Jeffrey Wolin to unveil 'Portraits of American and Vietnamese War Veterans' at festival in France
It was December of 1972 in Vietnam. U.S. Air Force Col. Thomas Sherman was airborne commander of "Operation Linebacker II," 11 days of bombing targets that he said included railroads and military installations.
"It was obvious that Hanoi was on its knees militarily," Sherman said in 2005, a couple of months before he died. "After the third or fourth night, things were looking pretty good for us."
Vietnamese civilian Le Thi Duc will never forget the horrors she experienced in December of '72, when she was just 18. When the air raid sirens went off, she and her older brother, along with their sister and brother-in-law, huddled in a straw-covered dirt hole in front of her family's home. The blast collapsed the shelter, burying them. "They all died -- only I was rescued," she recalled. The same night, her mother and younger brother were also killed in an adjacent bomb shelter.
Told from vastly different vantage points, the images and stories of Thomas Sherman and Le Thi Duc will be displayed side-by-side in a new solo exhibition by Indiana University photography Professor Jeffrey Wolin titled "From All Sides: Portraits of American and Vietnamese War Veterans" at Lyon Septembre de la Photographie, an international biennial in Lyon, France, opening Sept. 9.
The biennial will include the work of photographers from around the world, as well as performances by dancers in the evenings during the festival.
The 20 large format prints (24 inches by 30 inches) Wolin selected for the exhibition feature both American and North and South Vietnamese veterans, expanding on previous work that featured solely American veterans. "Inconvenient Stories: Vietnam War Veterans," opened at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago in 2005 and traveled to other museums in the U.S. beginning in the summer of 2007, also spawning a book by the same name from Umbrage Editions of New York.
"From All Sides" will be on display at the Fondation Bullukian, a first-time partner in the biennial.
Wolin, Ruth N. Halls Professor of Photography at Indiana University, said it was an American Vietnam War veteran he had previously photographed, John Linnemeier, who suggested photographing veterans from "the other side" of the Vietnam War.
This led first to a series of photographs of South Vietnamese veterans living in various U.S. cities. An initial exploratory trip to Hanoi in 2007 convinced Wolin of the viability of extending the project to North Vietnamese Army veterans. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs granted Wolin permission to tour Vietnam for his project; the ministry provided a translator, and Wolin brought along Linnemeier.
"The Vietnamese were tremendously cooperative and grateful," Wolin said. "They thought it was so interesting that Americans would come and talk to them about the war -- that hadn't happened much before. Everyone was welcoming and warm. Everyone offered rice wine, tea and oranges."
Linnemeier and the Vietnamese soldiers greeted each other with hugs and showed one another their scars, Wolin said.
"The people I was working with said 'It's great you're doing this, because the stories will reach our children and grandchildren too.'" By the time he was finished with the project, Wolin had photographed 43 Vietnamese vets, almost as many as the 50 Americans he had photographed for his "Inconvenient Stories" exhibition.
Wolin worked with people on "all three sides" (Americans, North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese) who were in battles in the same place at the same time. "That to me is really interesting," he said. "Finding ways in which their lives intertwined and thinking about how the war affected them for the rest of their lives."
Serendipities between the veterans arose several times during the project.
Wolin photographed Sherman in Michigan City, Ind., asking him about the 1972 B-52 bombings in Hanoi that became known as the "Christmas Bombings" or "The December Raids."
In the photograph, Sherman's bare feet are red from poor circulation. "He died a couple of months after I took the photo. You can see he's unhealthy -- he's sitting there in a cloud of smoke, barefoot, wearing an old flight jacket. On one sleeve is a patch that says 'Hanoi Bombing Competition 1972,'" Wolin said.
"One thing both groups have in common is a problem with post-traumatic stress disorder, among other things. The men and women who saw action in the war don't want to talk about it that much -- they have to believe that what you're doing is of some value to them, that it's doing some societal good."
The American veterans Wolin interviewed told him the 1972 bombings weren't near any civilian targets, only military targets.
"When I got to Hanoi, I learned otherwise," he said. "It could have been a mistake, but an entire neighborhood was demolished, including a civilian hospital -- and 3,000 people were killed when some bombs landed in this neighborhood."
Along with Linnemeier and their translator, Quang, Wolin visited a civilian neighborhood that was bombed in 1972. "The memorial was the foundation of a house with some walls that were bombed to smithereens. Everything else in the neighborhood had been cleaned up and rebuilt but this one -- it's just an open area where the house had stood. In the middle was a statue of a woman holding a dead child."
With Quang's help, Wolin was able to locate and interview Le Thi Duc, the woman whose entire immediate family was killed in the 1972 bombings. The impact of the bomb broke Le Thi Duc's back, and she was hospitalized for a year. "When she got out, she took her sister's children and raised them as her own," he said.
Wolin hangs these and other similarly parallel stories next to each other. "These are two different perspectives on what happened that night."
One of Wolin's favorite images from the series is of Ngo Huy Phat, a major colonel in the Vietnam People's Army who led ambushes of American bases. "You can see his hand is demolished. His hand was blown off and they found some fingers and started sewing them back on, like Frankenstein. It isn't even clear that they're in the right place," he said.
When Wolin and his traveling partners arrived at Ngo Huy Phat's home, though, he welcomed them with wine and tea, as well as a bowl of oranges that proliferate in Vietnam. "I thought, 'This is such a metaphor. Life, renewal, friendship, love -- that's what fruit symbolizes," Wolin said. "He was offering us this gift despite this war, saying in one hand, here's the war, and in the other, here's this gift."
Other current work by Jeffrey Wolin:
- "Proof," curated by Catherine Edelman (Catalog); Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago
- "Wounded in Action" (book); opened at Morial Convention Center, New Orleans; travels to National Museum of Health and Medicine at Walter Reed, Washington, D.C. (2010) and Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago (2011)
Wolin was invited to lecture about "From All Sides" at the SloWar conference in Moscow Sept. 1 (the anniversary of the beginning of World War II) at which 30 participants from 14 countries share a personal concept of war. For more information on Jeffrey Wolin and to view more of his images, see http://www.jeffreywolin.com/index.php.
To schedule an interview with Jeffrey Wolin, contact Jennifer Piurek, 812-856-4886, firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was originally published Aug. 24, 2010.