Burn Survivor Challenges Her Insecurities With Intimate Photo Shoot
When Huyen “Kiki” Vo was just 9 years old, she suffered burns on 85 percent of her body after being trapped in a house fire, which claimed her mother’s life. Over the years Vo has undergone more than 25 surgeries, but despite the emotional and physical pain she’s endured, she’s found a way to rise above it all.
In September, Vo and California-based photographer Krysada Binly Panusith Phounsiri, known as “Binly,” teamed up for an intimate photo series, and the results are incredible. Vo had never posed for a shoot like this before, and she admitted that even she was was stunned when she first saw the images.
“My first reaction was, ‘Wow. So raw,’” Vo told The Mighty in an email. “I have [had] these scars since I was a kid, but I always wore them like they are a part of me. However, seeing my scars on me in photos [was] shocking.”
In the post on his Snap Pilots website titled “Beauty Beyond Scars,” Binly wrote, “Her resilience in breaking down normative standards of beauty is as physically present as it is emotionally. She wrote a whole [research article] at UC Berkeley through the SURF program regarding Beauty and Sexually among Burn Survivors. [This article] compelled me to contact her and discuss an opportunity to turn her words into a reality of photos.”
When the initial shock wore off, Vo said she felt a great sense of empowerment from the photos.
“My main hope is to challenge my own insecurities and serve as a platform for others to recognize that it is beautiful to own your insecurities,” she told The Mighty. “Everyone has something that they feel insecure about. I would be lying if I say I’m 100 percent confident every day. However, I can 100 percent say that I’m stronger every day because I’m willing to step out of my comfort level and challenge every inch of my mind and soul to be bold and fierce… And that is all I can hope for others to do after reading about my story and seeing my photos.”
Vo’s phoenix tattoo has also had an important role in her recovery and ability to stay positive.
“[My] phoenix symbolizes rebirth,” she explained. “Born from ashes. I believe I’m a reincarnation of a phoenix in this life. Whenever I feel down, I look at my phoenix in the mirror or photos to remind me of my own strength to have overcome so much pain and still thrive today. Therefore, I do not have the right to give up no matter what. In this sense, my phoenix keeps me grounded and makes me feel fierce and unstoppable.”
In her post on the Snap Pilots blog, Vo noted that it took her years to gain the confidence to participate in a shoot like this. She wrote that her scars made her question her self-worth and sexual attractiveness, and for a long time she believed she was not worthy of love and affection. “I didn’t feel ‘beautiful,’” she wrote. “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.”
“This photo series was a personal challenge this year,” she added. “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.”
When asked what her advice is for other burn survivors, Vo told The Mighty, “Do not ever have a mindset that you are a victim. You can not grow and heal from the pain or the trauma if you do not let it help you heal… It will take some time, and it’s completely OK. Just realize that the longer we hold on to what we can’t change, the longer we stop ourselves from being happy.”