Through the lens of An Le

An Le’s supernatural talent for creating breathtaking imagery may have been born in Vietnam, but it was nurtured right here in the South.

Photographs by An Le

An Le’s supernatural talent for creating breathtaking imagery may have been born in Vietnam, but it was nurtured right here in the South.

There is a certain vibrancy to An Le’s art that sets him apart in the hypercompetitive world of fashion photography. Beyond just the crackling color palettes, sightlines that tease at mysteries just outside of frame and singular focus on creating dramatic imagery, there’s an underlying perspective that just feels fresh and unique. 

If anything, his art comes by that perspective naturally. Born and raised in Vietnam, where the phrase “artistic career” was rarely spoken, he discovered his passion for photography after emigrating stateside. This burgeoning talent, which has since taken him around the world aiming his lens at some of the biggest supermodels and Hollywood A-Listers on the planet, was incubated right here in Savannah at SCAD.  

It has even brought him beyond the camera, extending his talents to the world of visual effects and directing. Sitting down with South magazine, Le shares his thoughts on his incredible career so far, his joyful memories of the South’s tranquility and his thoughts on creating a more inclusive world. 


South Magazine: What was life like growing up in Vietnam?
An Le: I don’t remember much, to be honest. I left Vietnam when I was 14 years old. But I remember back then, art was not something of importance at school. I remember they dropped art classes in middle school, and you had to focus on all other subjects but creative ones! My mom had to find a private tutor that could teach me how to draw and paint. Art was something you just had to do, something on your own. It was unfortunate.

I don’t know what the curriculum is like these days there, but I hope it changed. To me, it is so important that kids have access to explore their creative ability/creative thinking whether or not they eventually pursue careers in the arts. And I want to help disprove the idea of ‘a starving artist’ that so, so many parents (especially the Asian ones) have when their kids tell them they want to pursue a creative career! 

S: What motivated you to become a photographer?
AL: I think it’s mostly the desire to create and capture things or imagery that I see in my mind that are beautiful. I am more of a narrative/fashion photographer, since most things that I take pictures of are produced like in a movie set or on a theatre stage. I am obviously interested and fascinated by all real-life elements, but I love the process of mixing and matching different variables and creating something different and unique to me. 

S: How did you decide SCAD would be a good choice for your education?
AL: To be honest, originally it was the big scholarship they offered me—an international student back then. All the art schools I applied to in New York and other places accepted me and offered scholarships as well, but not as much as SCAD did.

I wanted to go to a place that could see my potential and value me. I guess it’s the same as applying for a job. You want to go to a company that sees your potential and want to have you, instead of the ones that are not too excited. That, plus the beautiful campus, good photo facility with all the equipment and big photo lab really made the decision easy for me. 

S: What preconceptions did you have of Savannah, Georgia?
AL: Nothing really. Back then when I was 17 or 18, I did not know anything about Savannah. That was also something intriguing to me since I like the unknown, exploring something new — like going to a movie that you know nothing about, but have a feeling that it might be good. 

S: After living there, what did you enjoy most out of living in the South?
AL: I love the tranquility of a quiet afternoon on a Saturday, watching the Spanish moss swaying gently in the wind just right before summertime when it’s not too hot or humid. 

S: How is living in NYC different from the South?
AL: Very different. The quietness is something you have to seek and not take for granted. Also, living in New York, it is easier to go to a movie or get decent food at 1 a.m. I am a night creature, so I love cities that stay up very late like I do. But every time I come back to Savannah, I do enjoy the atmosphere there. The air is purer, and the mood is gentle, like a soft caressing on your hair. 

S: What do you attribute your quick success to?
AL: I think it’s a combination of many factors. Hard work, thick skin (not letting the no’s stay in the way of my yes’s), perseverance (keeping on trying after failed attempts) and a little bit of luck and some talent maybe. 

S: Where do you find your motivation? Who are your favorite artists?
AL: I find motivation/inspiration everywhere I look. I take a lot of long walks at night, and during those walks, I listen to all sorts of music and observe the places I pass by. Seeing new streets, a new alleyway, etc., just gives me excitement and clears my head of everyday worries and hustles. And I always come back feeling more energized and inspired.
I love listening to music with poetic lyrics or imaginative visuals, and I love reading literature and of course watching movies. I like a wide range of artists from different genres. But if I have to name names I would say artists like Duchamp, Dali, Picasso, Matisse, Frida Kahlo, Steven Meisel, Herb Ritts, Zora Neale Hurston, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Sylvia Plath, Zadie Smith, Iron & Wine, Radiohead, Bon Iver, Max Richter, Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, Lady Gaga, Ruben Östlund, Ang Lee, Wong Kar-wai, Christopher Nolan, Tim Burton, Ridley Scott, David Lynch, Guillermo del Toro and many more (laughs). I usually like the work of the artist, but you know, not all of their work all the time. 

S: Tell us about your first big break into the business
AL: Shooting Naomi Campbell for Harper’s Bazaar Vietnam cover! My producer/collaborator back then (now co-founder of Now Open TV with me) Victoria had produced a cover for Naomi before. Commercially, it was with Saks Fifth Avenue. I did an editorial with a stylist before, and she introduced my work to a creative director at Saks Off 5th back then when their original photographer canceled the shoot last minute!

S: Who are the top models and magazines you have worked with?
AL: I have worked with many great models. I love working with Naomi Campbell of course. She is such an inspiration. Besides her, I have also worked with Karlie Kloss, Hailey Bieber, Coco Rocha, Saskia DeBraw, HoYeon Jung, Helena Christensen, Mariacarla Boscono, and many more! I also have shot for Vogue Portugal, Vogue Mexico/Latin America, Vogue Ukraine, V magazine, Paper magazine and more!

S: During the pandemic, we heard you took food to those that could not get out.
AL: Yes, I did some neighborhood programs where we made simple foods and delivered safely to the ones in need! Always love to give back whenever I can.

S: Out of all of your amazing photoshoots, which were your favorites and why?
AL: I have many memorable shoots where I loved the experience of it and how the work turned out. It is hard to choose, but one of my earlier works that I won the Vogue New Exposure contest for, the series the old man and the sea. It was really fun, mainly because it was the very first shoot I did in Vietnam the week after I arrived there after seven years of being far away from home.

That was right after I graduated from SCAD. I randomly submitted my work for the contest online when I was still in Savannah. It was free (laughs). I don’t usually like those contests where you have to pay a fee. Those are more of a business for the organizer in my opinion. And I left for Vietnam. A few days after I arrived in Vietnam, jetlag and all, I got an email notification that I was in the top 10 finalists. But in order to win the grand prize, everyone had to create an original body of work within one week using the RED camera that they would provide to the contestants.

Anyway, they couldn’t ship the camera to me in Vietnam due to time and insurance policy, so I had to scout the entire Ho Chi Minh city and luckily found the only and correct RED camera at a movie rental house. Back then I obviously didn’t have the money to pay for all of it, so the rental place gave it to me technically for free to do my project, and I had some Vietnamese friends that helped me find location, models, clothes, etc.

It was a very challenging process, and I couldn’t have done it alone. But yes, that whole process really taught me that anything is possible as long as you do not give up easily. And that, for what I do and love to do, everything is a team effort. And that I cannot do it alone.

Other great memorable experiences I have would be the time I shot Naomi Campbell for the first time (about 7–8 months after I graduated SCAD and moved to New York). I shot her in six outfits and a makeup change in 30 minutes total! The adrenaline alone was electrifying (laughs). And when I shot Mariah Carey for her caution album cover art, it was amazing as well. The shoot day was 21 hours long. The images from these two shoots were displayed in the recent SCAD museum exhibition ICONS ONLY.

More recently I would say the shoot where I shot a body double for a CGI project that is about to launch. My creative agency, Now Open TV (which I founded with my creative business partner Victoria Pavon in 2019), is bringing Marilyn Monroe back to life for CR China summer covers, and you can also buy the artwork remixes as an NFT! It has been a daunting task since we know her die-hard fans – myself included – will take it apart and criticize the work until eternity (laughs). 

“Our in-house CGI team collaborated directly with the Marilyn Monroe Estate to create Marilyn in full 3D/CGI. We shot a body double in real life and then replaced her face with high definition face of Marilyn which we created from scratch. It was a long and meticulous process, hundreds of hours invested.”  – An Le

S: What plans for further growth in your profession do you have?
AL: With my creative production agency Now Open TV, we always love pushing the boundary and creating cool unique work. We have been doing a lot of CGI/VFX work for a wide variety of clients. I also have been doing more directing work for TV commercial and editorial projects. 

S: What do you miss most about living in the South?
AL: I would say the peacefulness and driving down the idyllic scenery of Liberty Street and through all the squares. 

S: If there was one thing you could change about the world we live in, what would it be?
AL: Oh my God, (laughs) this is like if you have only one wish what would it be. I mean there are so many things that need a miracle in this world, unfortunately. If I have to say, I would wish that all people could have more compassion and kindness to each other, especially to those who don’t look like they do, don’t talk like they do, don’t believe in the same things they do, etc. Maybe then, the consequential effect of such would be that we won’t have senseless wars anymore. 


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