Howard Henry Chen
March 29 – May 25, 2003
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 originally wanted to document certain projects –– photographing the lingering effects of unexploded ordnance, for example, or Agent Orange, or a fledgling market economy in a nominally Communist state. These ideas were born 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, and 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 with and making portraits of young Vietnamese born after the end of the war –– farmers, students, idealistic entrepreneurs, novice monks, young professionals, young Communists, ethnic minorities –– 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, and these are portraits of the demographic that is effecting the most change, and is most affected by it. I always asked my close Vietnamese friends and relatives if I could photograph them. Many of them are not much younger than I, and I asked this always remembering that were it not for some pluck and a bit of good fortune –– nothing more –– it could have been me on the other side of the lens. In any case, here we were, taking pictures, trying to redefine how Vietnamese people should be seen, and this collaboration was so elegant to me, as neither the photographer nor the subject have any memories whatsoever of the war.
The pictures also, to me, recall simple holiday snapshots taken by Vietnamese of our parents’ generation, standing stiffly and formally in front of canh dep –– a pretty background –– while a war mushroomed around them. This simplicity belies the palpable, almost aggressive, sense of hope and unfettered optimism within this demographic at this point in time. The features –– of both the faces and the landscape –– are the same, but the history is different.
-Howard Henry Chen, 2003
Howard Henry Chen was born in Saigon, Viet Nam in 1972 and left for the United States with his family in 1975, a few weeks before the tanks rolled in. He grew up in Pennsylvania and studied journalism and political science at Boston University. He then worked as a journalist at several newspapers, covering, among other subjects, the television industry and the changing demographics of the American South. He first studied photography at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, where he sharpened his interest in cultural hybridity and produced a project on second-generation Vietnamese in the American South. He won the first Fulbright fellowship given in photography to Viet Nam in 1999, and has spent the last six years shuttling back and forth doing photographic work. He will receive his MFA from Columbia College in 2006. His most recent exhibit was at The Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, where he and his wife currently live. Chen was an artist-in-residence at CPW in 2001.