As Thi My Lien Nguyen works on her college graduation project that eventually becomes the photobook Hiếu Thảo –With Love and Respect, she finds herself constantly moving in and out of various places and roles. Almost all weekends, she commutes for several hours from campus back home to do the shoots, moving from the outside world into the domestic realm, where “all the rules apply and all these behaviors and the language and the food and the smell are different.” Here she assumes two different roles: one moment she acts as a photographer/storyteller and the next she is a character within the story, interacting with her mother and grandmother.
Shortly after the Vietnam War, Nguyen’s family fled from Laos to Switzerland where she was born and raised. Her process of growing up, therefore, is largely navigating and negotiating Vietnamese heritage and Swiss culture with unanswered questions about her family history. Hiếu Thảo – With Love and Respect offers Nguyen a chance to sit down with her female ancestors, talk through their ideas of Swiss-ness and Vietnamese-ness, and determine which Vietnamese concepts are of most important value to herself, her grandmother and mother. The thread of maternal lineage runs through the visual narrative and connects the past with the present, calmly unfolding themes of memory, culture, and identity.
The project has taken a number of forms, one of them being a paperback book encompassed by a folded poster of the voyage to the Seealpsee lake, reminiscing of the life-changing journey to another continent that her family took years ago. The grand Swiss mountain ranges no longer serve as a distant backdrop in travel photos, but are where an intergenerational Vietnamese family builds a new home. Facsimiles of vernacular material, such as notices, letters, invitations, and ID cards in German, are tucked between pages of photos and texts in English and Vietnamese, contributing to a sense of multi-locality and trans-culturality.
At the same time, these various objects emphasize that the act of remembering can be stimulated in multiple ways. A carefully handwritten letter that describes the first snow, a wedding invitation in German, or an elegantly lit studio portrait of her young grandmother can spark up endless dialogues.
Nguyen recalls how time-consuming and chaotic it was to rummage through various archives and piece together her family history. “From a photographer’s point of view, it’s a mess,” Nguyen shares. “Everyone has some images, mostly of themselves with someone. Some photos are glued in without dates and information. No order, no organizing, no editing. Some are just boxes full of images.”
She mixes found items with new shots and sequences them in a non-chronological order, creating a non-linear narrative about the day-to-day life of three generations of a Vietnamese family in four decades. The past seamlessly blends into the present, as if living among it.
Hiếu Thảo – With Love and Respect is not a one-woman show, but a collaborative effort by three female blood-relatives. The emotional toll can be difficult at times, but in the end, it all comes to a good cause. Nguyen’s demand for open conversations about intimate topics pulls her mother, her grandmother, and her much closer and allows them to grow with her. Once ornate vases and fake flowers become intriguing and beautiful, now that Nguyen knows they represent her maternal ancestors’ enduring attachment to their heritage.
At one point, she feels the need to include a self-portrait. In a red ao dai with her hair open and untied, she looks directly at the camera and the audience with an inquisitive and determined gaze. “I want to show myself after this process, how firm and how proud I was able to become and still am about my roots, heritage, and family history. As a younger self, you can feel ashamed because you don’t understand.”
Nguyen identifies as a Swiss-Vietnamese artist, acknowledging the role both cultures play in nurturing her. Hiếu Thảo – With Love and Respect is also a gesture of recognition and gratitude; she uses a fundamental Vietnamese concept of filial piety to tie together her family and her own experience of harmonizing Vietnamese and Swiss cultures. In other words, to Nguyen, the college graduation project is also a way of paying respect and filial piety towards her family for going through the challenges and raising her to become the person she is today. Her personal story is embedded within a bigger narrative, one of displacement, acculturation, and the shifting notion of home.
Thi My Lien Nguyen (1995) is a Swiss-Vietnamese artist based in Switzerland. Her interest lies between the fine line of documentary and photographic art.She focused her work on issues of identity, migration, diasporas, and the communities. She graduated from the University of Applied Science – Art and Design in Lucerne in 2017 and is currently working as a freelance photographer, filmmaker, visual strategist, and artist.