In her upcoming exhibition Full Set: Refill, photographer Kim Ha pays homage to her mom and to the nail salon where she spent her childhood. Ha is Vietnamese American, born in Houston and raised in New Orleans. The show debuted at Axiom Art Gallery last fall and was then picked up by Mortal Machine Gallery, and features her photography alongside other multidisciplinary artists. In Ha’s portraits, women sit together on the front stoop, fixing each other’s hair, resting against each other’s legs. They are undressed and draped in furs on a hardwood floor, counting cash, or dressed in floating sundresses in a courtyard garden, sipping tea. They are meeting the viewer with a direct stare, or ignoring them entirely. The photos feature the model’s hands prominently—pressed against a knee, wrapped around a landline phone. For Ha, fingernails represent strength and beauty, and the salon is a place for hardworking femmes to rest, indulge, escape. The world she presents in her work is sensory and lush, gleaming cars and velvet dresses, lit by red light or direct sun and nothing in between. It’s power, glamor, pleasure—a dream, but almost within reach. Her photos invoke classic American imagery and signals of success, here with women of color at the helm. We got on the phone to talk over her career path as a freelance artist, her relationship with the city, and how fashion and femininity influence her work.
You said that the show was inspired by your childhood—what was it like for you being a kid?
I think if you are Vietnamese American, and you were a kid that grew up in a nail salon, one of the big memories is doing homework there. Sometimes my mom or my aunt would cook a large meal and we would have lunch there, and I remember helping translate for my mom, even just telling a customer, “She’s running a little behind. She’ll be with you shortly.” It’s just small memories like that. That was my mom’s way of making sure that she could keep an eye on me and not have me running around everywhere. That brought me closer with her. A lot of my childhood memories are helping take appointments, cleaning the nail salon, doing homework in the nail salon, drawing in the nail salon. I was a very artistic child. I drew and painted a lot. It wasn’t until my teenage years that I got into photography.
What were your first impressions of New Orleans when you moved here?
When I first moved here from Houston, I moved to the East, where the Vietnamese community was really large. The community I left in Houston was mostly Hispanic. Growing up there, I ate a lot of Vietnamese food, or I had frozen meals because my mom’s on the go. I’d never been to a seafood boil before I got here. My first memory is sitting at this table having crawfish, and I’m not understanding what this is, and just sitting there learning how to eat it. I got so obsessed; I ate so much of it that I made myself sick of it.
What was it like coming from a majority Hispanic community into a neighborhood where you’re around more kids that have a similar cultural background?
I don’t know, to be honest, because I grew up in a family where I had a lot of cousins around.
When my mom and dad were together, there were family get-togethers. They’re vague memories but it felt like I was in a family environment. After that it was just me and my mom for a while, and we didn’t have that as much when she was living alone in Houston. When we moved to New Orleans she met this woman who eventually became my godmother, and we went to her house for Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Lunar New Year. We would just hang out at their house, and it was nice to have that—it gave us that sense of family again. That’s the change that I noticed more.
Do you remember how you got into drawing and painting?
When I got to watch Titanic with my mom, I was so inspired by the movie that I drew the ship sinking. My mom kept it, and she would brag about it. That sense of a proud mother, like, “Oh, my daughter drew this”—it validated something in me. And I guess I was always in art classes in school. I’ve always loved drawing. But then I found out (I did live with my dad for a little bit in Houston before I came back with my mom) my dad was also an artist. He’s very into architecture, and I would find these drawings of houses. He was a carpenter. I feel like it stemmed from my father.
Then as you got older, what made you feel inspired or excited as a teen?
I got into Adobe Photoshop and graphic design, and that was what led me to photography. My friend bootlegged Adobe and sent it to me over instant message. And then my mom bought me a Sony point-and-shoot camera, a black one. In high school my English teacher was a part-time photographer, and she noticed that I was skipping school a lot. When there were about two months of school left she told me that if I didn’t skip school for at least a month, she would buy me my first DSLR camera. Of course, I didn’t follow through, but she still let me borrow her DSLR for the summer. I will never forget her treating me that way—to look past me being this rebellious kid and think, she’s going through something, and she probably needs art. Some people started noticing my photography. At this time, Facebook was growing, social media was becoming a thing. After I graduated, my friends who were high school sweethearts were getting married and said that they would pay me $500 to shoot the wedding. I took that $500, went to a used camera store in Houston, and got a used Nikon D780 and some shitty lens, and shot my friends’ wedding and their engagement session with that camera. That’s when I realized that this was what I wanted to do.
When your mom bought you the point-and-shoot—did you ask her for that, or did she just think it might be something that you would like?
She asked what I wanted for Christmas. My friends at school would bring their digital cameras and I thought, “Oh, man, I need one of these.” But at the time, it was just to show off my sneaker game and my creative outfits online. I would stick it on a tripod and take pictures and put them on Myspace.
What were your fashion inspirations at that time? And where was that interest coming from?
Streetwear was so big to me then. I got into K-pop and Japanese rock; I was exploring different fashions from different communities. I got into streetwear, and b-boys, and I would watch documentaries on graffiti artists and see how they would dress. Then in the sneaker community, I would be on internet forums… and don’t even get me started on the Tumblr era. I’m a tomboy to this day—I wear baggy clothes and sneakers, and it’s something that I know is part of my identity. At the same time, my mom got into designer purses. My aunts would bring catalogs or magazines and show her the new Louis Vuitton purse or the new Gucci purse. Then I got sucked into the high fashion world—like what the hell Vogue was. This is a different lifestyle, this is past streetwear now. I obsessed over Saint Laurent, because he put women in suits. I always thought a woman looked amazing in a suit. I went down this rabbit hole researching Coco Chanel, same with the house of Dior, Versace, and Gucci. My mom’s favorite purse now is her Gucci purse. She bought it herself, the most expensive thing she ever bought, her own Gucci purse.
What directions were you going in with photography after shooting your friends’ wedding?
It picked up after I graduated. All my friends were going to college, and I couldn’t afford to. That was a rough year; I kind of just locked myself in my room. Luckily, getting that first wedding gig, I realized that I could do this for money. Five hundred dollars is so much money to an 18-year-old. I left my mom’s house, got my first real job—I was an assistant manager at CVS. We had a friend during that year who was a rapper, and he would take us to Lafayette to shoot his performances. We weren’t getting paid for it, we were following a dream, thinking we’d get famous. We were just kids, right out of high school, like, We’ll do whatever’s gonna work. I was taking $100 gigs, shooting maternity photos for friends, shooting my homegirl for her engagement. The next year I booked a hotel, the Hotel Monteleone, and I wanted to recreate these Chanel photos. At that point I had a job, so I was able to fund my projects. Moodboarding for me back then was printing out photos from Google images and putting them together on a board. I hit up my girls like, “Look, I’m booking this hotel,” and some of those photos are still some of my favorites.
How did you transition into working as a freelance photographer?
For a few years living in Metairie I was working four or five jobs in the mall, and then they opened the Microsoft Store. I worked a corporate role from that day on—like, wow, this is for real, I have a Microsoft email address. They gave us business cards with our names on them. I kind of got sucked out of photography, because I thought, “this is what my parents wanted.” When I moved out and told them what I wanted to do, that’s when I felt that they didn’t support me wanting to be an artist. But what I did for Microsoft was important to me because I was helping the community, and I was teaching kids. All that stuff aligns with me. So the role is great, I’m making great money—fast forward to COVID and my role changed. We were remote, so working 80 to 90 hours a week was a real thing, and I just wasn’t creating enough. I wasn’t happy doing what I was doing, and I couldn’t find another option within the company that would make me happy, without having to move. I was crying every day at my desk, and realizing this isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing. I want to do photography. A month before, I was still working at Microsoft, but I hosted my first exhibition. It was at Axiom, and I saw the crowd that came out for that show, and realized I could do this. Then the company presented an option where you can either move to the corporate office in Arizona, or you can take a severance. I took the severance and I’ve been doing freelance for two years.
I don’t have any complaints—I’m proud of myself for learning the organization skills, the business side of it. For a lot of kids thinking about wanting to be a photographer, you’re not thinking about how you’re basically running your own business, understanding what a W-9 and a 1099 is, and that you’re a contractor at this point. In my first year, it was just doing a bunch of gigs like shooting conventions and shooting family photos. Then I started transitioning; I wanted to shoot something that interests me more. I partnered with a bunch of small businesses, some friends that were entrepreneurs, to shoot content for them. I made that into a package and I started pitching that to different brands and different people. I realized that even though I would love to shoot high fashion, there’s not a lot of that in New Orleans unless I’m doing it on my own. I’m looking for things that I can shoot that won’t burn me out, and one of those is brand narratives. That way I wasn’t getting burnt out shooting baby showers. I think if you want to be a freelancer, you have to find out what subjects will keep your interest so that you keep shooting, and then find out how to make money from that. That’s been my journey with it anyway.
You said your mom loved that you did art when you were a kid, but not when you were doing it for work—what were those conversations like?
They just wanted me to be comfortable and to not have to struggle. When I started at Microsoft, that’s when I felt like my mom and dad were most proud, that I worked for a corporation, and that they had heard of the corporation. That’s kind of the reason I lingered and stayed within Microsoft over six years, and worked my ass off moving up the corporate ladder. They were always so proud. When I quit, I was terrified of telling my mom, but all she said was, “OK, do you have a plan?” and I said I did, and that I could always get back into tech if I needed to. She said, “Alright well, do your thing. And if you need anything, just call me.”
When and how did you get the idea for this show?
It started out as something inspired by high fashion, but then it transitioned into wanting to do something special for my mom. I wanted to do more fashion stuff, I wanted to style all these girls, and I wanted to do it with nails. I’d been working on it for years, and things were changing over time, and I started noticing: This is about so much more than designers. It became something where I was trying to remember particular things that my mom would do on my nails, and I realized, Oh, this has to be about nails. It became the essence of the show. It just clicked for me when I was in bed one night—this has to be called Full Set, because every girl is getting a full set of nails.
She represents strength to me. She was a single mom, busting her ass every day doing nails to put clothes on my back and feed me. She’s the reason that I could become an artist. Her cosmetology license, that’s what fed the family. And all the homegirls I work with now, they bust their asses doing nails, that’s what pays their fucking bills. And my homegirls that model, and my makeup artist friends—it was important to me to highlight the strength of these women, who gave me even an ounce of their energy and time just to produce this show.
One of my favorite parts of making Full Set come to life was Vietnamese American kids coming up to me and saying, I get it. It made me feel like I wasn’t the only kid that experienced this. I wasn’t the only kid in the world that had a single mother that did nails. Thinking about my childhood, what images inspired me, why immigrants came to the U.S. in the first place, it became so much more emotional to me.
What was the process for creating the body of work?
I pitch the concept to the model first; like: I think you would be great for this, but let me know how you feel about it. When I’m on set I need everyone to be pushing out that confidence, because I don’t have a ton of self-confidence myself. I want to work with people who are excited about the idea. You can feel if someone’s into it or not. The biggest thing is knowing that the nail tech is excited, the model is excited, the makeup artist is excited. If you went to the show you saw, the nail techs are credited—it’s not just my body of work, it’s their body of work. It’s described as a solo exhibition, but I think it’s misworded. It’s a group exhibition, because the nail techs are artists in their own right.
You mentioned how you didn’t want to leave New Orleans while you were with Microsoft, and that there are fewer opportunities to shoot high fashion here. What is it about living here that makes you want to stay, or that you’re prioritizing that in these decisions that you’re making?
I had plenty of opportunities to move within Microsoft before COVID. I don’t know what it is about New Orleans. I’ve traveled to California, New York, and I love Arizona. What keeps me here is the community and the culture, the family environment that I created out here. I love my friends. I’ve lived in Houston for three months, I’ve stayed multiple places, and I’ve always come back.
Do you feel like NOLA influences your style or subject matter?
Definitely. All my beautiful homegirls that are born and raised here, they inspire me so much. They have amazing confidence. New Orleans women in general do. They are the reason why I love shooting women—the confidence they exude when they’re in front of the camera. I love shooting women of color; I think it’s because that confidence level is something that I wish I had. And getting creative with shooting around different parts of New Orleans is really fun to me.
What is it that makes you feel like you don’t have much self-confidence?
I think the reason for that is that growing up in an immigrant household, I was judged a lot, and there were a lot of things that made me feel defeated as a teenager. It definitely stems from that. Just growing up being bullied, that will do it to you. I was always a quiet kid. They just didn’t know much about me. Being the only Vietnamese girl in your class, you could feel pretty excluded and alone. Especially from junior high until high school, I was the only Vietnamese kid. I felt really disconnected and frustrated. Now, as an adult, I’m proud to be Vietnamese American; I understand who I am.
I think the first time I talked about being a photographer with my dad, he laughed in my face. I guess small stuff like that, that took jabs at my confidence. Wanting acceptance and validation from my parents and then disappointing them, I could never feel like I was doing something right if it wasn’t making me money. I remember my mom and dad saying, “Do you see any famous Vietnamese photographers around?”
I think you also touched on this during your opening at Axiom. You talked about why it’s important to you to get women and queers of color into galleries.
I love museums. When I went to the Met for the very first time in New York four or five years ago—especially walking through the European art section—I wondered how many people walk through there and appreciate the art, but also want to see something they feel connected to. That’s why I mostly shoot women of color. I remember displaying a piece at the Ace Hotel, and one of the girls who worked there told me, “I never stop in this room, but your work made me stop.” Because she felt like she saw herself on the walls. My biggest goal is to have a piece of my photography in a big-ass museum one day, and for a girl that’s walking past to see that and think, “I belong here.” Because we do.
What were some of your favorite shoots for this show?
The first one that comes to mind is the “Empress” shoot. Watching kung fu movies with my mom and seeing an empress telling this guy to go kill someone—that was my first image of a powerful woman on the TV screen. Seeing an Asian actress play this amazing role—that became one of the first concepts I wanted to do in the beginning of this process. Another one of my favorites was the shoot with my friend Ariel in San José. I had met her in Oakland the year before, and told her I would love to shoot her for this and sent her the vision for it. That one was shot in San José with the pink car; she has tattoos all over her body—this beautiful woman in this black dress but with this loud, vibrant car. “Hidden Dragon” was also very important to me. The one with Jarred, who is a non-binary model—they’re very passionate about martial arts, it gives them a sense of calm. So that was one of my favorites, plus it’s inspired by one of my favorite movies, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Those are my top three for sure.
It’s funny how often social media has come up. Can you talk about what role it’s played in your life and work?
There’s a lot of good and bad, but the best thing about what Myspace or Tumblr or Instagram has done for me, was giving me a space to be expressive—it was easier for me than expressing myself verbally. Being able to find inspiration, put it together and produce it, and put it out there on social media and let people see it. It’s been a good process for me. I used to be very self-conscious about what I’d post. But social media gave me that platform to build a community of friends that really appreciate my work. I’ve been able to make friends all over the planet. A friend in London chimed in during my live for Full Set saying, “I’m so fucking proud of you. I’ve been following you since Tumblr.” It’s not great to depend on validation from social media, but at the same time, it is great to be validated by people who really love and appreciate your work. It’s a beautiful thing that you can be an artist in New Orleans and have somebody from London buy your work. I think about how amazing that is. I grew up when the internet was just happening, so being able to see that, and what it is now, where it can grow a platform for any entrepreneur or an artist, I think it’s a beautiful thing.
Last thing: You described yourself as a tomboy—has your relationship to nail art changed over time?
When my mom was applying for cosmetology school, she needed hands to practice on, and it was my hands. I was going into junior high with acrylics on. It’s different these days: Girls at any age have long sets of nails now. But back then, I remember kids saying, “Damn, Kim’s coming into school every day with her nails done.” Or I remember that playing kickball or doing anything in gym was hard for me with the nails on, so I had to tell my mom, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I hadn’t realized that that’s a way my mom used to bond with me, and to be my mom. My parents saw me growing up, always in baggy clothes, and a lot of my mom’s friends would question my femininity because of the way I dressed—and it was because I wasn’t. I was very masculine; I was always in survival mode, thinking that I had to be strong. Then getting into fashion, I saw that a woman can be powerful and feminine at the same time. But I didn’t know how to align myself with that. It wasn’t until I started working on this project that I started missing having my nails done, and started obsessing over it. Then I was talking to one of my nail tech friends, and I was having a really rough summer, and I asked, “Can I come get my nails done?” She was like, “Yes, whatever you want, whatever you need.” It was very nostalgic. Ever since I got my nails done that summer, my nails have been done every single day.
Top and portrait photo by Katie Sikora