One man’s journey from beggar to photographer

Rising fashion photographer Lee Nguyen has a very striking pose of his own that’s a deliberate study in making other people feel uncomfortable. Tilting his head with its close-cropped spiky haircut and smoothly-trimmed beard, he folds his hands on the tabletop and rests his cheek gently on his knuckles, his gaze steady and beautifully hungry, as if daring you to look away.

No, it’s not a come-on, and it’s not a look he’s picked up in the industry. This is a living flashback 25 years into Lee’s past; this is the way he learned to beg for the sympathy of others just to win a few scraps from their dining room table. For all his vogue styling and laddish Australian accent, Lee’s origins in rural Phu Yen are far less than merely humble – in fact, they’re miserable.

Photo 13-10-2015, 5 49 06 PM blk (OiVietNam_3N)“I remember everything when I was younger, somehow I remember everything,” he says, having returned to Vietnam semi-permanently several months ago in order to pursue his photography career. It’s been a very long time since Lee and the rest of his family left Phu Yen for Melbourne – he was just 11 years old. His father had spent the previous eight years there as a migrant before finally achieving citizenship, sponsored by a brother who’d arrived in the country as a boat refugee in the mid-80s.

“When my dad left, I was still very young,” he says. “I hadn’t gone to school yet. But even when he was still there, our family was very poor. I had to go to different people’s houses near lunchtime, just to stand near the door and watch them eat. Obviously, when some kid is looking hungry while you’re eating, you’re going to share something.”

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“Every day I changed house, the next day I’d go to another one,” Lee says. “I have a very clear memory of one family, a mum and a dad and their two kids eating, and me, I was there holding the door, a big wooden door. Some families like them would ignore me, so I remember moving a bit closer. They had a block of wood in front of the doorway, so I had to step over it. I’d stand there or lie around, watching them. Eventually they had to offer me some food. I remember so clearly one time that I really wanted to eat some bananas. They were on a family altar. I wanted to eat them so much. It was an old lady’s house. When she had a nap, I used rocks and chucked them up there to get the bananas. She hit me when she found out.”

Watching Lee demonstrate his begging technique is fundamentally disturbing – it’s not the first time I’ve seen this look on a human face. Living in Saigon, it’s difficult not to see the street kids, the waifs selling chewing gum and lotto tickets, the grubby, sleepy-eyed children buzzing around the markets hoping to be noticed whenever someone takes out their wallet to make a payment. Frequent exposure triggers more irritation than compassion in most; those who’ve never experienced a desperate need before find it almost impossible to register genuine empathy, and reasons not to offer help swiftly come to mind.

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Sudden Rush of Memories

For Lee, who emerged from that very situation, being confronted by his own history after returning from abroad was every bit as disarming as you might imagine it would be. Australian life was tough but better than starving and begging – and although the memories of his childhood never faded, years of living without hunger meant that they rarely came to the surface. By the time he was invited to go back and visit the mother country by a friend, he was simply looking forward to seeing Vietnam again and indulging in the nightlife of Saigon.

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“It was my first visit. I was partying, you name it,” says Lee. “You know how the foreigners here are. I didn’t have any local Vietnamese friends. Then one night we were at this restaurant, we were drinking, there were a lot of girls, working girls and stuff, you know what you do. It was past midnight, and after the meal I just turned around and saw a boy holding on to the wooden door, doing exactly what I did back then. Just watching me eat. Somehow you know, like a flashback, it all came back. Bam bam bam bam… a lot of images.”

Hit hard by the sudden rush of memories, Lee asked the boy to come in. “The restaurant wouldn’t allow it,” he says, “so I said I’d pay for him, he’s my friend, if you don’t let him in I’m not going to come here anymore. And the boss says ok, let him in. The kid is like, still standing like that, trying to sell me a lotto ticket. I said yeah, I’ll buy them all. Eat first. And I was just watching him eat like he’d never eaten anything. I started crying. I could see myself right there, a mirror. I was in tears and everyone was looking at me going ‘what are you doing?’ Everyone started leaving, they said, ‘are you going to come with us?’ I said ‘no, I’m staying with him.’”

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“At that moment, my head was so empty,” admits Lee. “I couldn’t feel anything. I started walking home from that restaurant. It was raining, I was drunk, very emotional, and my head kept flashing back to those images. And then I saw the kid just running up, and he gave me a hug, the biggest hug: ‘Thank you, Uncle.’”

Lee’s experience was a jolt back to reality, and he soon found himself on the road to Phu Yen to search for his roots. After an afternoon driving through the rural areas, he realized he was lost. Entering a small village, he saw the living conditions of the children there were even worse than those of his own childhood, and as he started asking questions and taking photos, he discovered that their difficulties were far deeper than he imagined.

“This one, the father was a fisherman and got trapped under his boat and drowned,” says Lee as he starts talking me through his images. “At that time his wife had cancer. They had four kids, from 12 down to five. When I went to their house, I talked to their mum, she couldn’t move. Swollen neck, lying on the ground, they didn’t have a bed.”

“These kids collect snails,” he says, moving on. “They work the whole day and make about VND15,000 between them. It’s a really poor area, there’s a Chinese factory there, and it’s polluted bad. No one complains about it, a lot of people there work for that factory. You see old people and young kids only, wandering around, catching frogs and snakes. They use the leftovers for dinner, and pick fruit. They’re like hunter gatherers.” As Lee traveled farther through the region, he began to rely on his camera to connect with what he saw. He would interview the children he captured with his lens to learn more about them and establish a rapport, and in the process became more emotionally involved with their situation.

“This girl with long hair washing in the river,” he shows me. “I was standing on the other side. She was just like this, you can tell it’s not a clean river but you can see every muscle. The reason why it’s blurred is to obscure her identity – she could be anyone. This one, the father was electrocuted, the mother had leukemia. This orphanage I’ve now been to regularly. The nuns like people to donate, but not too much. They don’t want the kids to think they can get money like that, or they’ll think that everyone will give them things for free. They want to kids to know how to fight for their lives.” Lee’s first images were taken almost in total bewilderment as he tried to come to terms with his forgotten childhood, but he soon discovered that his photos had unexpectedly captured something other than the suffering of Vietnam’s rural children.

“I don’t think my pictures show poor kids here,” says Lee, visibly humbled by the children’s faces even now. “My pictures show the moment that they enjoy life. This kid in the orphanage, I said ‘show me your beautiful face,’ and he pulled at his eyes and went argg… I think I just want to show that. My whole intention in taking a photo is in that moment of joy you only see in children like that. Despite everything they’re like, ‘I’m happy with what I am and what I have now.’”

“I’m not showing anyone that they’re hungry or suffering,” says Lee. “All the kids on the street here in Saigon, you can see them all wandering around. Don’t be too distant. They’re not showered, yeah, they’re dirty. But there’s something about the happiness in their life that really reflects all of us.”

Follow Lee Nguyen’s work at www.facebook.com/leefoto33

Images By Lee Nguyen