Maika Elan’s breakthrough project ‘The Pink Choice’ documents homosexual couples in Vietnam sharing quiet moments. The series won her first prize in Contemporary Issues at the 2013 World Press Photo award and worldwide acclaim as a young talent to watch out for. She has since participated in the Joop Swart Masterclass, where she produced a personal series on her father, and a VII mentor programme with John Stanmeyer. Maika is currently on a residency programme in Tokyo, working on a series about the hikikomori, Japan’s reclusive shut-ins.
How did you get into photography?
After I finished high school and was about to enter university, I had the idea to study photojournalism even though I had no idea about taking photographs. I told my father and he said that if I wanted to do photojournalism, I should understand how society works and that I could learn photography after. That was how I came to study sociology. After about two years of studying, I started taking photographs. I first joined a photo club because they had a lot of excursions. They taught me photography and along the way I fell more in love with photography. It was a natural progression for me. I’m lucky to have met many right people at the right time, and it’s pushed me in my photography career. When I first started I thought I wanted to do street photography, then I changed to fashion, and now I’m passionate about documentary work.
You’re interested in doing stories on people who are disconnected from society.
Maybe because I studied sociology, I am interested in how people communicate with everything around them, whether it is human with human, with animals or nature. Or people who just don’t want to connect with anything like the hikikomori in Japan.
The Pink Choice was your breakthrough project, winning you a World Press Photo and worldwide acclaim. It is a positive portrayal of the LGBT community in Vietnam, which you seemed to have insider access to.
It all started when I connected with Nguyen Van Dung, the first guy in Vietnam to come out publicly. He holds a lot of power in this community, he’s kind of like the queen and people follow him. For the first six months, he helped me to talk to the couples in Hanoi about photographing them. Even if some of the couples didn’t like it, they still accepted to take the photo. In the next six months, I moved to another city and I contacted another NGO that is working on the rights of the LGBT community. Sometimes I’d go on forums and contact couples from there.
What do you think of the reaction to the work?
I think it has gotten good reaction. I did the work in 2011 for two years. Before this, in Vietnam, we do not talk about homosexuality directly in the newspapers or even have positive news about it. When I made the exhibition in Hanoi in 2012, it was the first time the newspaper wrote about the activities of the LGBT community. It was also the first time that there were discussions about it; whether they supported it or not, and the reasons why.
The series ‘Like My Father’ that you did for the Joop Swart Masterclass in 2013 is different from your other work. Can you tell us about that?
The theme for the workshop was hope. At the same time my father had cancer and he lost a lot of weight very fast. One day I came home and I saw him wearing his clothes and it looked too big for him. I wanted to do a project with him but I wanted to take photographs in a positive way. I didn’t want to take pictures of him sick and lying in bed. He’s normally a big and handsome guy, but with the cancer he felt he didn’t look good so he’s not confident. I tried to take photographs of him so that he looks good, so he’ll feel more positive looking at them.
I did the work with lomography. It looks colourful and more fun. In the first three months, he was too sick to travel so I’d travel by myself. We used to travel together before. By the time I came back, he looked a bit better. He knew I had to take photos for the workshop so he ate and exercised more. I took photographs of him in the park and double exposed it with the landscape photos from my travels, so it’d look like we travelled together. My dad had recovered from the cancer and was back at work. He passed on a few months ago from dengue. But for me, he is forever alive, in my mind and in my pictures.
You’ve also done a project in Chiang Mai about people and their animals. It is more than just about caring for the animals, it is almost an obsession.
The project in Chiang Mai is about people who are lonely living with animals. I focus on people who become lonely because of living with animals, not the other way around. They choose to live with animals and the stories are all so interesting. I met one guy who has six snakes. I asked him what he feeds them, and he said rats, so I thought he goes to the market to buy rats. When I went to his house, I found out that he had bought a male and female rat, and he breed rats to feed his snakes. There were over 200 rats in the house, so it was dirty and smelly, but he’s doing it because he loves his snakes so much. It’s pretty crazy. He takes so much time for that. I think it makes your life change in some way.
I met a guy who is in university. He has 16 cats. So he can’t go out anywhere, he can’t go travelling. Everyday he has to go home at lunch and dinner times just to feed the cats. There was an old man in his 80s. He lives with his dog, an old dog blind in one eye and going blind in the other. He lives in the countryside, and everyday he travels by bus 40km just to take the dog to the animal hospital.
You are currently in Japan on a residency programme to do a project on the hikikomori. Can you tell us about your on-going process?
My initial idea was to photograph the hikikomori in their house, but it was very difficult because we don’t know who they are or where they are. I wanted to photograph them as they are about to re-enter society. Sometimes the hikikomori will stay in their room for five or ten years, and then they might suddenly feel they need to go out, then they go out for no reason, often with the support from families, friends or an agency. So I wanted to photograph that moment, when they start going out of their rooms. But that was even more difficult! (Laughs)
I did more research and found an agency called New Start NPO in Chiba. It is an agency where rich families can send their hikikomori children, where they would live in dorms and teach them how to survive on the outside. They also have restaurants and coffee shop to teach them skills to find a job. They learn the way to survive. There are currently 40 hikikomori living in the centre.
In the beginning I asked to volunteer at the centre and then I asked for permission to photograph. After checking my work, they agreed. I wanted to take photographs of what the hikikomori can do to come back to normal life. I tried to follow some of the hikikomori because half of them are not comfortable with other people. Around 10 of them have lived in the centre for more than one year and are more comfortable with others. Three of them had agreed to let me follow them and take photographs, and I followed everything they do in their daily lives.
But along the way you have shifted the focus of the story, is that right? Because as you are following the story different facets of it crop up or you’ve made adjustments knowing what works visually or not.
I’ve shifted the focus of the story because it was difficult to get a variety or different types of shots just from following the hikikomori. In the agency, they have a programme called Rent-a-Sister, where the hikikomori can rent a sister or brother. She will write a letter to make friends, followed by a phone call before coming to the house to meet with the hikikomori. They are trained to talk to the hikikomori. It’s a long process, and can take six months to a year to help them out of the room. So I’ve changed the story to follow one Rent-a-Sister as she meets with the hikikomori.
What happens when your project doesn’t go according to plan?
I imagine a lot. Sometimes I have a lot of ideas, but if I cannot imagine it, then I know it is not my story. For some stories, I can imagine the photographs to go with it even if the real thing isn’t always the same, but I can imagine it in my mind what the photo will be. For example, one of the Rent-a-Sisters told me that some of the hikikomori are in very deep and don’t talk at all. When she visits them, she has to sit outside the room with the door closed. She sits outside quietly for two hours then leaves. When I heard that, I could imagine the picture already. Sometimes I imagine the end of the project, about the exhibition or the photobook, or even the questions that people will ask about the project and how I can answer those questions. It helps me with my process. If I have no questions, it means I am very stuck.
I was feeling stuck and hope that by changing to the Rent-a-Sister it will be better. I understand the effect of hikikomori on Japanese society, but I am still working on how to show it visually. Like what is important. Some photographers are good at concept or writing. Some photographs are so simple but they have multiple layers of meaning, but I cannot do that. I am quite a straight person so I try to shoot a photo so that when you see it, you know what I want to do.
I remember the last time we spoke, you mentioned that you are getting tired of doing straight photography.
Yes. I get tired sometimes and I cannot find a way to continue in the straight way because it feels boring. But sometimes it is about personality and you cannot change the way you work. You try but you cannot think in that way. I don’t feel it. So I try to do it in my way.
When you get stuck, do you talk to someone about it?
Sometimes I discuss it with my husband, who is also a photographer, and with some close friends, like Aujin Rew. Sometimes I talk to her and we exchange ideas. Sometimes we talk not because we know they will help but because it gives you a bit of pressure. If you have an idea and you keep it to yourself, there is no outside pressure to do the project. But when you tell it to someone, then you have some responsibility to do it.
What motivates you to keep shooting?
The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.