Nhu’s sometimes edgy, always haunting work has already appeared in prestigious magazines like Marie Clare, Vogue and DANSK. She balances personal projects with commercial fashion and editorial work. Combining organic textures with portraiture, it’s been said that the alluring strangeness of her images make them stick in your head. Who are we to disagree with that?
Did anything in your childhood or teenage years particularly resonate to have a lasting effect on you choosing a creative profession?
It’s always a weird thing for me to dig into my childhood cause I feel like I had a very simple life compare to some other kids who were allowed to experiment a lot by themselves from an early age. I’ve been raised in a family were mistakes weren’t really discussable. I wasn’t too much into music cause my parents were not playing music that much at home. I feel like my childhood was a cycle where everything was pretty much schedule and organized. My dad is a painter. He used to paint in our garage that he turned into a studio. I’ve always been fascinated by all those treasures which were hanging all over the walls and the ceiling. He never threw a thing out and we could barely walk into the garage. He was always happy to have me around, watching him painting or digging into his piles of books and all those newspaper cuttings and random objects. I loved this garage. I loved how the door opened because it was an up and over garage door so whenever you where opening the door, the light was coming straight through it, highlighting all those colors and shapes and I felt like I was discovering a new land every time.
When did you get your first camera and when did you think of using it as a creative tool?
My dad had a Nikon FE that I took from his shelve. I asked him to teach me how to use it but I’ve only used it once I was on my first year of university. I’ve always been into Arts and I guess this artistic legacy comes from my father, although my family has always been concerned about me working in the art industry. Their concerns were a good challenge for me.
My main subject in high school was Art; so I had the chance to try different mediums before eventually choosing photography. It came to me quite late actually. I remember having a friend who was really good at digital manipulation, like changing her arm into a snake or duplicating herself. I thought it could be interesting to learn about photography and so I started mixing photography with fine arts during my classes in highschool. I received a digital camera when I was 16, it was one of those hybrid cameras called “bridge”. I guess my parents wanted to offer me the best camera but they couldn’t afford it so they bought me this camera which made me feel like it was a professional camera.
Can you describe your creative professional route to your current position?
My journey appeared really clear to me since I’m about 17. I had a lot of interest into mixed media but I decided to choose photography as a key tool for my art. After high school, I wanted to be a photographer no matter what and I did plan every single year until my 25th birthday. It was a way for me to schedule my life and to make sure I would have a purpose to fight for for the next few years. I had to go through many obstacles starting with my family being really concerned about the career I had chosen. Somehow those doubts gave me the strength to be where I am today. I’ve applied for a photographic school after high school. It was a 2 years course and it was a very technical school. Funny enough they didn’t accept me that year because my science level was too low and I’ve been told that I was too arty for this course. I did one year studying History of Art and then applied again to the same photographic school . The second year they told me they were only accepting people straight from high school . As stubborn as I am I decided to do a course to raise my level in science and applied again the next year. I studied cinema for a year and then applied again. That year I was finally accepted.
After my graduation in 2011 I had been assisting few photographers for a year or so, then I felt really eager to be able to shot my own stories. Fashion came to me as a good way to create with different components. It was also a perfect excuse to gather creative spirits. Models, hair stylist, stylist or make up artist. This is what I like about my work, everyone needs to bring a part of himself to give birth to something new that goes beyond the boundaries of what has been seen before.
Which work of yours represents a real breakthrough moment?
There are some pictures that come back very often when people ask me questions about my work. This upside down picture I took for the story “Impression of chills” is a good example. I guess it embodies many of the aspects of my photography. From the colors, to the model’s expression, the shape of the body which remains half real half surreal also highlight one of the basis of my work. As the theme of this story was “sexuality and orgasm” I tried to offer an emotion through the story, which wasn’t easy to express without being really obvious. This picture reveals a lot on the way I perceive love, bodies and woman. There is a constant dialogue between the body and myself. Sometimes it’s hard to define my vision with words so i use photography. In the story “The Use of speech” I tried to picture a moment of conversation between two people. It was a study based on the gesture, the body language, the face expression, the time and the thoughts or feelings you can’t share only through words.
I’ve always been really into anything which was handcrafted. Photography is my main tool but I also feel the need to explore other mediums to fulfill my search in art. It’s a process that is constantly evolving. The business part always comes after. Creativity will always be the first.
A new project lands on your desk…take us through your initial process?
There are amazing projects coming to me over the last two years. It’s becoming harder and harder to say no as for me everything is challenging and I like taking risks just for the seek of producing something special.
I usually need to have a title or a theme as a starting point. I write down a list of words, key words to define the project and then comes my favorite part, I do lots of research and I gather all the references I come across to build up a base: it can be visual or written.
Once I have those references I spend a lot of time to set up different approaches per shot and to narrow the directions. Having a concept for each images is a way for me to answer the subject through specific points. It’s like having an equation I try to solve.
The shoot is always exciting because it’s the moment when all my questions are going to start finding an answer. It’s always such a good feeling when the first photo reveals itself on the screen.
What is your essential studio toolkit? Are there any new (or old) technologies that are having a big impact or shaping your professional aesthetic?
When I was maybe 12 years old my dad gave me a multi tools knife as a christmas present. Being 12, obviously I was expecting something other than a multi tool knife, but I kept it anyway. When I came on my very first set, I was told that any good assistant needed to have at least one of those multi tools knife . As I believe in signs I bring this knife with me everywhere on set from that day until now even if I don’t really need it today anymore. I’m really thankful toward people who taught me everything I’ve learned so far until now. I take this tool with me as a lucky charm and I like saying to myself that somehow my dad knew I would be what I am today.
How important are non-industry/work related influences on how you think and produce work? Can you give an example of an important influence for you?
Most of my references are based on art. Rarely on fashion. When I was still living in Paris I used to go to the cinema at least 4-5 times a week.
For me every single series I’ve made is a different scenario which is somehow always gravitating around the same theme.
To name only a few masters I admire, Giacometti, Escher, Hans Bellmer, Woody Allen, Almodovar are all obsessed and maniac artists. Most of them had their whole career built around one unique subject.
I think wherever you are going in your art there will always be an attractive and mysterious strength that will take you back to the original question that makes you wonder who you are, like a compulsion neurosis.
These explorations through art and cinema allow me to explore further the way to achieve some ideas: how can I express myself through the frame, the colors, the texture, a line, a shadow, a look. The aesthetics of my story is never set from the beginning. It comes alongside the process of determining how to interpret a feeling or a thoughts. That is why subject like love can be sometimes in color, sometimes in black and white, sometimes with organic shape, sometimes with violent and harsh lines.
I like taking ideas from my dreams, when I can remember them. Recently I’ve been able to remember a lot of them. So I like to find some way to put them into my editorials. I get really inspired by peoples stories also. I’ve always been jealous of people who had good adventures to tell about their childhood. I don’t think I’ve experienced a lot of crazy things as a kid due to a traditional upbringing but I like listening to someone else story so I can capture images in my mind and sometime it gives birth to a photograph.
My inspirations are usually based on my mood. I’ve been told a few time that my work revealed some sadness and that my models looks very fragile but it’s not about this because I’m not a sad person. I guess we all have our flaws and my inspiration mainly comes from the fact that I keep questioning my self a lot about everything: Time mostly is a subject that I am obsessed with, the disappearance of the being, the evolution of the body with the time. I think what I want to show through my work is the inconsistency of the human being. Mostly women because I am one. It’s really personal in the end.
Can you share some thoughts on what you are working on at the moment or planning to work on in the next few months?
I’m working on a project with a music artist for her cover album which is very exciting because the whole idea is to depict different parts of her personality in images . The process is deeper and we need to go through a lot of researches to give birth do an unique world which is hers . I really enjoy sharing this creative process of research with another person . The combination of our two worlds is going to bring for sure some amazing result. It’s like putting together keys of a deconstructed piece and try to recreate one unique being which will be the answer. Art is a conversation. With yourself and with others.
Do you still have time to produce personal work? Do you have any hobbies outside of work?
I’ve started a very personal project which is really intimate about my family and my origins. I’m going through the documentary process right now and i gather materials that will take me somewhere at some point. I’m taking pictures, recording sounds and conversations and also filming. It’s still really blurry but it’s a personal project that reflect s my desire to know more about where I come from and what was the past like in a country like Vietnam before the war. This could end into a small edition or exhibition but it’s too early for now to project myself into a physical support.