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Vietnam memories shown from another perspective

A Garden Grove art center wants veterans' photos for an exhibit.

December 23, 2007|My-Thuan Tran | Times Staff Writer

For years John Dow stashed hundreds of photos he had snapped as an American serviceman during the Vietnam War in cardboard boxes stowed in his basement. The transparencies and negatives that captured his 1970 memories of Da Nang and Phu Bai gathered dust over decades.

Dow, a former Army radio officer now living in Grain Valley, Mo., didn't show the photos to many people. He rarely looked at them himself. But his mind often flickered back to the rural villages of Vietnam.

He may have finally found a place for his snapshots in an amateur photo exhibit at Garden Grove's VietArt Center. The center's director is asking veterans across the country to submit pictures from their time in Vietnam. Two hundred will be chosen for an exhibit next year to be called "Memories of Vietnam 1955-1975."

Although the photos are likely to spark memories for local Vietnamese immigrants, many veterans see showcasing them as part of a healing process that makes sense of the past.

"Every time I look at the photos, it evokes some very powerful emotions," said Dow, 64. "It shows part of the American experience, whether you agree politically or not."

Michelle Nguyen, the center's director, has already received about 100 photos from 25 veterans across the country. She's hoping to get more submissions before the Feb. 15 deadline, when she and a panel of judges -- including photojournalist Nick Ut, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1972 picture of a Vietnamese girl running down a road after she had been burned by napalm -- will select photos for the May exhibit.

Nguyen came up with the idea after talking to veterans who, like Dow, had many photos but few places to show them. Since then, she says, she's received calls nearly every day from veterans who want to share their stories. Some have told her they came back from the war so upset that they burned their own photos but are looking forward to seeing those of others.

Most of the images Nguyen has received are amateur snapshots never shown publicly before.

"The Vietnamese here are always telling the story ourselves," said Nguyen, who fled Vietnam after the war. "We want to hear from the Vietnam veterans and their side of what they feel about it. The best way is through their photos."

Dow heard about the photo exhibit from a fellow veteran. One of the photos he submitted is of a young girl, about 4 years old, staring up at a barbed-wire fence in the dark in Da Nang. A light shines on the girl, who is standing in front of a row of wooden shacks.

Dow was the duty officer that night. As he walked around checking communication devices, he recalls, he spotted the girl, whipped out his camera and snapped the photo. "The moment caught me," he said. "I looked at that young girl and saw that this was a traumatic event in her life. Here is someone caught in the middle of all the trauma and rocket attacks, and we weren't completely aware of it at the time."

Over the next few decades, Dow said, he thought about the girl frequently and wondered what happened to her.

Another photo Dow submitted is of himself bare-chested in plaid shorts, grilling steaks. "Everyone has got to have one of those photos," he said. "It shows that I took a little bit of home with me."

Dow said he didn't talk much about the war after he returned to the United States, keeping his memories private and hidden in the boxes with the photos. When he decided to show them, he wondered whether they would mean anything to others and which ones he should share.

"This is where I was," said Dow, who was 25 at the time. "This is me letting you into my life in this brief moment in time long ago."

Like Dow, Michael Burr of Long Beach -- who at 22 served as an English language instructor to the South Vietnamese Air Force in 1969 -- returned to the United States with hundreds of images of Vietnam. Now a professional photographer, he got his start there.

"The photos show the whole experience of what is was like to go [to Vietnam] as a young person . . . the first time out of the United States and to be exposed to an alien culture that we didn't have much experience with," he said. "It made an impression."

When he got home, the negatives stayed in their protective sleeves for some time. Five years ago, he said, the photos were first seen by the Vietnamese community in a show at the Orange County Vietnamese New Year festival.

Burr said the images unlocked powerful memories for Vietnamese Americans, as well as for him. Some laughed and others cried as they remembered their childhoods and saw photos of historic landmarks that no longer exist.

"A lot of people had to leave [Vietnam] with only the clothes on their backs," he said.

The photos streaming into her mailbox for the VietArt Center exhibit remind her of her homeland, Nguyen said.

"Only the Americans can capture our lifestyle more than us," she said. "Those are very precious. I just want the veterans to feel one more time that we need to appreciate their work and the memories that they treasure."

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