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Real Faces, Real People, Real Love in Vietnam

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The New York Times
|
January 7, 2013

Maika Elan didn’t know what to expect two years ago when she knocked on doors at a popular hotel for gay and lesbian couples in Siem Riep, Cambodia. She was surprised when most of the guests — many of whom were foreigners — told her she was welcome to take their portraits. Ms. Elan, a young Vietnamese photographer, had traveled there for the Angkor Photo Festival to take a workshop with the Magnum photographer Antoine D’Agata. Needing a subject, she found Pink Choice, a Web site catering to same-sex couples traveling together — “kind of a Lonely Planet for gay and lesbian people,” she said. Ms. Elan put the portrait project aside when she returned to Hanoi. While she had gay friends, she wasn’t sure if she felt passionate about the subject to continue. But her feelings changed when she saw an exhibition there about Vietnam’s L.G.B.T. community. None of the pictures she saw revealed the faces of their subjects. Many were shot from the back, and some wore masks. They were stereotypical — even harsh — depictions of love. They didn’t look like real people. Then she recalled the couples she had met in Cambodia, who were “really happy and very open” and far from the displeasing images she saw in Vietnamese media. So she decided to tackle the subject herself.