In the English language, the word for ‘autopsy’ is derived from the Greek word autopsia whose meaning is ‘to see for oneself’.
In the spring of 2013 I ran an intensive photography workshop through Hanoi DOCLAB for nearly three months. The point of the workshop, from my perspective at least, was not to actually teach anything and I said as much to the participants in our first meeting. Instead, I informed everyone, I was interested in all of us getting better at ‘seeing’; which is to say developing our approaches towards the individual act of visual comprehension. I was interested in this on two levels – first, in the act of looking at photographs, or art, or film, or advertising and, second, in the act of producing work, in our case in making photographs; photographic seeing.
It occurs to me that ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’ are related impulses but are not the same thing. Looking can possibly be understood to be something of a passive undertaking, a visual accounting of people and objects. Seeing, on the other hand, is an active and engaging process whereby through our senses we take in, we connect and relate the raw material to our experience, our interpretation, our education and we come to an understanding. Seeing, I have come to know, is understanding; photographic seeing is photographic understanding.
I mention the root of the word ‘autopsy’ because when the workshop was concluded, the 15 participants exhibited their finished portfolios of original work in a show called Autopsy Of Days. The show was a diverse and personal collection of images of what each person had seen for themselves; of what they had come to understand in those days of photographing.
Khổng Việt Bách’s series called In/exterior is a clinical and at the same time playful examination of the visual dialog between present reality and future desires. His images are framed nearly entirely within the publicly displayed imagined interiors of places under construction in front of which some greater or lesser amount of the theater of the street is also on view. One is immediately drawn into the fiction of the advertisement before realizing one’s error and then the truth of the situation is revealed. That revelation seems fresh with each new image we see; a deception and a discovery wrapped into a single act.
Nguyễn Thủy Tiên’s Episodes are simply and exactly that, serial photographs. The seven small sequences of images along with accompanying text tell small tales of life within her own home – tales of a mother’s full refrigerator with no man to feed, of a grandmother’s chair, of a young niece wearing her mother’s shoes. They are meant to seem more related to television dramas than chapters in a book and so each has some slight edge of melodrama underlying it. Yet they are also deeply resonating, personal while remaining somehow detached, and intelligent.
She wondered if he’d call.
In time, she knew he wouldn’t. She felt empty.
In truth, she felt nothing.
And in the end, only the emptiness remained.
Bìng Đặng produced a portfolio of images that also deceives at first glance. We are presented with some slightly animated animals rendered in B&W – lizards, birds, a goat, snakes – which we come to realize we are viewing through glass jars of a liquid which is later revealed to be rice alcohol. These are not images of nature as we first believed. This is death preserved and celebrated in consumption, in inebriation; the creature’s spirit and medicinal power ingested through libation. Binh presents us with beautifully lit totems to our own pathology, our own sickness as a species and as we look we are both fascinated and repulsed.
In her series called Rehearsal, Trương Quế Chi created a metaphorical and literal theater of war. Photographing with friends and acquaintances dressed in the garb of her parent’s generation, the women clad as peasants and the young men as North Vietnamese soldiers, Quế Chi’s re-enactors inhabit a theater – the dressing room, a hallway, the lobby, the wings of the stage and the stage itself, trying on the roles of another time and an older generation. It’s an uncomfortable fit for a time and a youth with a different vision for an uncertain future. Her empathy for these people, this generation of her peers, is not clouded in dogma as it lurks just outside the frame.
I chose only four people’s work to present to you here and of their works, only a few. There is much more to see, to understand, as you look at the rest of their series and of those of their fellow photographers. In that simple act of looking at what they have seen, we can come to determine something of our own pathology, of our own experience.