Seeing Red

Minimalism can be a difficult thing to make mysterious or engaging, but occasionally an artist is able to imbue simplicity with meaning and depth. Saigon fashion photographer Hậu Lê is a case in point. His images feature unassuming constructed sets that brim with energy and space, transporting his subjects to other worlds with the help of rich lighting—and of course a solid team of stylists, models, and makeup artists.

The 30-year-old son of farmers moved from a coastal province to Saigon for university to study logistics. Lê worked in the field for about a year but couldn’t stand it and started exploring photography as an outlet. His early forays in 2015 began with street landscape shots. “I just loved to explore and find a different perspective on things around Saigon,” he says. He took a couple of short classes and watched YouTube tutorials to figure out the technical side of things. “I never imagined I’d become a professional.”

One day another photographer wasn’t available for a fashion event, so Lê substituted and his path took a sharp turn. “My friends told me I have a good sense for this and to go for it, but I didn’t know anything about it,” he laughs. It took him a couple of years, but by 2018 he had a handle on the style he wanted to pursue.

Although there’s been some tension from working with so many people who all have their own goals, Lê feels like he’s doing what he loves now. The main distinction he sees between what’s just working for others and what’s a personal project is mainly about the level of control he has. Working with a team is fine, but he prefers creative freedom where no one can interfere with his vision.

Over the years Lê has gathered friends that he gets along with well, and when it’s time to put a team together for a shoot, that’s who he calls on. He generally starts with a theme and then figures out which designers’ outfits will fit his story. But the most important element of a shoot for him is the set. “It’s just always been what makes the biggest difference in my experience,” he says. “Because most photos I take are so simple, I prefer something more exotic to achieve what I want.”

Red is the most prominent color in Lê’s work, and it’s in most of his photos, soaking into models’ skin and bleeding across edges. “I see excitement and attraction in red,” he explains. Part of the appeal is the nostalgia of growing up in Vietnam, and he associates it with everything that surrounded him as a kid. At the same time, he’s drawn to its surreality. “When you spend too much time looking into it, it becomes confusing.” His photos very often seem otherworldly by intent, and he wants viewers to feel like they’re somewhere that doesn’t exist outside of their imaginations.

Lê’s work overwhelmingly focuses on a specific type of beautiful female model, but he’s also started to shoot in more creative forms to explore the idea of womanhood, specifically focusing on the menstrual cycle. “What women go through every month greatly interferes with their daily life,” he says. “I only understand it through the words of my friends and I am still working on it.” In a recent couplet, he pairs two images shot on a rough, red carpet splattered with white paint. In the center of one is a blood-dappled maxi pad and the other an off-white pair of stained panties. Definitely not his typical beauty-centered shot.

It’s taken a while to get where he is now but Lê finally feels in control now. “When I started, it was never possible to do what I wanted because so many people were involved,” he recalls. “I was always asking myself when I’d be able to do what I really wanted. Now I can express myself through pictures, which I was never able to do through words.”

But the Vietnamese fashion scene is evolving quickly, and as some others have said, Lê feels it’s a bit stressful to try and keep up. “It makes me feel like I’m not growing much anymore.” Part of the solution to that is to not follow the trends and to focus on his own goals instead: “I need to do what I like better so I don’t lose my identity. I will develop in my own way.”