Journalism | Photography | Creative Direction
An intimate interview series spotlighting the stories of emerging creative talent.
Photographer / Writer / Creative Director: Cheyenne Bardos
Muse: Chanel Nguyen @b4bygirlchanel
Stylist: Jess Nguyen @kelpslug
Studio: Culture Machine Studios @culturemachinestudios
Film lab: digiDirect Bondi
Chanel Nguyen (she/they) is a Vietnamese-Australian creative based in Ngunnawal country (Canberra). Her photographs – mostly taken on 35mm film – are equal parts playful, dark, and ethereal. Some of my favourites are of models slouched against glowing cars in concrete carparks. In another dreamlike series, she photographed her friends donning oversized bunny ears in the middle of a forest. Activism is often intertwined in her art, too: in March 2021, she powerfully captured the Women’s March4Justice outside Parliament House. And, on top of working behind the camera, Chanel models, DJs, and is the BIPOC Officer for the Australian National University’s BIPOC Department.
We connected through Instagram in 2019, but it wasn’t until last February that our paths finally crossed in Sydney. After our shoot – which was styled by Jess Nguyen and held at Culture Machine Studios – we discussed all things art, activism, and childhood cinema nostalgia.
One of the first things that drew me to Chanel’s work was the genuine diversity in her teams, both behind and in front of the lens. As a woman of colour who grew up in regional NSW, I spent my childhood and teenage years longing for representation in glossy magazines and television shows. Discovering this in Chanel’s work was just as refreshing as it was empowering – and for Chanel, it’s a creative intention that’s grounded in personal advocacy.
“Growing up in a predominantly white society [in Perth], there was this immediate rejection of my culture and a slow progression towards adhering to white spaces. So, as a child, you fight for crumbs of representation. Growing up, you hardly saw any Asian actresses or models, right?" Chanel asks.
The observation hit home. I nod my head vigorously. If I did see them, they were grossly misrepresented, stereotyped, or tokenised. The lacking representation of people who looked like me in the fashion and beauty industries made me think that perhaps I didn’t belong in those heralded spaces, nor could I contribute to them as an artist.
Chanel shares similar frustrations: “I was also getting frustrated at how often non-white people were tokenised in art projects and photoshoots. Facilitating ways to create a more diverse, creative space is so important – this is why I specifically choose POC models for my shoots. And when it comes to collaborations, I purposefully seek out my POC friends and creatives. I want us to be represented in this community. I want to hold space for the people who come after me."
Whilst Chanel’s personal advocacy is a key driver for her work, she also draws inspiration from her favourite films and childhood television shows: “I just love Cantonese film, like Chungking Express. I love Asian horrors and thrillers from the 90s and 2000s," she says.
I ask her for more examples, and she mentions Battle Royale and Oldboy. The studio erupts with excited screams that shatter my headphones when I listen back on the voice recording (Oldboy is one of my all-time-favourites).
“A lot of my inspiration comes from the nostalgia of my childhood. These include the old anime I watch, like those first few episodes of Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, or Avatar the Last Airbender…often I tell my models, ‘Okay, you’re playing this character or that character’, and get them to embody their personalities and quirks."
This perhaps explains the cinematic atmosphere of her photography, wherein her locations resemble sets, and her models resemble fantastical characters from alternate worlds. Perhaps Chanel is just really, really good at documenting the energy around her: whether it’s the gritty aura of swelling nightclubs and the neon-red beat of raves, or the angelic softness of a girl with a pink flower in her lips. Either way, it’s hard to not feel immersed in her world when you’re looking at her art.