How photography can be used to shift stereotypes

Multidisciplinary photographer Hiền Hoàng’s series Across the Ocean uses ‘counter images’ to disempower myths and stereotypes about Asian immigrants

“When someone thinks of Asian food they might think of the exotic, something pleasurable,” says Hiền Hoàng, “but when they think of Asian men, in porn or mass media, they might think of them as hairless and desexualised.”

Standing next to her exhibition installation at Les Rencontres d’Arles, the artist points to a photograph that congeals these opposing contradictions found in Western culture. The image shows a slab of pale, plain tofu left to sit unappetising on a ceramic Oriental plate – thick, dark hairs sprout from it.

First arriving in Germany as a student, Hoàng has spent the past few years mining her personal experience as a Vietnamese immigrant in the European country. Asked to reflect on her identity, she is skilled at taking myths and stereotypes and disempowering them through visually jarring photographs that cause us to reflect on why they occur in the first place, in what she describes as ‘counter images’.

“Photography shows us how we collectively consume cultural images,” she says, “and counter images disrupt collective thinking.” A task that seems increasingly more important because at the root of Hoàng’s practice is the desire to challenge the harmful discrimination and the stereotyping of Asian culture. “It’s important to remember my work is about trauma.”

Top: The Next Pacific, 2019; Above: Rhey ran’t ro rhe R, 2018-19. All images courtesy of the artist