Magnum Photos Workshop Showcase: Kiên Hoàng Lê

Last year, Magnum Photos and British Journal of Photography announced a special partnership around education that sees the world’s longest-running photography magazine work with the participants of Magnum Photos’ international workshop programme to showcase selected portfolios online.


Initiated in 2007 as part of Magnum’s 60th anniversary celebrations, Magnum’s workshops provide opportunities for photographers at different stages in their careers to benefit from the vast experience of Magnum’s established photographers.

Recently, Magnum photographer Antoine d’Agata hosted a workshop in Japan. At the end of the event, he selected Kiên Hoàng Lê’s portfolio to be featured in British Journal of Photography.

We speak to Kiên Hoàng Lê about his work.

BJP: What is your story about? Why did you choose this particular subject and how did you go about shooting it?

Kiên Hoàng Lê: I had been travelling in Japan for about five months before I attended the workshop with Antoine. For my last month in Japan, I decided to rent a room in Tokyo and get a proper feeling for the city. I had been there before, but only briefly. A week before the workshop I stumbled upon a fairly secret bar in Kabuki-cho, the red light and partying district of Tokyo. The bar is called ‘Suna no shiro’, which means ‘Castle of sand’. I was instantly sucked into the environment by the warm welcome of the people. After travelling through Japan for months, being indulged with politeness and niceness, Suna no shiro was the antidote I needed – a raw place with wholehearted people who lead an intense life. It’s a very special place to me. Anybody can be as he wants to be. For sure, it is some kind of projection, but it felt right from the beginning. Considering the madness outside, where everybody is trying to sell you something – success, style, entertainment, women, fun – to me, Suna no shiro is an island within Kabuki-cho where people can be different and let other people be different. So I met artists, painters, musicians, transgender people, cross-dressers – anybody who did not fit the normacy of society. Soon I grew closer to the regulars of Suna no shiro. For about three weeks, I would sleep during the day and walk to the little alleyway, find the tiny entrance and go up to the second and third floor of this parallel world.

The people who go to Suna live an intense life, which is rich, beautiful, crazy and destructive, all at the same time. It has a very existentialist notion to me. They are living the freedom that the whole of society is craving for, but never achieves. It’s fairly paradoxical since society would collapse if everybody led such a life. The people in Suna have become my friends. I hope their individual story transcends the specific. To me, they represent one extreme of society – a pointer to longing, fulfilment, chaos and the beauty of destruction.

Ever since I arrived in Japan, I tried to figure out why I am so fascinated by the Japanese people. So I photographed my way through Japan in search of an approximation of the Japanese. Of course, this had to fail, but that did not keep me from trying. So I pretty much stayed on the surface, only occasionally getting in deeper. That all changed when I decided to stay in Tokyo, making a place my own. Once I found Suna no shiro, I instantly felt at ease. At first I just enjoyed the place. Later, with the focus of doing a workshop with Antoine, it became pretty clear that I needed to follow my gut instinct, so I moved away from the medium format film camera I was using before. The place was very small – just eight square meters. The story was about intimacy and my own relationship to the people of Suna. I used a flash and a fixed 35mm lens, set a distance and let myself go with the flow. Most of the time, I did not look through the viewfinder. The composition was secondary to me. I felt a strong need to put the power of the moment and the beautiful chaos I was experiencing into the pictures. The rest had to be revealed by the edit.

BJP: Why did you decide to sign up to the Magnum workshop?

Kiên Hoàng Lê: Magnum is the old lady that got me into photography. So it’s still a loving relationship, but the admiration shifted the more I got into photography. Antoine is one of the photographers whose work just blew my mind – life in its essence, dark and beautiful at the same time. So when I learned that he would teach a workshop in Tokyo, while I was there, I instantly booked a place. I did not get in at first but I was put on the waiting list. Luckily, somebody cancelled and there I was.

BJP: How was the experience of learning with Antoine d’Agata? What’s the best advice you received from the workshop?

Kiên Hoàng Lê: The only thing I expected from the workshop was a big push – a profound change in myself. Perhaps not instantly, but with time after the workshop. Antoine is a very demanding yet understanding teacher. He is very experienced and knows how to push the right button for every participant of the workshop. The levels were very different, but everybody evolved massively during his workshop. I don’t know whether it is his knowledge of photography or an intrinsic feeling, but he always pointed us in the right direction. He never gave actual advice, but rather asked the right questions to make us find something for ourselves. At times it was frustrating, but that’s part of the process. In the end, everybody gained from our group discussions. It’s difficult to pinpoint the best advice. The most surprising one concerned one of Antoine’s methods of working. He is creating a story beforehand – writing a fictional story of what [the work] could become. It’s more or less a thread through a story, but one that has not happened. Thus it is fiction, but by putting it down on paper it becomes more real. So in the end the reality is bent towards the imagination.

BJP: What are you planning next?

Kiên Hoàng Lê: Right now I am back in Germany and working my ass off to save up to go back to Tokyo from July until September. I want to give myself more time in Tokyo and continue to create more around the bar, broadening the context of the Suna no Shiro story. It’s going to be my final thesis for my studies in Photography at the University of Hannover. I want to make a book, which will be a collaboration between me and my friends from Suna. The book is half the story. I would love to build an installation as a cube where the viewer is confronted with four walls of projection, not creating one room, but randomly projecting pictures from Suna no shiro on the walls to recreate the mesmerising feel of the place.

Visit Kiên Hoàng Lê’s website.

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