Huy Vũ, Con Chó (Doggy)

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2022 (Dashwood Books link here). Softcover, 210 x145 mm, 116 pages, with 94 black-and-white photographs. Includes a spread of contact sheets, an afterword in English/Vietnamese by the artist, and an image of a handwritten note by the artist. In an edition of 100 copies. Design by Bùi Minh Thu and Lê Quốc Huy. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In most parts of America, there aren’t that many street dogs. Lost, abandoned, and homeless dogs, and wandering strays largely get scooped up by animal services agencies, so we don’t see them on the streets that often in our everyday lives. But in many parts of Asia, street dogs are a common sight.

Huy Vũ’s recent photobook Con Chó (or Doggy in English) takes as its ostensible subject the many street dogs of Vietnam. Nearly every image in the photobook catches a dog living on the streets, and given that these dogs are often shy or wary of strangers, it’s a wonder that Vũ has successfully photographed so many.

The day to day existence of a street dog is generally harsh and unforgiving, and Vũ’s pictures sensitively document this grim reality. He shows us dogs scavenging for food, settling down to sleep in alleys and vacant lots, waiting for scraps, and barking and growling at those that would do them harm (humans and other dogs alike). Sometimes these dogs are chained up or placed behind bars in cages, and their eyes tell us poignant stories of feeling trapped. Many have been neglected, harassed, or abused, and the feral fight or flight wildness Vũ captures in their movements feels like an elemental response to these histories and experiences. As the pages turn, we see dog after dog after dog, like a parade of tense vulnerability – confused dogs on the side of the highway, dogs in the garbage dump, dogs underneath food carts, dogs running away, soaked dogs caught in the rain, and dogs looking back at us, deciding whether we might be friend or foe. Many of Vũ’s pictures are something like portraits, with the sparkle in an eye, the turn of a head, or the forlorn slump of lying down offering us subtle insights into particular canine personalities and states of mind.

What’s fascinating, and ultimately quietly disheartening, about Con Chó is that it actually isn’t a book about dogs. The street dogs Vũ has photographed are instead an anxious metaphor for the way the artist feels about himself and his conflicted relationship to his homeland. Vũ was born in Thailand to Vietnamese parents, and many of his early and teenage years were spent away from Vietnam (including stints in Algeria and again in Thailand); even when he was back home, most of his education came at American and international schools of one kind or another, and English is essentially his first language. So when Vũ is back in Vietnam, he still feels like something of an outsider, with the subtleties of his accent, his lack of local knowledge, and his layered cultural histories and perspectives making him feel alienated from the rest of society. Interestingly, and perhaps maddeningly for the artist, during Vũ’s more recent university studies in America, he has been considered by many to be an “international student”, even though he has essentially been raised in American systems and environments much of his life, so he is an outsider here as well.

This backstory meaningfully changes our understanding of this poignant gathering of photographs of street dogs – each image can now be thought of as an indirect self-portrait. If we flip back through the book with this in mind, many of the images seem to reveal as sense of yearning to be loved, or a search for acceptance, the unclaimed dogs wanting desperately to be claimed. Their moments of being afraid or vulnerable match Vũ’s own feeling that he is misunderstood, and that whatever he does he will never be quite “Vietnamese enough”. Like the homeless dogs in his photographs, Vũ wants to find a home, and in way, this photobook is a lover letter to his homeland – even though he feels insecure and emotionally isolated at times, he keeps coming back, his love for his country nearly unconditional. The resulting mood of Con Chó is altogether conflicted, and we viscerally feel the artist’s pain as embodied by the trials of the street dogs. The distance between the dogs and a happier, more loving life is obvious; when we then turn this back on the artist and his own struggles to define a durable sense of home, the atmosphere becomes touchingly plaintive.

As a photobook object, Con Chó is relatively small and intimate, its cover image of a dog set against the reversed tonalities of a scrubby grass area embellished by a splash of glossy black ink that makes the dog stick out from its surroundings. Inside, the black-and-white images move forward, all oriented horizontally (or turned to fit that setup), with some images given full bleed treatment and others surrounded by white borders of varying sizes. This pattern continues for most of the book, until the final dozen pages or so, when the mood shifts and the images are printed in ghostly silver ink on black paper. In these pictures, Vũ gives into the darkness a bit, with images of dead dogs, puppies, the eating of dog meat, and other more stark and serious realities, the intensity of the experience ramped up a few notches. A handwritten note to the artist’s mother provides an ending for this emotional journey, and given that it is shown only in Vietnamese (without translation), perhaps it shows the artist turning back to the home he so clearly longs for.

Very few photobooks that I pick for an idle flip in a bookshop feel as raw and exposed as this one; almost immediately, it was clear that this photobook was speaking in a visual language laced with a heartsick ache. For a young photographer just getting started, this kind of statement certainly brings with it some risk, but this project has the feel of overdue catharsis, or of something that the artist just needed to say out in public, once and for all. That kind of soul-baring artistic authenticity is surprisingly rare these days, making Con Chó the kind of self-published photobook that deserves more attention.

Collector’s POV: Huy Vũ does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely connect directly with the artist via his Instagram account (linked in the sidebar).

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Francesca Woodman @Gagosian

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