Courtesy of Ocean Vuong via Cultured Magazine (@cultured_mag)

Writer Ocean Vuong is known for his devastatingly beautiful prose and heart-wrenching poetry, in which he has penned sentences like “I miss you more than I remember you” and told painfully honest tales of his Vietnamese heritage. Now, he’s venturing into photography. 

Vuong’s debut photography series, featured in Cultured Magazine, honors his family’s experiences as Vietnamese refugees. It’s a tale of New England nail salons and parenthood, standing in resistance to Vietnam’s morbid photography history, which was fueled by the gore of the Vietnam War. 

Vuong’s photo essay series is 15 years in the making, intertwining two Julys with more than a decade separating them. The first July is a dynamic exploration of life at his mother Rose’s Hartford nail salon—the fuchsia wallpaper, lilac hair rollers, and loud zebra print dance off the page. Vuong took these photos in 2009, three years after discovering his love of photography by shooting at local punk shows. 

Courtesy of Ocean Vuong via Cultured Magazine (@cultured_mag)

“I grew to see a kind of magic inside the frame, one I would only understand more fully as a writer,” Vuong wrote in Cultured Magazine. “That through a work of art can be bolstered by context, there is just as much narrative propulsion—perhaps more—when information is omitted.” 

The notion that photography, like writing, tells an incomplete story is reinforced by the world existing behind the idyllic nail salon photos. A mere three months later the recession caused Vuong’s mother to declare bankruptcy and sell her business, forcing her to say goodbye to the small slice of the American dream immortalized in the photo series. 

Courtesy of Ocean Vuong via Cultured Magazine (@cultured_mag)

The series picks up again in July 2023, featuring photographs primarily of Vuong’s brother which he took following their mother’s death. Vuong integrates the newer photographs seamlessly with those from 15 years prior to create a sort of “time accordion,” emulating how memory works. His mother’s urn features in one photograph, which is incredibly haunting when featured alongside photos of his mother in 2009 when she was very much alive. 

Courtesy of Ocean Vuong via Cultured Magazine (@cultured_mag)

Despite the inherent tragedy in the photographs from recession to familial death, Vuong’s photos tell a very different story of Vietnam than the popular media of the time. Vuong recalls studying a photograph titled Decomposed Face of a Dead North Vietnamese Soldier, Hue which was taken in 1968 by British photojournalist Donald McCullin. McCullin was known for the oftentimes disturbing candor of his war photography and his ability to tell stories of the brutality of war through images. 

Courtesy of Don McCullin via Flickr

“It is not uncommon for Vietnamese-American children to see themselves in the media as corpses,” said Vuong in the article.

He describes clicking on the Wikipedia page for the My Lai massacre, a 1968 war crime against Vietnamese people, and being confronted by images of mangled children. His photo essay is a testament to those who survived that war; who went on to open businesses and raise children and create lives in a country that was hostile to them. Vuong’s photography is touching and nostalgic, invoking the same introspection as his literature.

Courtesy of Ocean Vuong via Cultured Magazine (@cultured_mag)

“All this time I told myself we were born from war—but I was wrong, Ma. We were born from beauty,” Vuong wrote in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a semi-autobiographical novel that was written as a letter from a Vietnamese American son to his illiterate mother. “Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence—but that violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it.” 

Photography, Vuong seems to say, gives the photographer the chance to rewrite a narrative and find the beauty in hardship. In the two slices of time captured in his photo essay, Vuong does just that. 

Courtesy of Ocean Vuong via Cultured Magazine (@cultured_mag)

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