Howard Henry Chen
I have spent the last few years living and photographing in Vietnam. It was a heady time to be there as a young Vietnamese American who came of age in the United States, as I witnessed changing social and political sensibilities and the demanding reach of economic and cultural globalism. Before I first arrived in 2000, after having lived in the United States for twenty-five years, I had wanted to document certain projects –– photographing the lingering effects of unexploded ordnance, for example, or of Agent Orange, or of a fledgling market economy in a nominally Communist state.
These ideas were borne from my training as a journalist and an abiding interest in historical and geopolitical issues. When I arrived, I discovered that these issues didn’t interest me as much as a need to explore, visually, a sense of my own identity, to see my own version of Vietnam. I wanted to visually interpret for myself a place that others had always visually interpreted for me, to use a new visual grammar that could sit alongside images of Vietnam to which I have grown accustomed: of an Orientalist’s fantasy of smiling rice farmers and water buffalo in verdant paddies, or the famous combat images of decades past. Americans usually think about Vietnam as a series of anniversaries frozen in time: the anniversary of this or that military offensive, or this or that incident of violence or protest. The Vietnamese have moved on in a way that always amazed me, and it was this sense of radiant stillness and strength with which I identified and photographed.
Spending time in Vietnam and making portraits of both of Vietnamese daily life and individuals has helped me recreate my own vision of Vietnam. I saw subtle and profound changes, even in the relatively short period of time I lived there
Howard Henry Chen was born in Saigon, South Vietnam in 1972. In 1994, he earned a BA from Boston University in journalism and political science, and has also studied documentary photography at Duke University. He has worked as a journalist for many years for publications such as The Baltimore Sun and The Raleigh News & Observer (North Carolina). In 1996 Chen began photographing Vietnamese American communities in North Carolina, Washington DC, and New Orleans, and an exhibition of this work, Vietnamerican, was shown at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. In 2000, Howard was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to photograph in Vietnam, and he began his work with Vietnamese photographers and artists. As this work continued, he began making large-scale color portraits and collecting oral histories of young Vietnamese born after the end of the Vietnam/American War. In 2003 he was granted a residency at Light Work at Syracuse University, and he continues to work on a manuscript of essays, stories, photographs, and oral histories about societal and political changes in the lives of contemporary Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans. Chen was an artist in resident at CPW in September 2001.