According to several studies, 95% of the population of Vietnam is in support of free-market capitalism. It is one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Optimistic and future-facing, the country’s consumerist society is alive and kicking, having transformed its domestic economy, embraced global free trade and entered into world economy—despite being one of the last remaining communist governments in power.
Fascinated by this friction between capitalism and communism, and its roots in the infamous conflict that came to an apex during the mid-70s, Simone Sapienza embarked on an ambitious project to go beyond the iconic representations of Vietnam and capture these contemporary contradictions. After a period of research, he spent a number of years developing a visual language that brought these statistics to life while embodying the strange limbo between freedom and control that he encountered. The result was Charlie Surfs on Lotus Flowers.
In this feature for LensCulture, Sapienza speaks to us about searching for a new, research-based visual language, photography’s role in the society of the spectacle and the cyclical nature of history.
On April the 30th in 1975, a tank from the People’s Army of Vietnam from the North, backed by Viet Cong guerrillas, forced its way through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon marking the end of 20 years of bloody conflict. The American-backed government of South Vietnam had been defeated, communism had trumped capitalism, and the new era that followed was to be free of Western influence, shaped by its victors: the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the party that remains in power today. In Simone Sapienza’s image, taken some 40 years later, it is a shiny red tour bus that drives through the gates of the palace. Looking to challenge what he knew of post-war Vietnam, Sapienza’s Charlie Surfs on Lotus Flowers visually maps out the paradoxical nature of one of the last communist bastions—now home to a thriving consumerist culture.
It was while studying documentary photography in Wales that Sapienza’s curiosity in the country began to grow. “I was thinking about my knowledge of Vietnam when I went for the first time. It was nothing beyond the pictures. Thinking about it, my only reference was Hollywood,” explains Sapienza. On one side, the libraries were stocked with iconic photojournalism like Don McCullin’s harrowing portrait of a shell-shocked US marine, and movies like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket dominated the portrayal of Vietnam. On the other, National Geographic photographs and idyllic travel landscapes. Curious about its current incarnation beyond these representations, Sapienza embarked on research into the make-up of Vietnam’s post-war society.
What he discovered was a country that had been in the flux of transformation over the past decade. According to several studies, 30 years ago Vietnam was one of the poorest countries in the world. Now, it has become one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, with a youthful population—nearly 70% born after 1975 and 94% of society believe their children will be better off than their parents—and an optimistic outlook on the future—95% support free-market capitalism. “It was the highest in the world. For instance, in the United States, just 70% agreed with capitalism,” says Sapienza. “For me, it represented a kind of slow economic victory of the USA over Vietnam.”
With this patchwork of pre-images and information in mind, the Italian photographer travelled to Asia for the first of many trips. At the heart of his project was the development of a visual approach that would bring to life the in-depth research he had encountered beforehand. “This kind of balance between a statistical point of view and its translation into a metaphorical point of view was interesting to me,” Sapienza explains. “According to the statistics, Vietnam is supposed to be the new China, the new ‘Asian Tiger’. But then it’s still one of the last communist boundaries. It’s the boundary between capitalism and communism that interested me, and the role of the communist party. They’re all of the power and propaganda.”
But how to capture these contradictions? How do they manifest themselves on the country’s streets? Developing his own visual map over the course of several trips, Sapienza began to assemble symbols that hinted at the friction between freedom and control. Combined together (in its most complete form, the project exists as a book published by AKINA) these different metaphors build a portrait of the country that speaks of power, promise and ambiguity—one that draws on the power of photography as a central device in the spectacle of capitalism. “With this project, there were many different layers of the same cake. This idea of ‘illusion’ was also an important part of Hollywood and the movies I had been watching,” he says. “It’s a kind of fiction.”
Dipping between Vietnam’s infamous past and its dynamic present, many of the images lie on the border between fiction and reality. The energetic consumerist culture of contemporary Vietnam is captured in a series of portraits taken in the financial district of Ho Chi Minh City, where Sapienza set up a bright red backdrop and photographed people as they were passing in front of it, going about their daily business. Most of the other faces in the project remain hidden or covered: a gesture towards the history of the Viet Cong, whose existence and political activities remained covert during the war. Now in control, the theatrical displays of history and power enacted by the government and the media are made transparent; the shiny illusion of order punctured by leaving in small backstage details that draw attention to their artifice, like the plastic lotus flower, the country’s national symbol.
Aside from these few portraits, the Vietnam of Charlie Surfs on Lotus Flowers is primarily one of objects: things made, things sold, things accumulated. The country’s key exports—from the man-made telephone to the most exported fish to the US, the catfish—take the form of pack-shot-esque still lifes, abstracted from their origins. Underneath the bright and glossy images lurk Sapienza’s questions about freedom and control, summed up visually by the metaphor of the bird. A much-used symbol in propaganda, it appears in several forms throughout the project: free in nature, caged, and lifeless on the pavement. “It’s a cyclical history. After Vietnam escaped westernization put in place by western countries, the new society is a new kind of western,” he remarks. “After they were free, they have now chosen to look and be like them.”