Thuyet Nguyen knelt down in front of Royce Hall and snapped a photo of a graduating senior. The shutter of the camera clicked just as it had in Vietnam when he photographed students playing soccer at the local temple of his hometown.
Nguyen and fellow UCLA alumnus Sonny Bui founded the photography group Fotohearts this year. It provides free graduation photos to UCLA seniors in return for optional donations to support underserved children living in less developed countries, starting with Vietnam. Since starting in May, the pair has taken graduation photos for more than 50 UCLA students and raised more than $1,100 in student donations.
Nguyen and Bui met each other through mutual friends in 2012 and discovered their shared passion for photography and their Vietnamese heritage.
Nguyen said both he and Bui taught themselves how to take pictures through trial and error and by constantly taking pictures of random objects around them.
Nguyen spent hours every week in gardens photographing birds, flowers and bees, which are some of his favorite subjects. Photography provided a sense of satisfaction, Nguyen said.
”Every time I go out to take a photo I don’t think about time,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen brought his passion for photography to Vietnam in 2010 and 2013 where he documented both of his trips. Nguyen said he came up with the idea for Fotohearts in order to combine taking pictures with giving back to the Vietnamese student community.
When Nguyen traveled to Vietnam, he spent a large portion of his trip in his hometown, which is situated in the rural mountain regions of the northern part of the country. At the town’s local temple, Nguyen said he talked with students and played soccer. However, as he traveled throughout rural Vietnam, he noticed a lack of school supplies among the children. As a result, many students did not continue their education after high school, he said.
Bui had a similar experience when he visited family in one of southern Vietnam’s rural areas in 2013, he said. He saw many students had dropped out of high school because education was too expensive.
Finally, after noticing a lack of low-cost graduation photos on Facebook, Nguyen said he suggested the pair turn their passion for photography and philanthropy into a free graduation photo group.
The pair bought the domain for Fotohearts and created a website in May 2016. Nguyen and Bui then contacted a friend in Vietnam and created a plan to donate the money they made to a school in Tây Giang, a district in Quẚng Nam province.
On July 6, friends of Nguyen in Vietnam will present students with clothing, supplies and books paid for entirely by UCLA student donations and donations from people living in Vietnam.
UCLA alumna Christine Batikian used Fotoheart to take her graduation photos and said she chose the group because of its desire to help the community and the affordable pricing.
Batikian said her favorite photo was of her and her friends on the grassy slopes next to Janss Steps, where Nguyen and Bui created a striking image due to the contrast between the color of her white dress and the bright green grass.
The pair cracked jokes during the shoot while telling her how to pose, Batikian said. The shoot felt more lighthearted than previous photos she had taken, which were more serious, she said.
“There’s this fun air to them in a way. They’re really funny and very personable to work with,” Batikian said. “They like to have fun with you while completing the photo shoot.”
Nguyen and Bui will continue to provide free graduation photos next year. In the future, the pair hopes to expand Fotohearts to other campuses outside of UCLA.
“Pictures are priceless,” Bui said. “To hold a memory is valuable.”