An omniscient Bodhisattva with 15 arms is busy at work, partially blindfolded and bathed in cold office lights. Through her portal she’s inspecting an astronaut under the lights of a skyscraper. Outside, the astronaut is thrown into flames. Both are entangled in endless cables, while stray cats and street food are scattered all about. This is part of the Saigon’s Characters series by Viet fashion photographer Chiron Dương. These characters and themes pop up through the rest of the series as viewers fall through the looking glass and discover deeper themes and meanings.
The Bodhisattva and astronaut are actually a delivery person and an ordering app. Dương is taking everyday features of modern day life and translating them into a colorful editorial shoot. The images are dense, bubbling scenes filled with a barrage of Vietnamese references.
Dương uses fashion editorials as a way to explore local and regional culture. The Saigon’s Characters series is a statement about what the city looks like in modern times. In his eyes, it’s is a collision point of many different elements, where a wide range of colors, cultures, and people intertwine. His city is both triumphant and treacherous, but mostly filled with potential. Overpopulation, poverty, disease, danger? Sure. But also diversity, beauty, history, and connection. “The developing city of Saigon these days is a swirling blend of cultural and spiritual values. A mix of religions, morals, and habits passed on from generation to generation.”
The series was made for the Xon Xao In Saigon showcase, which combined graphic design with augmented reality technology. To create it, Dương first sketched out the characters. “Each one is associated with a story or a socio-cultural aspect that I wanted to mention in regards to the city,” he explains. Once he had the shoot planned, he sought out clothing designs that fit his sketches. Everything revolves around model Lê Thanh Huyền wearing pieces by local designers Thảo Nguyên, Monbu Mai, Nguyễn Quỳnh Anh, and Trần Bảo Sơn.
Indigenous attire, motorcycles, skyscrapers, and street food are all collaged together in separate images that combine to tell a larger story. In one, a vendor hides her eyes behind a conical hat covered in layers of plastic. But we’re witness to her private thoughts by way of the mirrors floating around her. The street ninja (a phrase referring to women on motorbikes covered head-to-toe in clothing to avoid the sun) looks into a mirror to witness a frothing mass of people whispering rumors behind her. The water that splashes around the ninja is in all the other images, but most prominently envelops a second deity dressed in a dragon-emblazed pullover. It speaks the rippling water of Saigon River, which offers a way to discreetly observe and distort other city dwellers. Another character explodes in color, warped and brilliant, as a representation of the tidal wave of traffic in the streets.
The meanings behind Dương’s series are often bleak. But if you focus on the images themselves, it’s hard not to enjoy them. The challenges of the day are many, but the opportunities they present are endless. It’s an attempt to learn from these problems rather than hide from them. His work takes advantage of the possibilities of the moment and hopefully inspires us to do the same.