentary, and fashion photography. As I integrate many genres and issues of interest into my works. Later on, I use fashion designs as part of my cultural and environmental campaigns while working with other types of photography.
I feel that I can express ideas about social issues, community, etc. better through photography than fashion design.
Has your shift to photography made any stylistic changes in your architectural work? Is your knowledge of both disciplines mutually beneficial?
Chiron Duong : There was a time I used to shoot architectural photography to supply composition for fashion photography. And of course, photography also affects my architectural design from an artistic perspective. For architecture, function and technique are the core, and art is added later. I think: “Right first, beautiful later.”
Once I set a proper design for the space, I apply the point of view of photography to the artistic element of the architecture. Those are the foreground, middle, and background layers, and how viewers feel when standing in front of that scene.
I apply the Landscape Architecture design element in photography to the way I create the feeling that I want to convey to people through my works.
Can you describe where/ how you get your creative Inspiration?
Chiron Duong : It’s the series “The Chef’s Table” in NETFLIX. Every time I watch the show, I see such great research and creativity from them. I also think of myself as a “chef” in the kitchen of photography. Chefs find ingredients, connect with farmers, create dishes, influence the emotions of dinners, and create their own restaurant space. I get inspiration from them, the way they make food, then link it to work.
Since the pandemic happened, we have stayed at home more. I was inspired by observing things around me. There was a day I went home and saw flowers wilting in a vase, I was so emotional. I decided to capture it with other available tools. Ever since, I started making use of household objects to photograph. It makes me feel so excited. The “Reply” and Midnight in the Jungle” are examples. They were born during the lockdown.
Once you have an idea, how do you start the process of Bringing it to life?
Chiron Duong : If there is an idea that comes to mind, I’ll try to do it with the most understandable metaphors but with diverse techniques from many genres of photography. When I want an emotion in a photo, I wonder to myself what technique I should use to create that emotion. For me, the techniques I used have to respect the emotions. Emotions must always precede dramatic visual effects.
How did you hone your personal style?
Chiron Duong : My style is a part of my childhood, and culture.
In childhood, we always have dreams, romance, flight and curiosity about the world and unlimited imagination. Those are beautiful memories. But when growing up, the flightiness is lost, the sad colors appear more. We become so realistic that we are empty. That’s why I really want to recall the mysterious, dreamy, fanciful, colorful atmosphere like a child but also the confiding of an adult. My photos are colorful but deep inside, it’s full of mood.
When I was a teenager, literature and painting influenced me to open up Asian cultural inspirations. The cultural exchange and human connection on earth later brought me an approachability of photography techniques and contemporary social topics in the world with the philosophies in Asian culture.
Are there any Photographers in particular who you drew inspiration from?
Chiron Duong : There are many talented photographers and I learn from their point of view (Sarah Moon, Paolo Roversi, Tim Walker, Nick Knight, etc.).
But the biggest influence on my style is animation studio GHIBLI. I am really moved to enjoy the works from them.
How do you choose your color palettes for each photo/series?
Chiron Duong : I often question myself how I want to feel? I visualized and started choosing color palettes. Colors represent emotions, but they cannot stand alone. Besides the color is the material, dark-light, translucent-clear, contrast-similar. Etc. I can use palettes inspired by watercolors, or oil colors, Vietnamese lacquers, or colors in traditional Vietnamese folk paintings, etc.
Are there certain cultural traditions from the region of your hometown, such as the Kite Festival, that have influenced your artistic practice? Have these influences changed as you travelled within or outside of Vietnam?
Chiron Duong : Vietnam has many unique features of regional culture and festivals. Vietnamese cultural features are used as materials in some of my projects and I’m doing my best to transform them to my art work. This traditional cultural theme is an upcoming orientation of mine in photography.
In my previous works, I focused on magic, color and opacity to create a religious space inspired by Vietnamese culture in particular and Asia in general.
I have not had a chance to travel abroad. One of the reasons is because of the pandemic. I think traveling will affect my artistic perception more.
After winning the Picto Prize, you’ve mentioned being inspired by your relationships with others. Are there specific relationships that influence your work more than others?
Chiron Duong : After the award, I had the opportunity to network with organizations like TAJAN in France, Le Printemps des Etudiants and Co’p1- Solidarités Etudiantes. This really means a lot to me and the community.
Recently I collaborated with Graphic design studios in Vietnam for Vietnamese modern culture projects. And now I joined The Selects Gallery which is based in New York.
Who is your intended audience and how have Asian cultural norms impacted the reception of your work?
Chiron Duong : I am paying a lot of attention to the subject of families with children. For me, parents play the most important role in educating the next generation, when children have access to civilized and good things from the world through parenting education and affection, it will be great for their development. The relationship between generations in a family, and the attachment of parents to their children in a typical Asian family has influenced my interest. I just finished a photography project inspired from mangroves forest with metaphors for family relationships.
Besides, consumerism in Asia in particular and in the world in general changes the way my ideas and props are used in my photo shoots. I choose to do multiple sets with friendly materials that are available and easy to find around the house without causing waste. Each of my photography projects I try to minimize the props. The MIDNIGHT IN THE JUNGLE series is an example.
Is there a difference in perception from your Western and Asian audiences and does that matter to you?
Chiron Duong : I always try to find a way to balance Western and Asian audiences by using Asian themes and materials in Western techniques. Of course, I was greatly influenced by Western painting, photography and cinema. Therefore, I always want to ensure balance and flexibility between art and emotions. I want Western audiences to also feel the Asian story in my works and vice versa.
How has Vietnamese politics influenced your photography? Furthermore, is your upcoming work, Saigon’s Character, titled to push boundaries between North and South Vietnam?
Chiron Duong : In Vietnam, there are regulations on art. However, artists are still allowed to freely create art. The topics I’m interested in are still common issues in society and life, so I’m not limited in creativity.
Saigon’s Character is a series of characters created by me inspired by contemporary culture in Saigon. This is a series that will be easy for local people to feel because they are so familiar in everyday life. It is the mixture of positive and negative aspects of the city, the contrasts and similarities between the imprint of the past and the rapid development of the present.
In Vietnam, there is no longer regional distinction. The way to call “Saigonese”, “Hanoian” (the capital is located in the north of Vietnam) is only to express the place and its own cultural characteristics in that place. Maybe in the future I will work on the topic of Ha Noi’s Character.
Marie Audier D’Alessandris
The Selects Gallery