Monday, June 28, 2010

In Vietnam, sacrifices are a way of life

In Vietnam I found a mountain of red tape to toil through, as my photo wishes had to be resubmitted because Vietnamese officials in Tokyo didn't pass it onto those in Hanoi.
Once we walked by Hanoi's infamous "Hanoi Hilton," a prison used to house American pilots during the Vietnamese War. But my escort, Dy, hadn't arranged a visit. I suddenly left the press tour to get a closer shot of the prison only to get chased off by a pith-helmeted guard frantically waving his arms.
They're very strict," Dy said as I rejoined the group. This is still used as a prison for our worst criminals." There would have been nothing to see inside anyway, he insisted, only the inner courtyard and a long block of crowded cells.
"This is frustrating," I yelled, "you only want me to photograph images that shows your country's successes. You want me to photograph the great war museum full of captured war trophies, the impacted remains of a B-52 in a community pond, your export textile and rug weaving factories, where luxury goods are made for wealthy customers elsewhere, not in Vietnam. You want me to photograph the school that Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden made famous during their 1972 Christmas visit. I need images to show our readers, that not only is your country a first-rate military power, but a fourth-rate economic one with a per capita income of less than $200.00," I said.
"If only you had asked us when the Visa was submitted in Tokyo," Dy replied, "in Vietnam, there is no such thing as freedom of movement, of following a lead where it may take you."
Photographing people in any country has little to do with taking pictures. It involves trying to understand people and their culture.
In Vietnam's controlled society it's even a challenge to meet average people on the streets. But after my guide dropped me off at the hotel, I soon found, I could wander around Hanoi at will and photograph people, who lived in poor gloomy ghetto - old French villas fallen to shabby decay and general life, but outside the city, all travel was regulated to the foreign visitor.
What likely will remain are the images of a country where beauty and ugliness lives hand-in hand.
Images like:
     Construction crews using a crowbar to pry, one by one, bricks out of a wall;
     One-hundred-year old French streetcars;
     Old men playing a Vietnamese version of Chinese checkers in a city car;
     And, always the children with their smiles.