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.
In the fall of 1992, David Goldblatt was a visiting lecturer at Harvard. The Carpenter Center exhibited works from his book In Boksburg. This was at the height of anti-Apartheid activity around the world, including U.S. campuses (Apartheid would end two years later).
What was remarkable about David’s photography was that he photographed how common and unremarkably ordinary white supremacy was in every facet of life for all South Africans: whites, blacks, Christians, Jews. He didn’t photograph political rallies or anti-Apartheid demonstrations. Instead, he photographed white beauty contests at black super markets, the everyday comforts of the white upper class, and the agonizingly long bus rides of black workers from their townships in the middle of nowhere to their places of work.
In 2016, I reconnected with David after viewing an exhibition of his work “Ex-Offenders at the Scene of the Crime” at the Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York. In this work, he took portraits of criminals at the scenes of their crimes after they had been released from prison. As in all of his earlier work, he sought to look at what others prefer not to see and to humanize all of his subjects, no matter how uncomfortable.
Chris Killip was everything I could have wanted in a photography instructor. More than just a teacher, he was a mentor. He had that ability to be both contagiously passionate about his subject and also truly invested in my success.
Before taking his class, I honestly knew nothing about him. This was in the analog age before you could Google someone or look them up on Wikipedia. What I did know was that he was not a typical PhD, but rather an artist in residence. He had tightly cropped white hair and spike with an English accent. He wore distinctively framed round glasses and tweed jackets. He rolled his own cigarettes and smoked them while introducing us to the greats of documentary photography. Each week we would bring in our work for his critique. He was brutally honest. This style of teaching was not for everyone but it was just what I needed to push me to a level I didn’t even know was possible.
In 2015, I was excited when Steidl reprinted In Flagrante which allowed me to get my hands on Killip’s most famous work just as I was starting to think of putting together my own photobook. Twenty years later, it was just as good if not better than I remembered it.
When I completed my book dummy, I sent a copy to Killip, still living in Cambridge and working on another book with Steidl. I was thrilled to be able to share it with him and he immediately emailed me words of kindness and encouragement. Thank you, Chris Killip, for everything.
One of the many gifts of studying photography at Harvard with Chris Killip and David Goldblatt was how they introduced me to the work of documentary photographers from past and present who inspired them and shaped the medium. I distinctly remember the first time I saw Bruce Davidson’s Brooklyn Gang. It was eye opening, aesthetically pleasing, empathetic, and energetic—everything I hoped to one day be able to produce in my own work.
This summer, I previewed an early draft of Other Streets with my friend David and it reminded him of work done by his friend, Bruce Davidson. I almost fell out of my chair. You are friends with Bruce Davidson?!? Indeed, he was and he showed Other Streets to Bruce who enjoyed the book very much and was interested in meeting me. I couldn’t believe it.
In November, Bruce, his wife Emily, and his manager Donna warmly welcomed me into their home and office (and darkroom, pictured). We discussed at length his work—past and present—as well as his advice for me. It was a morning I will never forget.
Mark F. Erickson is the author of the photobook Other Streets: Scenes from a Life in Vietnam not Lived.