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The breath of the mangrove in one shot

Activism and hope in the photographs of Chiron Duong

Alessandra Navazio
a story by
Alessandra Navazio
The breath of the mangrove in one shot

The gaze of Chiron Duong, class of 1996, focuses on the mangrove as a symbol of spirituality and connection with nature

One night, alone, in the forest. The moonlight hits the reflection of the mangrove petal on the water and turns it golden. «At that moment, I felt directly connected with the mangrove, not only ecologically but also on a spiritual level. I felt a strong hope,» Chiron Duong tells us. This hope is nourished by his shots, collected in the exhibition Midnight in the Mangroves, which was on display from 3 to 17 April 2022 at Nam Thi House, in Ho Chi Minh Province, southern Vietnam, and which enabled the planting of more than 2,000 mangrove trees. 

How did you come to photographic art?

I started my career as a landscape architect, the natural career outlet of my university education. At that time, art meant experiencing something new beyond studies and work: art was an escape route, a form of entertainment and a way to relax. Now the desire to explore through art has grown so much that I am ready to explore other spaces and forms of expression: I am happy, in any case, to call myself a photographer. 

Dat, aka Chiron, Duong, born in 1996, is a Vietnamese photographer specialising in fashion and fine arts. He graduated from the University of Architecture in Ho Chi Minh City. His shots reflect the architectural outlook of his education and the Asian culture he belongs to.

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How much do you think your background as an architect influences your photographs? 

The influences of architecture in my work are quite powerful, I would say that they represent about 50 per cent of the creation process. I do not use the conventional processes behind a photograph, rather I design with an architect’s protocol. I might say that, at times, I shoot as an architect. Specifically, in the process of generating ideas, researching topics and structuring a series of photos, I ask myself what colours, lines and techniques I will use to convey the content of my project. 

On your journey you often come across mangroves: how did this interest come about?

My dissertation at the University of Architecture in Ho Chi Minh City, Architectural Design of the Mangrove Cultural Park was about designing a mangrove-themed cultural park. My hometown, called Ba Ria-Vung Tau, is located along the coast and is full of mangrove trees. Most of the inhabitants, however, do not consider mangroves because they do not seem to bring so much economic benefit: many people cut down these trees to make room for fruit trees, which are more profitable. 

Through my studies1, however, I realised that the mangrove is an important part of the ecosystem and that the very ecosystem of a mangrove forest is a metaphor for the intertwining of generations that coexist, learn and benefit from each other. So I thought it would be wonderful to do a cultural park project as it would have the potential to become a means of raising awareness, including through the use of an app or website. After the thesis, I realised that photography would be the ideal medium to express all the experience of research and data collected as an architect. 

Some images from Architectural Design of the Mangrove Cultural Park. Image source: Chiron Duong. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission of the author

This brings us to Midnight in the mangroves… 

The project is developed through six series of photos: When I was a mangrove tree introduces the biological aspects of mangroves; The Last Breath presents the sensitivity of these trees to external and internal stimuli; The Last Mangrove describes the current situation of mangroves from my perspective; Journey to the land of silent heroes focuses on the role of these trees in the ecosystem and, finally, Taste of wetlands and Midnight in the Mangrove describe the spiritual and cultural value of mangroves and represent my perspective as a Vietnamese citizen. The first four series have, therefore, a more Western frame while the other two, Taste of wetlands and Midnight in the Mangrove are very oriental, Vietnamese, and pure. Taste of wetlands, in particular, is based on a short work of Vietnamese literature, Rung Mam (The Avicennia Forest), and draws inspiration from the Three Deities called Tam Vi Tam Cong who protect and transform the land. In this picture, the mangrove is a metaphor for the relationship between family and society: in a family, the descendants are the sweet fruits while the ancestors are the mangroves such as Avicennia and Rhizophora2

It is no coincidence that in the short story Rung Mam, author Binh Nguyen Loc writes: «This coastline expands by thousands of metres every year due to flooding. The soil is soft and can never become firm for our sake unless there is a forest of Avicennia growing there and making the ground firm. When the Avicennia falls […] into pure soil, fruit trees can grow. The life of the Avicennia mangroves is ephemeral, but not vain, like that of a soldier on the front line. These have sacrificed themselves for others, their descendants. You are about to understand this. […] Don’t you want to make some sacrifice so that your children can enjoy life?»

I believe that every sweet moment inherited in the present contains the salty and sour taste of the past and that we should, therefore, appreciate the moment we are living in and perfect ourselves for the future of the next generation.

In order, from the series The last mangrove tree (two untitled pictures) and the series Midnight in the mangroves (one untitled picture) and the series Journey to the lands of silent heroes (The Rising Wind). Image source: Chiron Duong. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission of the author

Like other plants, Mangroves breathe because they can absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen through photosynthesis. But why The Last Breath

Each photo presents a reason why mangroves might die in one last breath. These include the effect of daily littering, the depletion of natural resources and so on. It is as if the last moments of the mangrove’s life are represented. To explain this, I refer to another series: The Last Mangrove. Here we are in a fictional world where there is only one mangrove tree left, a treasure sought by all and sundry. During this hunt for the tree, people end up continuing to destroy it and, in the hope of preserving part of it, mechanise it. It thus becomes a hybrid tree in a technocratic world. In the picture, in general, throughout the series, there is also the struggle of the future generation to save the last mangrove tree. All the pictures are also meant to represent hope: in the darker-coloured ones it is more implicit, while in the golden tones, it is more evident. And they all stem from the personal story I experienced in the forest and through which the idea of spreading a hope that is bright, strong and disruptive, for a better future was born. 


What practical acts can this hope be translated into? How can the breath of the last mangrove be saved? 

Reforestation is not enough to preserve the mangrove from its last breath but I still want to have faith. And even if all the statistics are pessimistic, I am convinced that with more education and awareness, people can realise that we are at one with the environment around us. This to me is the most lasting and most systemic solution. The exhibition itself wanted to raise awareness. There are no exact figures on the educational impact of Midnight in the Mangroves but as part of the project, 20 per cent of the ticket money was donated to an NGO to plant mangrove trees in coastal areas with density problems. And according to my information, more than 2000 trees were planted thanks to the exhibition.

This is promising. Besides building an imaginary around the breath of the Mangrove, Midnight in the Mangroves is a project that also portrays your perspective on the spiritual values of plant ecosystems. How do you represent this link between spiritual life and mangroves? 

The humans in these images represent forest deities and have female features. Unconsciously, for me, the deity is female and has an anthropomorphic nature. These creatures live in symbiosis with nature and embrace life in full harmony, they have a collective spirit and care for each other. They embrace each other. They are a hymn to our being part of nature: a connection that we always maintain within ourselves and that can hardly be lost because we are nature For example, when night falls, we can better perceive that all our senses are active and more sensitive. In those moments, we encounter the sense of the sacredness of nature itself and have plenty of time to slow down, contemplate, sit, and observe ourselves and all that is happening beyond the human being.

Qual è la tua foto preferita?

The Rising Wind. For me, it is very poetic and heroic at the same time. When I was conceiving it, I thought of the episode in the novel Don Quixote3, in which the paladin fights against the windmills: there is in it both the idea of the smallness of the human being but also the heroic tenacity of the windmills. The human being in his littleness is the flame, the mangroves are the windmills that manage to cool and mitigate the effect. They are like little fans: they help us breathe better and improve the atmosphere around us.

Do you think you will ever use artificial intelligence in your creative process? 

Ideally, if I could apply it more, I would. The power of AI is crazy right now but there is something that AI can never replace and that is, for me, experience. Even in the co-creation process between humans and AI, it is the artist who explores and experiments. His sensitivity emerges and the work becomes more meaningful and profound. The work of art itself is not a result, it is the manifestation of the process and the soul of the artist. 

Three words you would use to describe the mangrove?

Art, knowledge and practice. Art because it is the essence of the mangrove, knowledge because it is what the mangrove offers, and practice because, in the end, it is what I hope to solicit in people with my work: concrete practices to protect the environment.

  1. Cfr. Clough, B. (2013) Continuing the Journey Amongst Mangroves; Baba, S., Chan, H.T. & Aksornkoae, S. (2013) Useful Products from Mangrove and other Coastal Plants. ↩︎
  2. Avicennia e Rhizophora sono i generi di mangrovia pù diffuse in Vietnam. Cfr. Veettil, B. K., Ward, R. D., Quảng, N. X., Trang, N. T. T., & Giang, T. H. (2019). Mangroves of Vietnam: Historical development, current state of research and future threats. In Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science. ↩︎
  3. Cfr. De Cervantes Saavedra, M. (1605). “Chapter VIII: Of the prosperous success that the valiant Don Quixote had in the frightful and unthought-of adventure of the windmills, as well as other successes worthy of happy remembrance”. In Don Quixote. ↩︎


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