14 September 2018

A Colourful Portrait of Vietnam's Ambiguity

14 September 2018 - Written by Laurence Cornet

In Charlie surfs on Lotus Flowers, published by Akina Books, Simone Sapienza depicts post-war Vietnam through a sequence of metaphorical responses to its current Hollywoodian limbo, surfing himself on a new wave of documentary photography.

© Simone Sapienza, from the book Charlie surfs on Lotus Flowers, published by Akina Books

On the cover, absorbed passers-by walk by a makeshift studio with a background of the same red as the Vietnamese flag. Their faces are barely visible - only their swinging arms give a sense of their pace. When he first went to Vietnam in 2015, Simone Sapienza shot a series of portraits in Ho Chi Minh City of citizens posing in front of this background. He then cropped the pictures and arranged them into a collage representing a mix of the United States and the Vietnamese flag as a way to express the clash between the capitalist values of a younger generation and the older generation running the Communist government.

He also shot unaware pedestrians who would ultimately become metaphors for a country that has been freed from another country, yet ends up longing for that same country’s ideology half a century later. They are anonymous, just as most of the people appearing in the book - their faces hidden under as mask, a jacket, a hand, a spotlight, or radically cropped out of the frame. "A leitmotif of the project is the idea of being hidden, like the Vietcong during the war. They were hidden in the jungle, in tunnels, or as spies in Saigon", Sapienza explains.

© Simone Sapienza, from the book Charlie surfs on Lotus Flowers, published by Akina Books

The accessories replacing the faces are meaningful too – here, it’s a spotlight used on a photo shoot; there, a photo camera; elsewhere, VR goggles. “It's more about the idea of "society of spectacle" than power, illusion, inequality, all things that come up with capitalism. Spectacle is a powerful tool for dictatorships”. The cinematic way in which Sapienza sequences or frames his photographs reinforces this underlying concept - scenes repeat themselves, as in slow-motion, or feature proportions and details that make them appear like props or movie sets.

A spread from the book encompasses the book’s motives – that of fake lotus flowers standing along dusty spotlights in the corner of a room, placed across the photo of a herd of news photographers and videographers pointing their cameras towards a cropped scene. "The Lotus Flower is a symbol of Vietnam, it arises with beauty from muddy water, something like Vietnam itself", Sapienza notes. And to add, "in documentary photography, the Vietnam War was a big deal, and photography was quite important to highlight the cruelty of the war. […] But what do we know about Vietnam, at least if we don't study documentary photography? And how? Well, I'd say National Geographic and Hollywood."

© Simone Sapienza, from the book Charlie surfs on Lotus Flowers, published by Akina Books


Charlie surfs on Lotus Flowers by Simone Sapienza

Published by Akina Books // Design by Valentina Abenavoli

110 pages // 500 copies

The photobook will be launched at Unseen Book Market in Amsterdam (21st - 23rd September). The book signing will be on September 22nd at 7pm. Order your book here.


Simone Sapienza is a documentary photographer based between Palermo and Sicily, Italy. He has exhibited his work worldwide in festivals, shows, and screenings at JaipurPhoto, Fotoleggendo, Bitume Photofest, Pingyao Festival, Thessaloniki Photobiennale, and many others. Follow him on PHmuseum, Twitter, and Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

Written by

Laurence Cornet

Reading time

4 minutes

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