Beauty Beyond Scars: Finding Beauty in a Burn Victim

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My love for photography roots itself in portraiture and street snaps. People in the photo world either love or hate the notion of telling a story, I live to share them. Shooting people in their own world is what drives me to push in this craft. I enjoy a series style of shooting where a concept is experimented on or some context exists. With that, I present to you my latest series with a good friend, Kiki. It is titled “Beauty Beyond Scars”.

I met Kiki a couple of years back. She is a powerful individual with a powerful story to share. Her resilience in breaking down normative standards of beauty is as physically present as it is emotionally. She wrote a whole thesis at UC Berkeley through the SURF program regarding Beauty and Sexually among Burn Survivors.

I repeat, she wrote a thesis at the University of California, Berkeley regarding this subject matter.


The thesis on her final college paper compelled me to contact her and discuss an opportunity to turn her words into a reality of photos. I messaged her and we had multiple conversations about how we wanted to approach the shoot. I detailed what I envisioned from the shoot, and made no effort to be vague with this, at all. Being clear was so necessary. I wanted her to be completely comfortable and not cross any lines in terms of how much she wanted to reveal. Fortunately, she gave me her trust and we were both on the same page.

I wanted a black and white shoot where the focus was solely on Kiki and all that makes her who she is. A simple background was needed with the least amount of distractions possible. I wanted to focus on her face, her body, and her scars. I feel that Black and White was needed to draw the attention to the subject in this case. Color was not needed. We agreed to use her living room as a location. I was happy that she had such a big living room. Light coming through the window would be my main light. Window light fits what we were trying to convey. The contrast between the light and Kiki would be the main theme.

For gear, I used my bread & butter combo of a Canon 6D + Zeiss 135mm f/2 and 50mm Planar T* f/1.4. The living room was big enough for me to shoot with the 135mm, which was what I really wanted. The 50mm gave me some breathing room when I need to shoot a bit tighter in her living room for some shots. I had my buddy Francis assist me with a reflector, using the white side just to give a little more bounce of light onto Kiki.

We played Alina Baraz & Galimatias – Urban Flora EP on repeat. That was another funny thing; we both have been listening to this EP in the recent weeks. It set the kind of energy and feeling we intended as we went through the shoot.

The shoot in its entirety, from clearing out the living room to the last shot, spanned 2 hours. The culling and editing took a bit, but I have a love for black & white. I enjoyed the entire process from start to finish.

Below is our collaborative effort. I asked Kiki to share her story, which has been a tremendous effort for her to express. Much respect to her for that.

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It was probably around 7 o’clock. My younger sister Nhi (8 years old) and I were studying in the living room. As a kid, I was a bit mischievous. My mom had a shop where she sold homemade candies to the neighborhood kids to make extra money, a little hut out in front of our house. I remember persuading Nhi to go with me to get some candy from my mother’s small shop. As Nhi and I walked to the store, we ran into my baby sister (Thương) who was only 3 years old back then. The two of them followed as I led them to the store. Unexpectedly, we ran into our mother, who was busy pouring gasoline into a small bottle. She does this to pour gas into my father’s motorcycle so he could drive to the local shop to purchase a portable electric bin that enabled my sisters and I to study at night. The village did not have electricity. The next moment happened so fast that even to this day, I still can’t believe it happened.

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Nhi was holding a kerosene lamp and without knowing so, she leaned in and lowered the lamp to where my mother was pouring the gas. Just like that, the fire ignited. It was only a small fire at first but because we were so frightened by it, all three of us sisters ran back into the shop. Seeing her children inside the shop, my mother couldn’t bear to run out first. For the next minute or so, she covered us with her arms, telling us that it would be okay; Daddy would come and save us. The flaming fire kept blazing and heating up. We were stuck. I screamed. I couldn’t breathe. I was getting exhausted. I remember feeling my skin bubbling and peeling. I looked and saw my sisters desperately gasping for air. In that moment, I thought I was going to be trapped and die in that shop. Just when I was about to close my eyes and fall into that scary deep sleep, my father jumped through the fire and saved me. One by one, he ran in and out of that burning house and rescued my mother and sisters.

We survived but suffered tremendous burns. I remember hearing the screeching scream from my sisters. “đau quá, đau quá ba ơi.” Nhi was rolling on the cement crying with such awful pain. That night our lives shattered forever. I remember being on the ambulance and glancing over to see my mother. In her eyes, I saw the immense pain she was in. She cried out for help to stop the awful pain. At that moment, I did not feel pain. All I felt was guilt. Guilty that because of wanting to get some candy, I led my sisters to the shop and caused the incident to happen. Tears of guilt were rolling down my face as I looked at my mother and uttered “Con xin lổi, mẹ” – I’m sorry Mom.

Those were my last words to my mother.

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I will never forget that night and that fire. For the first few years after the accident, I look at that night as a horrific tragic event that not only changed the course of my life forever, but also took away my dear mother. However, what I did not foresee was that it was actually a fire that set a rebirth for me. It ignited a new journey and brought me here to the United States in 2002. Needless to say, my experience growing up with severe third degree burns was a unique one, especially during the years of young adulthood when I began questioning my beauty, self-worth, and sexual attractiveness based on my scars. I thought that I was not worthy of love and affection. I didn’t feel “beautiful”. I remember in middle school and even throughout sophomore year in high school, I would wear long-sleeve shirts and pants and have my hair all over my face just to hide my scars. It was not until after I turned 18, starting college at UC Berkeley, that my mentality shifted greatly.

At UC Berkeley, I met many incredible individuals who helped me realize that my own beauty stretches beyond my physical appearance. Rather, what makes me uniquely beautiful was my strength to continue on with life despite all the pain and losses I encountered. By surrounding myself with positive, supportive, and loving individuals, I came to truly embrace the notion that it is perfectly normal to have physical flaws. I’m human. Everyone has some form of flaws or scars whether it is visible or invisible. Once I made that choice to accept myself holistically, I was able to focus on my academic growth and finding ways to advocate for my burn community. Thus during Fall 2012, I had a moment of self-reflection. I realized that I was not just a Cal student but also a burn survivor in higher education. That was something I should not take for granted. Therefore, beginning of that fall, I mustered up the courage and confidence to look into research opportunities that would allow me to study and spread awareness about issues in my burn community to the academic world.

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In Spring 2013, my vision came true when I received a research opportunity through Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) program at UC Berkeley. Through SURF, I conducted an independent research study titled “Exploring Young Adult Female Burn Survivors and Sexual Intimacy” to examine how the severity of young adult female burn survivors’ injuries impacts their comfort in engaging in intimate and sexual relationships. Ultimately, my work aims to provide insight into the lives of these survivors and offer intervention recommendations that will empower them to feel comfortable engaging in sexual and intimate relationships.

If you are interested, you can read about my research and findings here.

Furthermore, this photo shoot serves as another form of expression for my research. Through photos, I want to challenge not only my own boundaries of comfort and insecurity, but also empower other females to embrace themselves as a whole. I want to defy society’s normative perception of beauty. I realize everyone has insecurities and it’s tremendously difficult to overcome all of the self-doubts and be 100% confident. However, I believe in efforts and constantly challenging our thoughts and actions to become a more positive person than we were yesterday. This photo series was a personal challenge this year. It is a scaffold to remember to be bolder, fiercer. To embrace my sexuality, vulnerability, strength, and all that encompasses a female burn survivor. I truly hope through my photo and story, you’ll find your strength to heal and challenge your self-perception as well.

One Love,

– Huyen Kiki Vo

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Much is to be said about an individual who wants to help others when they have been down the same road. I commend Kiki. She is not defining beauty for anyone. Instead, she takes it upon herself to discover her inner strength, creating a path where she can define beauty for herself. I believe she can inspire others to do similar feats, in their own way. That is the goal.

I hope that her story has inspired you in some way, and that the photos nail the visual narrative. I can’t wait for the next time I shoot with her. I have some ideas brewing in my mind.

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Until next time!

~Snap Pilot #17

Follow Kiki at @tinykiki_36

Follow me at @SnapPilots and @BboyLancer

This blog post and the images were syndicated with permission from Krysada Phounsiri. The content here has been given to the Phoblographer exclusively.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.