A woman who suffered burns on 85 per cent of her body when she was just nine years old has bared all to challenge her insecurities in an intimate photo shoot. Huyen Vo, known as Kiki, was just a child in a small Vietnamese village when a horrific fire took her mother’s life and left her and two of her sisters with devastating burns.But now, 15 years and over 25 surgeries later, Kiki is opening up about how her struggle to weather the tragedy and her subsequent injuries – and how she learned to embrace her own beauty as she stars in a stunning black and white photo shoot.
The images, showing Kiki in varying stages of undress, were created in collaboration with California-based photographer Krysada Binly Panusith Phounsiri – known as Binly – for the Beauty Beyond Scars project. The photos represent a personal challenge for Kiki, who struggled in the past with her body confidence as a result of her injuries. Growing up scarred, Kiki battled with her own self worth, with seeing herself as beautiful. She would wear long sleeves to hide the scars on her arms as a teen, and her hair long to hide the marks on her face.
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But everything changed when she became a student at UC Berkeley, where she not only discovered a feeling of self-worth in her resilience, but obtained a grant to study sexuality in adult female burn survivors like herself – which ultimately brought her to the attention of photographer Binly. ‘Her resilience in breaking down normative standards of beauty is as physically present as it is emotionally,’ he wrote on the Snap Pilots page for the project. ‘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.’
‘I have never done a shoot like this before,’ Kiki tells Daily Mail Online. ‘It has been in the back of my mind to do this for over a year now; however, I was still a bit afraid about how I was going to do it and who was going to be my photographer. ‘I wanted it to be someone I trust with capturing me in the various of forms and feelings…So when Binly proposed to do this project, I was shocked and literally went “[Oh my god]”. He shared the exact same vision as me with how to carry out this visual series so I was so excited when everything was coming together.’
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Not only does she fearlessly display the scars over her body in the images, but Kiki also told her harrowing story as a part of the project – the story that started with a terrible tragedy, but led to the personification of the term ‘survivor’ that Kiki represents today. It was the evening of November 12th, 2000, when nine-year-old Kiki and her eight-year-old sister Nhi were studying in the living room of their small home in a Vietnamese village – which was so tiny that it had no roads or electricity.
The girls’ mother sold candy to local children out of a small hut in front of the home, and that night they went out to sneak a bite of sweets, first running into their other three-year-old sister Thương, before coming across their mother, who was busy pouring gasoline into a small bottle It was something that the girls’ mother was often seen doing, as she would later pour the fuel into their father’s motorcycle, the family’s only mode of transportation.
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‘The next moment happened so fast that even to this day, I still can’t believe it happened,’ she wrote. ‘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.’ With the door blocked by the flames and her daughters to scared to escape, the girls’ mother shielded them from the flames with her body, but the fire was too hot.
‘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,’ Kiki remembered. But then, just as Kiki felt she was succumbing to the flames, her father leaped into the room and saved the girls one by one – but they were still left with horrific third-degree burns. In the ambulance, Kiki was next to her mother, who was in incredible pain from her injuries. ‘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.’
Following the tragedy, the three girls and their father came to the United States to seek medical treatment thanks to the efforts of a non-profit. But the road to recovery was a long one. Kiki had over 25 surgeries from the age of nine to age 21. ‘When I first was injured, it was really bad. My hands and toes were deformed. It’s hard for me to describe it but basically my range of mobility was very limited because of my third degree burns,’ she tells Daily Mail Online. ‘I had to have many reconstructive and plastic surgeries. I remember having metal rods in all my fingers, toes, and both of my arms to straighten them out.
‘It was horrible and painful beyond imagination because I wasn’t able to do anything for over a month. I also had to have several skin grafts and those were really awful as well,’ she adds. ‘I had to have occupational therapy everyday of the week. As a kid, it felt like torture.’ This compounded with the insecurities and mental struggles of adolescence made for a difficult upbringing for the stricken youngster. She hid her scars and battled with low confidence over her appearance. But with the help of those around her and through her own research, an adult Kiki has learned to ’embrace my sexuality, vulnerability, strength, and all that encompasses a female burn survivor’.
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In the photo project, Kiki shows off a large, bold tattoo of a phoenix – a bird born of fire – not only as a symbol of the traumatic event, but also of the challenges she has overcome. ‘Everyone has something that they feel insecure about. I would be lying if I say I’m 100 per cent confident every day,’ she says. ‘However, I can 100 per cent say that I’m stronger everyday 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.’