Mei Lou Gani Nguyen & Her Portraits of Pregnancy

A French photographer with Vietnamese roots, Mei Lou's return to Vietnam has gifted her with new opportunities and inspirations.

My first intimate conversation with Mei Lou Gani Nguyen was while wading in the shallows of Phu Quoc. We were packing up from an event, carrying photography equipment through knee-deep water to the beach from a boat. Since our first encounter, I was magnetised by her energy. She was someone who genuinly listened, asking intersting, thought provoking questions, and I knew this was the makings of an intuitive, caring photographer.

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen, an inspirational maternity photographer shares the insight behind her compelling imagery.
A smiley Mei Lou with her tool of choice. Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

A lot of what we shared that day with one another became the basis of the interview we conducted for this piece, fleshed out with the growing warmth and familiarity between us. In the many months since our beachside conversation, Mei Lou has found inspiration via the happy families and beautiful mothers of Vietnam.

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen, an inspirational maternity photographer shares the insight behind her compelling imagery.
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

Asking Mei Lou about her work was eye-opening, but in truth her work speaks volumes in its own right. Coming from a family of passionate photographers, I found a kindred spirit in her immediately. She’s a photographer whose work is as subtly gentle as the soft breeze trailing through the fabric of her imagery, as powerful and beautiful as the subjects she captures. The softness and lighting are magical, as is her use of colour. I sat with her to find out how she harnessed her ability to create such professional, quality photography.

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen & Her Portraits of Pregnancy
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

Her love of photography is in a large part thanks to her father, who frequently encouraged his daughter to take as many photos as she could.

“It comes from my dad. He was a photographer and when I was a kid I used to go to the lab with him to get his photos developed for fashion photoshoots. He even bought me my first camera. It was always on my mind as inspiration."

Mei Lou's return to her ancestral homeland in 2018 sparked new inspirations for the photographer.

"When I came to Vietnam, I had a lot of time to experiment because I was studying and had a part -time job working in a photography agency. I started learning by myself really intensively, doing model calls and taking photos of people a lot, trying a lot of different styles and a lot of different types of photography from product, to people, to portrait, to family, maternity, events, parties. I tried a lot of different things.”

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen & Her Portraits of Pregnancy
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

Mei Lou understands the importance of diversity and inclusivity, seen throughout her work, perhaps a result from her mixed heritage.

“My grandfather was born in Hanoi and he moved to France at the beginning of the war to study, which was where he met my grandmother. They had three kids, but he didn’t teach them to speak Vietnamese, so my mom couldn’t teach me. On my dad’s side, he’s from Singapore, and has eight siblings there. His mom was from China and his dad was from India, he met my mom in Singapore and they moved to France together and had us. So I’m a quarter Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, and French."

Interested in learning more about a part of her culture, she jumped at the first opportunity to see the S-Shaped Land.

"When I saw on the list places to do my university exchange with my business school, and there was Hanoi, Vietnam. Straightaway, I decided I’m going there for a year. I don’t regret it because it was really interesting to connect back to a heritage I have but don’t really know much about except a few dishes we have in my family and a few cultural things in their behaviour.”

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen & Her Portraits of Pregnancy
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

However, Mei Lou wasn’t always on the path that she’s now carved for herself. Her family believed in the importance of education, something that was passed onto her and led her to study medicine for a year. Her studies brought her to some intimate places, namely the labor rooms of Parisian hospitals.

“Even then, I knew that I’d always been obsessed with maternity, long before photography, and I attended several births during my first year of med school in Paris."

In addition to studying medicine, Mei Lou also studied accounting and has experience in managment, business, and even cinema. Her eclectic background feeds into her artistic eye.

"I still use what I’ve learned, but I feel a huge gap between what I was prepared for and what I’m doing now."

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen, an inspirational maternity photographer shares the insight behind her compelling imagery.
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

Being so deeply immersed in the world of maternity and birth, Mei Lou has a wealth of knowledge on the subject. Her inspirational words are centred around the health and well being of not only the mothers she directly works with, but relevant for mothers worldwide.

“Women need to empower their bodies and trust their bodies more. If that’s the case, the outcome will always be less invasive and better for you and your baby. I keep wondering how much it is affecting our society that we do all of these interventions like separating babies from the mothers right after birth, or not doing skin to skin straight away, or washing a baby too quickly, or wanting them to cry straight away. I wonder how much it’s affecting the bond between mothers and babies, and as a result, how much it’s affecting our society?”

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen & Her Portraits of Pregnancy
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

Fitting into the Vietnamese community through her photography, however, hasn’t been a seamless journey for Mei Lou. Her models are often close to nude, sometimes breastfeeding. She doesn’t shy away from both imperfections and beauty of humanity. Mei Lou is not drawn to staged, artificially lit photos with still models wearing a lot of makeup, preferring organic settings where she can capture skin and raw emotion.

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen, an inspirational maternity photographer shares the insight behind her compelling imagery.
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

Unlike other photographers, Mei Lou is not interested in capturing smiles but rather the intimate expereinces between her models.

“It has happened before where parents have told me they’ve been practising their smiling, and the kid is showing me, look, this is how I smile! Some people are into that type of photography, but I’m not, and we don’t prepare, that’s the thing, we want to just follow the kids, let them play and be unleashed, and that’s when people are actually relaxing.

"I was following posed new born accounts on Instagram, in a studio with a lot of props. But then I started discovering very natural photos with simple knitted blankets, natural colour gradings, not so bright, quite moody. Then I realised this exists and its what I’m more into. I found photographers who do sexy pregnancy photos and I thought wow, not all maternity shoots have to be angelic and perfect.”

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen, an inspirational maternity photographer shares the insight behind her compelling imagery.
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

When Mei Lou began delving deeper into photography, she played around with a variation of styles, but eventually found what she was most inspired by, primarily motherhood photography, and began honing her skills in her newfound passion.

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen, an inspirational maternity photographer shares the insight behind her compelling imagery.
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

“When I started, I experimented with a lot of different types of photography, and I was taking photos of a lot of different kinds of people to see what I was inspired by the most. Every time I was doing photoshoots with pregnant women, I realised I really liked this connection with maternity and motherhood, this very special, and if we think about it, short period in our lives, where our bodies are creating a whole life.

"It’s crazy if you think about it. Every woman experiences it in a different way, so it’s always interesting for me to ask, how do you feel in your body right now, or how have you been feeling since the beginning of the pregnancy. Some people are really connected to their bodies, and some are not so much, and they’re not feeling the same things.”

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen, an inspirational maternity photographer shares the insight behind her compelling imagery.
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

Mei Lou preserves the truth in her images, without cropping or retouching photos excessively, or using fake angles to achieve her results. She’s drawn to celebrating pregnant women not only from a fascination with maternity, but also from a prevalent social standpoint.

“Everyone around the world has a different experience, which is so interesting. Male-led services don’t always prioritise women’s needs. I think it’s feminist fighting for our birthright, which is a human right. There’s so much to learn about and talk about. It is a profound society topic which touches absolutely everyone.”

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen & Her Portraits of Pregnancy
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

Mei Lou recognises the importance of lighting in her photographs, and it’s almost seen as a subject in its own right throughout her work.

“Basically it’s light that is shaping whatever we’re taking in the photo, so I’ve discovered that having people just in front of a big window with white sheer curtains is just the best to simply show connection between people.”

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen, an inspirational maternity photographer shares the insight behind her compelling imagery.
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

In order to allow the space and freedom for her models to feel comfortable in sessions, Mei Lou has some techniques but mostly relies on her innate calm and charisma. Sitting with her, it’s evident that she radiates a comforting energy, that she carries with her into her work.

“I’m doing three or four jobs at the same time, I’m having a conversation with my client, whilst being friendly, also I’m changing the settings on my camera, I’m trying to be creative, like implement whatever I wanted to try that day, and I’m trying to do my best to get the best photos from the shoot without forgetting anything. Making the models feel comfortable is actually is one of the things I do on autopilot.”

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen, an inspirational maternity photographer shares the insight behind her compelling imagery.
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

Moving away from controlled environments where children can become impatient with the photography process, Mei Lou’s approach is children-led sessions in which they dictate the next step.

“If they decide they want to run, we run, if I see them jiggling around and they really need to move or they need to play with something, we go play, we get the bubbles, I run after them, we have the parents running with them. Bubbles are great, because even a non-smiley person will smile when the kids are playing with bubbles. And it creates really interesting shapes and colours in the photos.”

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen & Her Portraits of Pregnancy
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

These techniques are proving to be popular with clients who choose Mei Lou to capture their precious moments, and trust in her methods. Her business has greatly expanded since she started two years ago, and she’s proud of what she’s achieved:

“I would have never dreamed of where I am now today. I’ve learned a lot, and I keep learning more every day. Because you’re your own boss, but also the only creative. If I don’t do anything, nothing is going to happen. If I’m having a bad day, of course it impacts my activity, and there’s no-one else whose going to do things for me. Sometimes it’s not natural, and sometimes I have to force myself to post on social media, but it’s really rewarding, and when I get feedback from clients, or even kids, thinking that they’re going to grow up looking at the pictures. It makes me really happy and grateful for what I’m doing. I’m getting paid to go into people’s intimacy, and capture them in their most private situations.”

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen, an inspirational maternity photographer shares the insight behind her compelling imagery.
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

Over time, Mei Lou has started using phrases she’s found are effective with models, to help them relax and create more natural images.

“Now, I have prompts, there are sentences I do say at every photoshoot, and I noticed they work, and I keep saying them all the time. For example, I always say to a family, ‘Please don’t mind me, I’m really here to witness a moment in your daily life. I’m just going to document it along with way, but I don’t want you to pose, or to change your habits. I want you to kiss your kids the way you would every day, or play and interact with them the way you would every day.”

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen & Her Portraits of Pregnancy
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

Mei Lou's tender photographs speak for themselves, and the intimacy and trust she develops with her models is evident through the closeness of naked skin and familiarity she portrays.

The French photographer fondly remembers one photoshoot in particular.

“My most memorable photoshoot was a breastfeeding photoshoot, with a single mom raising her one year old daughter by herself. The connection they had, and the moments the girl was breastfeeding were really special. It was in an apartment, and they were bathing in the sunset lighting. One of the photos from that shoot is my favourite photos ever, it was magical the way the little girl was looking at her mom while she was breastfeeding. The connection they had was very special. And knowing that she’s a single mom working full-time while having a toddler is impressive.”

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen & Her Portraits of Pregnancy
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

However, photography isn’t Mei Lou’s only calling. She’s recently completed a course to become a doula, and this is something she can envision working in harmony with her photography work.

“During pregnancy photoshoots I ask women a lot of questions. It was kind of like I was doing a doula job already, even during breastfeeding photoshoots, or a photoshoot with a toddler. If people are willing to open themselves up, I’m always asking questions about how it’s going. About a year ago, I started working with some midwives here, following them in their jobs, and it was eye opening, I realised I wanted to become a doula. I’m already obsessed with maternity, breastfeeding and pregnancy, so I thought I might as well do a course.”

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen, an inspirational maternity photographer shares the insight behind her compelling imagery.
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

Mei Lou is looking forward to be on call for birth, and is aiming to provide support to women before, during, and after birth, as well as support through breastfeeding. In fact, she aims to incorporate photography into her role, with clients having the opportunity to hire her as both a doula and a birth photographer as well.

Her passion shines through and her emotions rises somewhat as she discuss her doula duties.

"I’ve only done one birth until now but it’s such a meaningful form of photography. You come out of the birth, maybe you haven’t slept all night, and you are such a high of oxytocin after witnessing birth. How can it be more meaningful than capturing these moments? You get chills, it’s just magical. I hope it become a big part of my activity because its my calling."

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen & Her Portraits of Pregnancy
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

In terms of being a part of her client’s birth stories, Mei Lou prioritises conversations with parents to check in how they feel, and then giving them the information they need so they can make safe, evidence-based decisions that suit them.

“At birth, my position is laid-back, I will adapt to whatever situation is happening. If I feel like the couple are engaging or chatting, that’s ok, and if they need intimacy I would take a step back. It depends on the situation, and during the birth there are many stages. Sometimes the mum needs a rest, and I will capture the key moments but I will leave them be when needed. I’m an overly-observing person and I’ve always been watching people, I notice things and keep memories of it. If I feel someone’s not comfortable, of course I won’t continue and I’ll take another path. I look at people’s behaviour, I listen to them and then I adapt.”

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen, an inspirational maternity photographer shares the insight behind her compelling imagery.
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

With all of the education and experience Mei Lou has garnered, she has some empowering messages for expectant mothers.

“To make a pregnant mum feel safe and comfortable, I often say ‘you’re beautiful, you’re so gorgeous’, but I do profoundly think it. I feel like they’re goddesses in front of my lens all the time, they are just glowing. Maybe they don’t see it, or feel like it, especially when we’re doing photos at the end of pregnancy. They might feel very heavy or that their body is not their own anymore, and they’re tired because they’re not sleeping well, but they look amazing.”

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen, an inspirational maternity photographer shares the insight behind her compelling imagery.
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

This really comes across as pure, authentic admiration from Mei Lou, and it is clear how she achieves such beautiful imagery, treating her clients with such respect.

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen & Her Portraits of Pregnancy
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

Many times, she’s experienced shock from people when she’s shown them photographs mid-session.

“Most often the reaction I get is ‘Oh wow, this is actually me, do I look like this?’ They’re mindblown. I say at the beginning of photoshoots that if you have insecurities or feel uncomfortable about something please let me know. I will make sure to not focus on it, I’m not there to capture people in an insensitive image, I’m there to show them in their best angle.”

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen, an inspirational maternity photographer shares the insight behind her compelling imagery.
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

Mei Lou's photographs are so touching and powerful that they have already caught the attention of the Vietnamese media. VTV4 approached her for a video interview to cover expat artists living in Vietnam, and it gave her a chance to expand on her Vietnamese roots and family history. A client of Mei Lou's, Jesse Bradley from the US, comments on the everlasting joy she can always reflect on.

"We are so grateful for the images you have given us over the years. Treasures to have for years to come," says the American mother.

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen, an inspirational maternity photographer shares the insight behind her compelling imagery.
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

The assured, supportive advice she gives for expectant mothers is "I would say you do you. If you want to learn about birth, pregnancy, take courses and read books, do it. If you feel like you don’t really want to learn, and it’s not something you’re interested in, then just take it as it comes. Until it’s a medical emergency, take it easy and do what is best for you."

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen, an inspirational maternity photographer shares the insight behind her compelling imagery.
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

Mei Lou plans to take her business to the UK next year and further build on the strong foundations she's developed in her time in Vietnam. Many go travelling for the pure joy if it, for exploration, or for escape, but it is clear that Mei Lou has found her calling, her passion, and her drive, all while exploring her roots in Vietnam. Her time in her grandfather's homeland has been impactful, and as she aptly questions, "How can it be more meaningful than capturing these moments?"

Her work is mesmerisingly authentic, showing the truth in motherhood in a sometimes perfection-saturated industry. With the insight and creativity Mei Lou is bursting with, I look forward to see what beauty she will give birth to in the future.

Mei Lou Gani Nguyen, an inspirational maternity photographer shares the insight behind her compelling imagery.
Photograph: Courtesy of Mei Lou Gani Nguyen

To find out more about Mei Lou's work, visit: https://meilouphotography.com/

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