Artist Spotlight: Thien Nguyen
Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the colored canvas, reveals himself.” Similarly, when a photographer takes a picture, it is the photographer who is revealed in the final image.
Here at TEAL Magazine, we wanted to show our readers the people behind the images. We don’t often get to know or meet the photographers whose images we love. Starting today, we’d like to share with you monthly features of our photographers. You’ll get to know them, learn what makes them tick, find out why they do what they do and what drives them as artists.
We sat down with Thien Nguyen, a professional film photographer based out of Washington D.C. and a staff photographer for the magazine. She talked about her work, creative process, and some of the challenges she faces as an ethnic female artist.
Tell us something about yourself...
I've been taking pictures ever since I can remember. The first portrait I ever took was of my father in 1995 and that portrait was monumental in shaping my love and passion for photography.
How and when did you start doing photography; specifically, film photography?
I started photography when I was about 14 years old. My first real dabble in film photography was when I got my hands on my father's Pentax K1000, equipped with a 50mm lens. I had a friend whose friend was a photographer and during high school, he taught me about that camera, film, and composition. After high school, I was focused on college and professional school; it wasn't until 2010 that I started traveling and taking (digital) pictures. By the end of 2015, I went back to film photography.
How would you describe your style? Are you street, fine art? Do you believe in labeling your art?
This is a tough question...defining a style is difficult because depending on how I feel, my style changes. Some days I feel "dark and moody", other days I feel "light and airy". You can't see it right now, but I'm actually laughing at those words because I think they're completely overused and nondescript, but you probably know what I mean. I think my style is redefined every day by what I learn and how I see the world at that moment. However, the one constant will always be emotions; what I feel when I'm compelled to take a photo. That feeling is what I hope the viewer will experience when they look at my picture.
I started as a street photographer. I love everything about it, from catching fleeting moments in the dark to the geometry of roads and buildings, even its challenges. Somewhere along the way, I started doing more portraits and fell into fine-art work. Now I shoot street, couples, families, portraits, and editorials for TEAL Magazine. I still consider street photography to be my forte, but I think I do pretty ok with fine-art too.
I don't mind labels, as long as they don’t define or limit me. I always want to be in a place where I can grow and change. My work from two years ago is different from my work today. Heck, my work from yesterday is different from my work today.
What is it like to be a female in a male-dominated industry?
Not only am I a female artist, but an ethnic female. In the past, it was very rare for me to run into others like me, it’s more common now, but I still think the street/music photography industry is dominated by white men. Since that’s the reality of the world we live in, I am in a position where I’m forced to think about it. Generally, I find myself surrounded by men and it feels intimidating, lonely, and isolating, but it makes me louder and bolder, even if I really want to go home and crawl back in bed. I’ve definitely been overlooked by people who didn't realize I was the photographer. I’m not always taken seriously because of the way I look, or they’re “interested”, but not necessarily in my work.
I think it's important for women to find their voice and express themselves no matter what. We offer a different perspective and it would be a shame if we didn’t share it. I want to encourage women who are interested in the art to pursue it. Don’t be afraid to be yourself and let your work reflect that. Women are amazing!
What is your go-to camera and film stock?
Contax N1, Portra 400
Who are your biggest inspirations?
Harry Benson, Sally Mann, Elizabeth Messina, and Johnny Patience
Why did you choose film photography?
Because I love the artist I’ve become through film photography. I’m incredibly passionate about film. The choice to be a dedicated film shooter was the turning point in my love affair with photography. When I was shooting digitally, the work I produced was good, but I always felt something was missing. It wasn’t until I started shooting film again that I found what I didn’t know I was looking for. Film has challenged me and pushed me out of my comfort zone. It has changed my work into a deep reflection of my spirit and artistic vision. Shooting film has slowed me down and made me a deliberate shooter. It encouraged me to see the world differently and made me realize the emotional investment in every shutter release.
I feel completely connected with my work as a film shooter. I touch the film I load into my camera, I make the choice to snap the photo, and then I can follow that film through the development and into print. That’s an amazing feeling. I was a lot more careless as a digital shooter.
Can you describe to us your creative process?
I know this is not the most eloquent or profound answer, but honestly, my creative process is uncomplicated-- I see, I feel, I shoot.
What are the things you are trying to achieve from your art?
Rather than ask what I'm trying to achieve from my art, I would ask, what is my art doing for me? I know it's egocentric, but my art is very personal to me, it's a part of who I am. It's me sharing bits and pieces of my heart and soul with the rest of the world. It allows me to feel like I belong to something bigger than me. It allows me to connect with my fellow humans and my environment. I used to spend time asking questions like, what’s it all for? What am I trying to say? How can I do it differently or better? Does it make me feel something? But one day, during a crisis, an amazing artist said to me, "don't think about it so hard, it'll become too methodical, just go out there and feel it."
What has your practice taught you about yourself?
It has taught me to trust myself and the work I create.
Give advice to your fellow creatives out there...
1. Allow yourself to fail, over and over again, so you can learn—you’re only human.
2. Do what you love, and when you don't love it anymore, stop. Ride out the lows and pick up the camera only when you're inspired. It'll save you lots of heartache...and some money.