On working with the Hmong community in Vietnam

Vietnamese photographer Nhàn Tran has been photographing the effects of young marriage on Hmong women since 2019. She is the recipient of the Objectifs Documentary Award 2021, Emerging Category. Her solo show, Between The Silent Eyes, marks her first exhibition. In this interview, she shares about her passion for the issue, and how her approach has changed over the course of the project.

In your conversations with your subjects, what were their main struggles? How did they feel about motherhood and the impact of motherhood on themselves?

Nhàn Tran: One of the main struggles  faced by young Hmong girls is poverty. The Hmong community in Vietnam is traditionally an agricultural community. Many young Hmong girls get married early, between 15 and 18, for many reasons. Some of them were forced to marry because their parents wanted to ‘escape poverty’, as they will get a large dowry for the marriage. Young people in the Hmong culture rarely divorce, even without love in the marriage. A wedding does not only involve two people, but also the community’s collective interests.

When young girls marry, they become the main source of labor in the family, and are expected to be subservient and domestic, and give birth to children. All of them hope that they can find work in the city, even though they don’t know much about urban jobs or life in urban areas. They believe that earning a little money is better than working in the fields and their life at home, which is fundamental to planning a different future for their children. They always strive to fulfill their responsibilities as mothers.

Even though they don’t want to live far away from their children, they choose to send their children away or leave their children at home. Even though they are afraid that they only know a little Vietnamese, and may face discrimination and difficulties in a new environment, they still choose to go in search of work.

They realize that only by actively changing themselves, can they change their lives.

How has this project changed the way you view these young women? 

As an outsider who was curious about the Hmong’s historical migration in Vietnam, I first started this project with the aim of understanding another culture in my home country. I started paying attention to young Hmong girls in early 2020, a year after I began taking photographs about the culture within the Hmong community. I realized that many young Hmong girls get married early in life and became curious about their life afterward. When a young Hmong boy marries  a young Hmong girl, what is their married life like?

I came to know Máy through one of my friends who started a homestay business service in the center of Đồng Văn town. Máy’s stories represent the young Hmong generation who are attempting  to approach modernity within their tradition. Máy became a mother of two children after she first met a boy at the Chinese border, and got married to him a few years later.

Over the past two years of working with the Hmong community, the way I view them, especially these young women, has changed a lot. I see them as my friends or my little sisters, instead of seeing them as my subjects. The huge lesson I’m still learning is that I try not to judge the people who I am working with, and try to understand them as much as possible on the basis of their humanity. I feel like I am growing up with these young women, particularly in this chapter of the project with Máy.  What I am trying to tell is her story about her community, and her various attempts in both her personal and work life to reduce the disparity with other people who are coming from other groups in Vietnam. I have also been thinking about myself in the attempt to find who I am, what I can do in my home country, who I can become, and how to develop my storytelling skills. 

From being an outsider when I first started, I am gradually becoming closer to them. However, I have to admit that because we don’t speak the same language,  communication is still a barrier to understanding their lives. But what I am trying to capture is what I feel about them, and I want to change their own and the general perception of the Hmong as a minority group.

How has your photographic approach changed over the course of working on this project for the past two years?

At the beginning of my photography career, I took street photographs, and captured very quick moments around me. In 2019, I started this project, and my photographic approach has changed since then. I love caring about the people whom I meet, taking time to build relationships and earn their trust, and trying to understand their characteristics and personalities. Up to now, I’m still finding my own language of photography, and discovering what kind of photography will work for me. But I think photography is one of my favorite mediums, besides film. Photography gives me time to understand people, to have a silent space, and feel the power of the silence. The stories I bring out are the meeting point between myself and people around me.

What do you think your photos say about these women? What are you trying to capture with your camera?

This project is an ongoing photographic documentation of young Hmong mothers in the mountainous province of Vietnam. Through intimate observations and interviews, my photos explore daily life and the travails of motherhood experienced by these young women. I also take a closer look at their resilience in facing the turmoil of society within their patriarchal family, and also the changes and development of the Hmong community.

This chapter of the larger project looks at the life of Máy, who represents the young Hmong girl’s generation which has missed their teenage years. Her stories also illustrate the role of women within their community. The social exclusion that is concomitant with being a mother at such a young age and the maternal instincts which have guided her in harsh situations bring about a different worldview, where a brighter future is imagined for her children.

What I am trying to capture most, besides the struggles of motherhood, is the feeling of intimacy, and the connection between myself and them.