One year before the 40th anniversary of the end of the American War, an experienced Washington DC reporter discusses his eight-year-long photo project and his upcoming photography book, Vietnam 40 Years Later, which he hopes will change the way Americans view Vietnam. By Chris Mueller. Photo by Ly Hoang Long.
What piqued your interest in Vietnam?
I’m a baby boomer so the Vietnam and America war was the war of my generation. When I was in high school and college, news of the war just poured out of the TV and daily newspapers every day. It was an all-consuming story and it shaped American culture and politics of that era. I had already been interested in a career in journalism, and the war galvanised my interest in media and politics. While I didn’t serve in the war, it had a huge impact on defining my career path.
I made a trip to Vietnam in 2005, which was just going to be a one-time trip to do some photography, and I guess I got bit by the bug. I decided that I really wanted to come back and make a project out of this, and it slowly evolved into a book project.
I thought it was a very interesting place from a photographer’s standpoint. It was a beautiful place. It just seemed like everywhere I looked I could see a good picture.
What do you hope to accomplish with your book?
I wanted my book to focus on the Vietnam of today. What I found was a country that is very much in motion. Vietnam is a story that is not yet told; it’s a country with one foot still in ancient Asia and another galloping towards the global economy. That’s the Vietnam I sought to show, and I think that’s what the book is all about. I also wanted to challenge Americans to adopt a new and updated view of Vietnam. Many Americans, when they hear ‘Vietnam’, still think of the war.
Do you think Americans care what Vietnam is like today?
I do. But I think you have to tap them on the shoulder and ask them to take a look. On a number of occasions I’ve had showings of my work and the people that come to see it were intrigued and amazed at how beautiful the country is, and how different it is from the images they’ve been carrying around in their heads.
Eight years is a relatively short period of time, have you seen many changes between visits?
I’ve seen an incredible change. I think in terms of recent Vietnamese history, eight years is a relatively long time. It seems like every time I come back to Vietnam, even after just 12 months, there have been big changes. The skyline is changing, you can see many Vietnamese have more money and a higher standard of living. Because of social media, they’re more connected to the world. In just eight years, Vietnam has vastly changed.
What surprised you most while working on your project?
I was very surprised at how quickly the gay community in Vietnam, and Saigon especially, developed with the help of Facebook. When I first came to Vietnam in 2005 the gay community had no profile. There were no bars and people only knew each other through one-to-one introductions.
All that changed with Facebook. Connections grew quickly as friends met other friends online. … Gay Vietnamese are now fully aware of the gay rights movement globally. And they want the same things.
What do you find is a more effective at story telling: photography or writing?
I know that when I go out and shoot photos, I see my work very much through a journalist’s eyes. That’s the life I lived for decades and I just can’t help wanting to try and tell a story through pictures when I’m shooting. An awful lot of the time as I shoot pictures I imagine in my head what the captions would say. It seems that my gut instinct is to reach for both tools and use them together.
What can your book show expats in Vietnam that they may not have seen before?
I think the book will pull together for them things they have seen and experienced with things they haven’t and put it all in one place. This, perhaps, will give them a platform in which to think about their own experiences and think about the period of time that they’re spending in Vietnam and how it is very much a historic time for the country.
Vietnam 40 Years Later will be released on 1 March. For more details and to see some of Dodge’s work, visit Robertdodge.com.