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.
WES: Time and pay? I don’t know. It is not a new problem. How long did it take Joyce to do Ulysses? Finnegan’s Wake? And what were his returns? I could never be rested within myself without doing this.
Interviewer: What if nobody sees it?
WES: The goal is the work itself, and with any real finality, the artist is never sure if he is or isn’t finished.
Excerpt from Smith’s interview with Philippe Haussmann regarding the Pittsburgh Project, 1957.
In life, Smith never completed his project and only printed and published selected images. The work was edited by Sam Stephenson and published posthumously in 2001 as Dream Street. I love Dream Street and that more of these images can now be seen, but knowing how difficult and personal editing and sequencing is for the photographer, I feel, with no disrespect to Stephenson, that Smith’s essay as he envisioned it died with him.
Other Streets is my Pittsburgh Project. Like Smith, for many years and for many reasons, I was not able to finish it. Perhaps, as Smith notes, it was because I was unsure if it was or was not or even is now or ever will be truly finished. And yes, I too expect no financial return. I too did this to rest something within myself.
I have many photographic influences in my work, but for inspiration for what a great photobook looks like in terms of editing and sequencing, I returned again and again to Robert Frank’s The Americans. I never got to meet him in person, but I felt a loss when I heard the news that he had died. In addition to his work which continued to evolve after The Americans, I also loved his dedication to pursuing his work on his own terms. In one of the recent essays I read about him, I was surprised to find out that he got rejected by Magnum. That factoid is another reminder that we don’t need validation from the establishment to succeed. RIP.
Portrait by Allen Ginsberg at Christie’s, taken after yesterday’s Aperture talk on the state of the photobook.
“There was another life that I might have had, but I am having this one.” -Kazuo Ishiguro
One day when I was working on my still untitled book, this was the quote that greeted me when I logged into my Bloomberg terminal. It stopped me in my tracks. I am a big fan of Ishiguro and loved The Remains of the Day, When We Were Orphans, and Never Let Me Go. The quote is from an interview reprinted in the book Conversations with Kazuo Ishiguro. The context of the quote is about Ishiguro being born in Japan but growing up in the U.K. and becoming a celebrated English-language writer. While printed on the page as “another life”, my brain translated that to “an other life” and perfectly captured a feeling about my own life that I had never been able to articulate.
My daughter had read The Sympathizer and recommended it to me. I thoroughly enjoyed it and then wanted to see what else Viet Thanh Nguyen had written, which led me to Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. I have read a lot of books about Vietnam, but this book was packed with so many paradigm-shifting ideas that upon finishing it, I immediately started reading it again. After a year of other books, I am back to re-reading Nothing Ever Dies for the third time. This book gives so much to ponder and illuminates so much of my personal experience and the meaning of Other Streets.
"The war has burned itself into many of us, including myself, seared at too young of an age to know exactly where the scar is. Those born too young to remember with clarity, or to remember anything at all, may still see the war's afterimages lingering on their retinas, a result of what W.G. Sebald so memorably calls 'secondhand memory.'"...At times, these memories are intimate legacies bequeathed to us by families and friends who saw the war firsthand; other times, these memories are Hollywood fantasies, the archetype being Apocalypse Now..." (Chapter 4, page 103)
So for most Vietnamese-Americans too young to remember the war like Viet Thanh Nguyen or Ocean Vuong, they do have the memories "bequeathed" by family and friends. But as a Vietnamese adoptee who grew up without a Vietnamese family or community, I only received the Hollywood ones: The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and all the lesser movies that I eagerly consumed. As an American consumer, I identified with the complicated American protagonists, not the Vietnamese characters, who were almost always one-dimensional, non-speaking roles: villains and victims.
Mark F. Erickson (Đỗ Văn Hùng) is the author of the photobook Other Streets: Scenes from a Life in Vietnam not Lived.