In his quiet portraits of monasticism in Southeast Asia, Vietnamese photographer Tri Luu captures the casual, unadorned interactions of temple life: moments of study and play, of silence and laughter. In its intimacy, the work reveals a closeness between the photographer and his subjects: Tri lives for weeks at a time, sometimes months, with different sanghas. “I don’t really have an objective when I’m living in the temples,” he says. “I don’t know what I’m going to photograph when I’m there. I live with the monks, I study with them, cook with them. I just watch, and I photograph what I see. And I usually go to the same few temples, so the monks are very comfortable with me.”
If his photographs are quiet, his life has been anything but. Born in war-torn Saigon in 1972, Tri and his six siblings were raised by his mother, a seamstress and a devout Buddhist. When she died in 1986, Tri was fifteen years old and of age to be conscripted into the war between Vietnam and Cambodia. He and several of his cousins eventually fled to Thailand, where they lived in a refugee camp for over a year. With help from his siblings, Tri purchased a ticket to Minneapolis (at the suggestion of his brother, who had once lived there). He arrived in the fall of 1989, found work as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant, and enrolled in a local high school. Placed primarily in art classes because of his poor English, Tri found success in drawing, screen printing, and painting; he won a partial scholarship to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. It was there that he first picked up a camera. “I had never touched a camera before in my life. My first roll came out completely blank. My professor told me that I hadn’t loaded it right. He patted me on the back and gave me two rolls of film and told me to go out and shoot again and come back.
I sat in the back of a bus on Nicollet Street in downtown Minneapolis and photographed what I saw: spring, the city skyline, the wet street. I loved it.
In the early nineties, Tri returned to Vietnam and began traveling in Asia, photographing daily life in monasteries. It is a project that he continues to this day. “I want to create images that mean something, that last. When I’m living in the U.S., in New York, I see all around me people who seem to care only about themselves, about money, about material things. And I think life has more meaning than that. I feel at peace in the temple. It’s the one place where I need nothing and still feel perfectly happy. And so my photography comes out of wanting to share this with others, so that they might see that such a life is possible.”
Tri Luu’s work will be shown in September at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center in Staten Island, New York, and in November at the John Erdo Gallery in Singapore.
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