“I was raised in a home where I couldn’t have the volume on when I watched TV, if I got to watch TV [at all]” says Milan Nguyen. “So when my cousins took me to this huge movie theatre, with these loud, amazing battles going on…it was pretty awesome.” Milan was eight when she watched Star Wars for the first time. Now, she shares her appreciation for the Skywalker saga with her kids: Brandon, Jacob, Paul, and James.
Years ago, the Nguyen family story was very different. Milan was living in Washington DC with Jacob, then aged three, and was pregnant with James when she left their father and moved in with her parents. “Grandma and Grandpa said, ‘Come and live with us, and we’ll help take care of you,’” she describes. “They were great to take us in and help us out, and made it a warm and loving place for us.” They built a gym at the back of the house for Milan to use to train her clients — she works as a personal trainer — and the family slowly built a new life together. “Fifteen years later, we’re still here. I’m able to be the hands-on mom that I wanted to be by living with them and working from home,” she says.
She was living with her grandparents as a single mother when James and Jacob began bringing friends home from school every day. “Brandon would come home with Jacob, and I had no idea what was going on,” she remembers. “I just had a house full of kids… Brandon and Paul [were there] until one, two, three o’clock in the morning. This was happening every day after school.”
Brandon and Paul had a very difficult home life and had been living in group accommodation for several years. When Jacob and James went to stay with their father, Milan would make up their room at home for Brandon and Paul to stay in. She enjoyed having children around when her biological children weren’t there. And just like that, Milan’s two children became four. “They just grew to be a part of us and started doing everything with us as a family,” she says. “It’s been like that for the past five years.”
Californian native Kovi Konowiecki was commissioned to document the Nguyens as part of British Journal of Photography’s international Star Wars Families project. The commission trod familiar ground for the photographer, whose work has often focussed on family relationships. “In my personal work, my poetic documentary work, my goal is to become comfortable with people,” he describes. Often he hopes that a relationship will develop to the point that he will be invited into people’s homes. “That’s when I can really get to see the gritty, real stuff; the real essence of people and what they like, how they live.” As this project would be set in the family home, it was ideal for Konowiecki from the outset. “It was almost like me approaching my personal work. It’s about not being too intrusive, but being able to sort of touch on these little subtleties that make people who they are, what makes them specific.”
Konowiecki’s photographs of the Nguyens are charged with the poeticism of his personal projects. The rich gold of Californian sun pours through them, dappled through trees onto the family’s faces, or illuminating their hands as they play with stormtrooper figures. The family interact with tender ease, their connection palpable: four young men in their late adolescence surrounding Milan, the strong mother at the centre of their constellation.
Many of the images feature Star Wars paraphernalia: in a striking family portrait, the five of them gathered on the sofa with their three dogs, the back of the frame is lined with life-size figures from the Skywalker saga. The pictures elegantly echo the way the films unite the Nguyen family.
The family take part in all kinds of activities together around their home in San Diego, California — they skate, powerboard, go paintballing or to the beach — but their love of Star Wars is a staple of their family activities, especially during the festive period. “During Christmas, we set up all these action figures, and it’s all Star Wars-themed,” describes Brandon. “We put Yoda on top of the Christmas tree!” adds Jacob. This galactic holiday season is even something they have ended up sharing with their neighbours. “We had a lightsaber Christmas,” says Milan, “and everybody ran out in the street after we’d opened all our presents, and were duelling.” She appreciates the way it allows her to bond with her sons. “They know that they can come to me for anything and share their feelings,” she reflects.
The saga has a personal resonance for Milan, too, in its portrayal of female characters. “Princess Leia, she was amazing,” she says. “I was raised to be quite submissive, to do as I was told. And here’s Princess Leia taking charge and standing up for herself and fighting back. It was really inspiring.” Like Leia, Milan has found herself holding her own alongside a group of men. “There was strength in her that was powerful, and it’s wonderful to see a good role model,” she says.
The Nguyens do charity work together, and this seems to be just one of the ways that the principles of the Jedi are borne out in their collective lives. “In the world we live in today, not everyone is doing their part to help out,” says Brandon. “But to do good, and hopefully influence others to do good, you’re going to benefit everyone in the world. And that’s the whole point of the Jedi Order.”
Star Wars, in many ways, has brought the family together. Konowiecki was witness to this particular impact, of films that have become more than just films. “Star Wars is sort of the glue to this family, and it was special to be able to see that first-hand,” he describes. Paul is very much in agreement. “It has united us to enjoy something as a group,” he says. “We feel it. We feel the love there. In Star Wars, they risk their lives together to stop the dark. I know if it were life or death, with my family, I would join them and stop the dark with them.”
Star Wars Families presented by eBay is a collaboration between Lucasfilm and British Journal of Photography in advance of the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. An immersive photographic and editorial project, it sheds light on families around the world who have enjoyed the magic of Star Wars for nearly half a century.
To hear about upcoming commission opportunities, register with 1854 Commisions.