Tradition With A Twist
Vietnamese photographer Chiron Duong’s work is all about emotion: love for his country, its food, its people. And his project, on the Ao Dai national costume, gives us an insight into his world
Photography by Chiron Duong
Vietnamese visual artist Chiron Duong didn’t start out with a passion to become a photographer. His original training was as a landscape architect; heading out with his camera was just something he enjoyed after school as a relaxing hobby. Chiron has now officially worked as a photographer since 2019 and he says it is his eye as an architect that frames and influences his work behind the camera. Glorious spoke to Chiron about his background and his love and respect for tradition – and learned about his mega project on the Ao Dai – Vietnam’s traditional dress.
Glorious: How and when did you become interested in photography?
Chiron Duong: I started experimenting around 2017. I didn’t take it seriously at that point because I was just shooting to enjoy myself after school. I graduated in landscape architecture in Vietnam and have officially worked as a photographer since 2019. Photography is the process of self-study from technique to thinking. However, I incorporated my background of architecture into my photography research.
Glorious: How did you make the move from landscape architecture to photography and what parallels do you find?
Chiron Duong: I graduated in 2020, so I have been working as a photographer full time for about two years. My course was landscape architecture associated with painting in particular and art in general. I have always been taught to perceive space and create design-based emotions in terms of lines, colours and materials, and to allow architects to incorporate their interpretations into the design. This was very relevant when I turned to photography. However, the process of thinking and how to research something is a speciality of every architect, so I have a method of studying photography in my own way. To this day, I am still researching and expanding the scope of photography.
Glorious: How did your project ‘Portraits of Ao Dai’ come about?
Chiron Duong: One day, someone asked me the question: “How has traditional Vietnamese clothing influenced your fashion photography style?” I thought about this for a long time before I finally realised that Ao Dai has created a subconscious in me, and I wanted to bring that subconscious to light.
Glorious: What is Ao Dai and why does it have such a strong significance for you?
Chiron Duong: Ao Dai is Vietnam’s special, traditional dress. Over the past few decades, many designers have added innovations to it. Among them, there have been several designs that, in my eyes, have been a disaster and destroyed its image. At the same time it has fallen into cultural appropriation. For me, Ao Dai is both an adjective and a noun. Ao Dai evokes rustic, simple, seductive Vietnamese women and contains many memories. Vietnamese Ao Dai is not only a kind of national dress but it also contains a rich history, cultural traditions, aesthetic conceptions, national consciousness and the spirit of the Vietnamese people. Through many changes of society and times, the Ao Dai has always been a beautiful symbol of national culture and the pride of Vietnamese people. The soft, gentle and discreet beauty of the Ao Dai is represented by its high neck, soft round shoulders and graceful sleeves.
Glorious: How do you balance tradition and innovation in your photographs?
Chiron Duong: I chose a period where the Ao Dai image was popular – not too far in the past but before so many innovations were made. So when you look at my images of Ao Dai, they still have a connection with the times. However I think the key factor is in the technique. I chose a method of creating movement and a large palette of colours to make the Ao Dai image as vivid and flexible as a watercolour or oil painting.
Glorious: Many of your images capture movement. How do you achieve this?
Chiron Duong: It’s possible for almost any photographer to get creative by using shutter speed, and then edit their images with Photoshop. However for me, the movements need to be planned during the shoot and the ability to edit an image is used to create both the emotion and the story behind it.
Glorious: In your series ‘Portraits of Ao Dai’, you committed to releasing 365 images – that’s quite a commitment! Why did you choose this timeframe? And did you shoot this series in batches, for example shooting a few each day?
Chiron Duong: I did a 365-day project in order to create a continuous display of the Ao Dai image. I planned it all on a weekly basis, shooting one day per week. This was in order to save money but this process isn’t one I would ideally choose because I would love to have taken all the images together. There was a period when I felt pressured by the intensity of the project. Usually it takes me 2-5 hours for one photo, so I have to create one per day. There are several photos where, from taking the shot to editing, took a few months because I become stuck on an emotional level. Each time I would open up the photo and think about what to do with it for a few months until coming up with an idea for it in post production.
Glorious: Were all these images shot in the same or different locations?
Chiron Duong: They were taken in many different places but most were shot in the studio.
Glorious: Who are the people in your images?
Chiron Duong: I wanted the shoot to be an experience that was both objective and subjective, so I invited my friends, and my mother and grandmother to appear in my photographs. Ao Dai is worn by Vietnamese women, so they usually have fond memories of this traditional garment. For the project, each concept was like a little plot. I asked my models to use it and interpret it in their own way and I didn’t interfere. So that’s what their authentic expressions are based on, and I’ve been continually amazed at what they have managed to achieve. They recount my memories according to their own experiences. It is something really unique and meaningful.
Glorious: Where do you source the Ao Dais from? And how has the garment evolved over time?
Chiron Duong: I hired the Ao Dai models. They have a very long development process from the past to the present and have seen many changes. However, in the period I was born until now, in general, there have not been any innovations that alter them too much – except that plenty of fashion designers working on personal projects have created novel Ao Dai designs that I feel are absurd. As Ao Dai is itself a noun and an adjective, it has certain physical and spiritual characteristics. Any changes aimed at breaking the garment’s spiritual values should not be called Ao Dai.
Glorious: Do you have an interest in other arts?
Chiron Duong: I’m interested in many other fields because, when I was a landscape architect, I had to explore other areas of art to create spaces. I am also very fond of contemporary dance and I practise whenever I want to release my body.
Glorious: What does Vietnam mean to you – family, friends, food, love?
Chiron Duong: I can almost blend in with these Vietnamese elements to the point that without them, I feel very sad. Many people my age have a great interest in international cuisine so I can’t invite them to join me to eat Vietnamese food. Whenever I’m alone, I’ll look for traditional foods to eat. In many ways, traditional Vietnamese dishes are closely related to my childhood memories. I also miss my family very much and the countryside where I grew up. Every time I go back to my family for a few days, I am bathed in new creative energy.
Glorious: If you could photograph anyone or anything, who or what would you choose and why?
Chiron Duong: I would take pictures of my family in the place where I was born – in the Vietnamese countryside. Their every gesture makes meI feel the most peaceful and loved.
Glorious: What’s next? Are you working on any other projects?
Chiron Duong: My next interest is plants and flowers. I am still researching the possibility of combining writing and photography. Everything at the moment is just thoughts.
Glorious: Where can people find you? (Website/ instagram etc.)
Behance: Chiron Duong