Paying a price for posing

By Linh Do   May 9, 2020 | 05:40 pm PT
Broken relationships and constant sexual harassment are just two of the many travails nude women models in Vietnam face because of their profession.

Even in our modern times of gender equality, women can only assert their sexuality to a certain extent and eventually have to choose between it and more traditional values.   

For Trang Le, one of around 30 professional nude models in HCMC and who has been modeling for six years, the greatest pain was when her boyfriend, a photographer who took nude shots of her himself, decided to break up when he could no longer stand the idea of sharing the sight of her body with others. 

"Considering people’s lack of understanding, I might remain single and never get married," Le, a graduate of Van Hien University, recently said on TV.  

Like her, other nude models too over the years have talked about a fear and plight of having to end their relationships because of what they do.  

Tinh khiết (Purity) by photographer Duong Quoc Dinh. Photo courtesy of Dinh.

"Tinh khiết" (Purity) by photographer Duong Quoc Dinh. Photo courtesy of Dinh.

The social stigma associated with nudity was so great that another model, Thai Nha Van, had to end her career in Vietnam and leave for Norway to avoid public anger after shooting for the controversial "Thoat" (Soaring) photo collection in 2013.

In what was commonly known as "nude for meditation" and decried for being too coarse and vulgar, Van attempts to seduce a Buddhist monk character.      

Though there is also demand for male and older female nude models, especially in art schools, nude models tend to be younger good-looking women.

For these women, a broken love life might be a lesser risk than sexual harassment and even rape in what is a serious, physically demanding profession.

Thuy Linh, a nude model from the central province of Quang Binh, said at work some young men have tried to touch and kiss her, asked for sex and threatened to post her nude photos on the Internet or send them to her parents if she did not acquiesce to their wishes.

Early in her career Trang too faced but managed to evade a sexual predator. The advice from her and other nude models is to avoid going to a hotel for a one-on-one session with an artist, because, as she says, "Decent nude photographers are few, indecent ones are many."

This is not to say women are always the victim.

In 2018 nude model Nguyen Thi Kim Phuong complained to the HCMC police that she had been raped by Ngo Luc, an architect and the country’s first bodypainter.

The police investigated but did not find enough evidence, and dismissed the case. Luc later said Phuong’s action had cost him so much time and effort.

Many artists agree that art and sexual inspiration are inseparable, but there is a line that can be drawn between work and life.

Painter Le Thiet Cuong says for instance that professional artists must have strict ethical standards and working etiquette such as not touching their models unnecessarily.

Professional artists also tend to choose their models carefully. Photographer Dzung Art prefers single moms and married women who pose with their husbands’ knowledge to avoid harming their relationships.

Hard to handle

But for the frequent sexual threats, professional nude models say their job is just like any other.

As the female body is typically linked with nature and nude shooting often involves the outdoors, many nude models have to learn to brave the elements.

Thai Phien, a nude photographer for 28 years, recalls an incident at a rugged stone beach in a remote forest.

As he was about to take photos of his model, rain started belting down. The two called it off and found their way back over the slippery rocks. Phien grabbed his equipment and quickly walked on.

The nude-art photo Tu Do (Freedom) by Thai Phien printed on stone. Photo courtesy of Thai Phien.

The nude-art photo "Tu Do" (Freedom) by Thai Phien printed on stone. Photo courtesy of Thai Phien.

The model felt abandoned, and made her way through the rain with tears in her eyes. Later he had to explain to her he had to move quickly to avoid lightning and endangering her since his camera tripod contained metal.

When posing at art schools for students, a nude model may be required to maintain a difficult posture for 45 minutes straight.

Nude models for art schools earn around VND6 million ($259) a month. Those who work for photographers can earn up to VND20 million ($862), depending on photo types and photographers’ incomes. Experienced ones such as Xuan Thuy might be offered as much as $1,000 for a single shooting session.

However, some nude models say these days demand for nude photos and paintings is decreasing, and they barely make enough for rent and food.

Contrary to common stereotypes of nude models as beautiful girls who can get rich by dating rich men, many are ordinary working women from rural areas who come to cities to work, have to rent a place to live and often don’t even own motorbikes.

Though they often share their modest incomes with their family, many don’t dare tell their parents about their profession. Even Trang had not told her parents about what she does before her appearance on television in April.

Staying anonymous by posing nude without showing their faces is a common practice in the profession.  

Trang is a brave exception who shows her face because of her conviction that her job is honest, legitimate and meaningful, and provides positive images of the female body.

Beauty for eternity  

Many nude models actively seek out particular artists they admire and offer to work for free hoping to be immortalized in art.

Well-known artists such as Duong Quoc Dinh and Thai Phien often work with models whom they have known for years and who are willing to pose for free.

Phien says he always offers his models a contract and modest compensation, pays for their expenses during the work, and sends them exclusive shots as a token of gratitude, which they treasure.    

In the last three years culture authorities have become less strait-laced about nude art. In fact, a few nude photo and painting exhibitions have been held in Hanoi and HCMC, attracting record numbers of visitors.  

They include "Cam Hung Bat Tan" (Endless Inspiration) featuring paintings from 30 artists, "Anh Nude Nghe Thuat" (Nude Photography) with photos by 10 artists, Phien’s "Mien Co Tich" (Fairytale Land) photo exhibition, and photographer Hao Nhien’s "Tao Tac" (Artifacts).     

Since most of these artists are male and much of their works involve beautiful young women striking extraordinary poses in breathtaking natural scenery, two questions come to mind: why isn’t there more male nudity and will women artists portray the female body differently?

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