During the Second Indochina / Vietnam War era, there were roughly 200 million Americans and 44 million Vietnamese (24 million in the North and 20 million in the South). Amongst the Americans, there were roughly 20 million draft eligible men and 10 million served in the military, of which 2.5 million served in Vietnam (10% of draft eligible men or 1% of the total population). 58,000 Americans killed (roughly 2% of those who served). 2 million Vietnamese killed (roughly 5% of the total North and South population). Numbers on orphans and Amerasians are hard to verify, but official U.S. government numbers (which may be understated) counted at least 800,000 orphans (roughly 10% of the population under the age of 15) and 25,000 Amerasians in South Vietnam at the end of the war. So roughly 1% of the American men who served in Vietnam fathered a child with a Vietnamese woman. And roughly 0.3% of the South Vietnamese orphans were evacuated through Operation Babylift. Notes for clarity: (1) some Amerasian children were kept and raised by their mothers, so not all became orphans, (2) some Amerasian children were fathered by non-military American civilians, and (3) Operation Babylift evacuated Amerasian and non-Amerasian orphans.
Thank you to all of my family, friends, and supporters in the artistic, Vietnamese, and adoptee communities. Due to your word-of-mouth, grassroots endeavors, I am pleased to announce the second printing of OTHER STREETS: Scenes from a Life in Vietnam not Lived.
Unlike some artists who subscribe to a limited edition photobook strategy to create exclusivity and scarcity, my ambition is to get my book in as many hands as possible. I want my art to change hearts and minds and that cannot be done through exclusivity and scarcity. For photojournalists like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Robet Capa, W. Eugene Smith, and Don McCullin, part of their influence was due to the distribution of their photographs through mass produced newspapers and magazines. The general public never saw their work in photobooks, galleries or museums.
When most Americans think of images of Vietnam, three are most prominent: Malcolm Brown's self-immolating monk (1963), Eddie Adams's street execution of a Viet Cong suspect (1968), and Nick Ut's napalm-fleeing girl (1972). These are all powerful, historic, but also horrific photographs. OTHER STREETS offers a counter-narrative in which the Vietnamese people work, play, laugh, and relax. These images will never supplant the others, but once implanted in the mind and the heart, they can permanently change what the viewer remembers about Vietnam.
The new versions improve upon the cost and quality issues of the prior. Please continue to spread the word.
When meeting with Vietnamese audiences, these are the five most frequently asked questions.
1. How did you get to the United States/what was it like to grow up here?
My Vietnamese birth mother gave me to a Catholic priest in Saigon for adoption by an American family. In April 1975, the US government launched Operation Babylift and several thousand children from infants to pre-adolescents were flown out to the United States, Europe and Australia for adoption. Some of these children were biracial and others like me were fully Vietnamese. I grew up in a white family and in a predominantly white community. I did not grow up with Vietnamese language, food, culture, or friends. As a teenager, I became obsessed with learning more about Vietnam, which in America in the 1980s primarily meant reading books and watching movies about the Vietnam War.
2. What was it like to go to Harvard?
I loved Harvard for many reasons, but an important one is that it enabled me to make some of my first Vietnamese friends. At the time, there were a few dozen Vietnamese undergraduates in the Harvard Vietnamese Association and they were very welcoming. I also had the opportunity to teach English as a Second Language (ESL) in Dorchester and to learn more about the Vietnamese refugee experience. Academically, I took the opportunity to take classes about Vietnam beyond the war, including history, economic development, and language (though sadly, I never became proficient). My academic advisor was Hue-Tam Ho Tai.
3. What was it like to go back to Vietnam?
Going to Vietnam was very important to me but before diplomatic relations with the US were normalized, there was not an easy way for me to go. One of the only ways to visit was on a student visa, so I enrolled as a student in Hanoi (the only place where foreign students were permitted). This gave me the opportunity to live in the country for several months with a lot of freedom to travel throughout the country. Because I had apprenticed with two well-known photographers, Chris Killip from the UK and David Goldblatt from South Africa, I also took the opportunity to document what I saw, which later became the raw material for my book, OTHER STREETS.
Emotionally, it felt more like a going to rather than a going back because I left before I was able to consciously remember Vietnam. And to be in a place—for the first time—where everyone kind of looked like me was exhilarating. However, as other Vietnamese Americans have pointed out, one feels very Vietnamese as a minority in America and one feels very American when one is in Vietnam.
4. Were you able to meet your birth family in Vietnam?
When I went to Vietnam, I did not seek out my birth family. Several years later, I did hear via letter from the daughter of my half-sister who had tracked me down. We exchanged letters and photographs for a period of time, but that tapered off. Through those exchanges, I learned some things about my birth family and the complicated situation at the end of the war that led to my being given up for adoption. I have considered taking a DNA test to see if I can find more relatives, some of whom may even be in the US.
5. What is the purpose of your book OTHER STREETS: Scenes from a Life in Vietnam?
The first is personal. I had all these wonderful images locked away and, as I was getting older and my children were getting more interested in my story, I wanted to create something from these images. The book was a gift first to me, and then to my family. It has been critically well received within the artistic and photographic communities, winning praise and awards. More than the awards, the most meaningful feedback has come from the Vietnamese community, which has been most personally moved by the book, oftentimes to tears. I would love for my work to reach more people within the Vietnamese community in America and maybe someday even in Vietnam.
The second is artistic. As Viet Thanh Nguyen points out in his book, Nothing Ever Dies, there is a a war machine that imposes on us a certain two-dimensional view of Vietnamese people as either villains or victims. One of the only ways that we can provide a counter-narrative is through the literary, visual and performing arts. The works that have been produced by the Vietnamese community over the past two decades didn’t exist when I was growing up and give a much more complete—and complicated and contradictory and human—representation of the Vietnamese people. It is my ambition that OTHER STREETS contributes to this assertion of community-defined Vietnamese identity and narrative.
I don't currently have a home darkroom and printing has never been my strong suit, so upon referral, I have begun to work with the fine people at Laumont Photographics, printers to many commercial and fine art photographers in the city. Like my coffee table book, I want the prints on matte, cotton paper. I am enamored with two in particular, Velin Museum Rag, from French paper maker Canson, and Photo Rag, from German paper maker Hahnemuehle. I first saw the Hahnemuehle paper at the L.A. Center of Photography show and thought that was what I wanted, but seeing it side by side with the Canson, I think the Canson may have even more depth. I will experiment with papers and sizes until I get it just right.
One of my next goals for myself is have an exhibition of my work. Paula Tognarelli from the Griffin Museum gave me some great advice for preparing for that next step: put together your 20 exhibition-ready prints. By doing this without an exhibition deadline looming, I can take the time to go about this at my own pace.
After absorbing Western perspectives about Vietnam from many, including my favorites Graham Greene, Stanley Karnow, Philip Caputo, Tim O'Brien, Michael Herr and Karl Marlantes, these are some of the Vietnamese writers who inspired me to explore the Vietnamese perspective:
Viet Thanh Nguyen
Kevin Minh Allen
Le Ly Hayslip
Hue Tam Ho Tai
Photographers who inspired me to become the artist I am today:
Chris Killip (U.K. documentary photographer and my primary photography instructor at Harvard)
David Goldblatt (South African documentary photographer and another photography instructor at Harvard)
Henri Cartier-Bresson (French)
Bruce Davidson (American)
Robert Frank (Swiss)
Philip Jones Griffiths (U.K.)
Josef Koudelka (Czech)
Dorothea Lange (American)
W. Eugene Smith (American)
Tung Nguyen is the host of the Worksleeve podcast which focuses on Vietnamese-American identity. He was born to refugee parents in South Dakota and currently lives in Colorado. He reached out to me via Instagram to learn more about my story and photo book Other Streets. I appreciate Tung taking an interest in my work and am so happy that it is touching people in such personal and meaningful ways.
Mark F. Erickson is the author of the photobook Other Streets: Scenes from a Life in Vietnam not Lived.