Thirty-year affinity

One American photojournalist has spent three decades taking images of Vietnam’s ongoing history.

By Thuy Duong on January 11,2020 10:22 AM

Thirty-year affinity

PHOTOS CATHERINE KARNOW

Born and raised in Hong Kong, National Geographic photographer Catherine Karnow has been working in Vietnam for over 30 years. She views herself as a “Vietnamese historical recorder”, through thousands of Vietnam-themed photos taken since her very first photoshoot in the 1990s, as Vietnam’s period of economic renovation first took hold.

Catherine had a host of interesting stories to tell one December evening as she marked 30 years of photography in Vietnam, at a talk entitled “Vietnam 30 years documenting a changing country photographs and stories”.

Change in Vietnam through images

“The first time I came to Vietnam was in 1990. It was just beginning to open its doors, like a shy young girl ready to welcome the world,” Catherine told those at the gathering.

“For 30 years, I have been trying to figure out what this country means to me. I learned about my strange feelings towards Vietnam. A feeling like ‘this is where I belong’. There is an invisible but close connection between myself and the Vietnamese. That is destiny. And the more years I spend here, the more I feel this much more clearly ...” But it seems her attachment to Vietnam may have stemmed from a deeper reason, because her famous father also had a special “predestined relationship” with the country.

Catherine is the daughter of renowned American historian and journalist Stanley Karnow (1925-2013), the author of the history book considered “the most comprehensive work on the Vietnam War”, entitled “Vietnam: A History”. His work was adapted into a documentary and saw him win a Pulitzer Prize. Catherine, meanwhile, was the only foreign photographer allowed to take a photo of General Vo Nguyen Giap during his historic return to the battlefield of Dien Bien in Vietnam’s northwest in 1994.

Early on in her days in Vietnam, in 1990, she traveled on the Reunification Express train, searching for frames without any specific ideas. Suddenly, she was attracted by a woman sitting near the window with some kids, so approached the family and signaled that she wanted to take a photo. The Vietnamese woman seemed at ease and they went on to enjoy some space on the train together.

Two impressive photos were taken as the train rattled over Hai Van Pass in central Vietnam. The woman, Tran Thi Diep, in the photo entitled “Woman On Train”, is on her way from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi on the Thong Nhat train, the so-called Reunification Express (named for reuniting rail links between Vietnam’s north and south for the first time in several decades).

In the first photo, the thoughtful Vietnamese woman looks away, a child clutching her from behind. “Is she looking forward while having a problem behind her? Or is she looking in the direction the train is headed?” Catherine wondered at the talk. “I love this picture, because it shows how deeply I feel about Vietnam, how I think about Vietnam.”

After the end of the war and then reunification in 1975, Vietnam faced a raft of challenges. One of the major obstacles was how to normalize relations with the US, former enemies for decades, so it could open its doors to the world and forge ahead.

After many days of moving at a very slow speed the train with Catherine and the Vietnamese woman and family on board reached the highest point of the pass and then began descending at a slightly faster clip. Everyone felt elated by the cool breeze and fresh air rushing in. It was then that Catherine took a second photo, as the woman and her children laughed in unison, unable to hide their joy. This second photo has been published many times over the years, in foreign magazines about Vietnam.

Thirty-year affinity

Catherine also vividly remembered moments from a winter’s afternoon in the 1990s, as she was sitting in the Metropole Hotel surrounded by merchants from India, Europe, and America, and became aware that she had already became part of history. By that time, Vietnam had opened up to business, and foreign businesspeople came in droves with all sorts of ideas for new ventures, which by law had to be co-owned by the government. Not long after, an interesting photo captured those memorable times. “Businessmen in cyclo” was taken in 1995, with two foreign businessmen sitting on two separate cyclos - a popular means of transport at the time - while passionately discussing business.

Another interesting photo tells of Vietnam’s “miraculous innovation” and also marks US footsteps back into the country in an orthodox way, named “Coca-Cola comes to Vietnam”, shot in 1994.

Thirty-year affinity

Portending the coming consumer revolution, workers are painting Coca Cola signs on the sidewalk right outside the iconic Temple of Literature in Hanoi. The effects of the “doi moi” (renovation) economic policies, put into place by the Vietnamese Government in the mid-1980s to encourage foreign investment, were becoming evident, and along with John Deere and Hewlett Packard came Coca Cola, the most iconic US brand.

The wave of “returning overseas Vietnamese” in this period is remembered in the photograph of Phuong Anh Nguyen - a newly returned overseas Vietnamese from L.A., taken in 1992. “Vespa girl grabbing chicken” features a young lady in a pink bra and black shorts, sitting on a Vespa scooter while negotiating with a chicken vendor on the street. Her overseas Vietnamese identity is revealed by the way she grabs the chicken: Vietnamese don’t grab live chickens by their necks but by their feet.

Soon after, young women like Phuong Anh dared to wear bikinis on the street, go to bars to drink, and create new trends in entertainment.

The change in Vietnam is there for all to see in photos Catherine took in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi years later.

In 2012, she shot a panoramic photo of Ho Chi Minh City from the 269-meter-high Bitexco Financial Tower, which was officially opened not long prior. Ho Chi Minh City had clearly changed dramatically. Where French villas once lined the Saigon River was a new tunnel, completed in 2011, linking the city center with surrounding districts.

The photo “Gucci Shop in Hanoi” (2013) features beautiful and stylish young women outside a lavish Gucci showroom in Hanoi, just opposite the Hanoi Opera House. Luxury goods were gradually finding favor among city-dwellers at that time, as developing Vietnam was considered to have great retail potential.

The foreigner who took the most beautiful portrait of General Vo Nguyen Giap

Thirty-year affinity

Pay attention to his eyes - if you cover half of the portrait, you can see that he is a compassionate and warm person, always deeply concerned for the people of Vietnam, his troops, and his family

General Vo Nguyen Giap (1911-2013) is considered one of the greatest military strategists of the 20th century, and was the military commander at the famous Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

Photographer Catherine knew of General Giap from her younger days through stories and books like her father’s “Vietnam: A History”, but it was not until 1990 that she was introduced to the great Vietnamese general by her father for the first time.

Later on, in 1994, she was the only non-Vietnamese photojournalist to accompany General Giap on his historic first return to the forest encampment in the northern Vietnamese highlands from which he plotted the battle.

Among the photos of the General she took, her favorite is the famous portrait entitled “General Giap - the Snow-Covered Volcano” (1990).

The French called him the “Snow-Covered Volcano”, Catherine explained, because of his icy exterior and explosive temperament. The portrait was taken in the General’s house on Hoang Dieu Street in Hanoi. With an old-style camera, she took the time to find a place with natural light, and after a while observing the house chose the kitchen stairs, where light flooded in through the windows.

“General Vo Nguyen Giap is a special person and this portrait shows exactly his characteristics,” she said at the talk. “What’s hiding in the portrait are the two aspects I feel most clearly about the great General. Pay attention to his eyes - if you cover half of the portrait, you can see that he is a compassionate and warm person, always deeply concerned for the people of Vietnam, his troops, and his family. The other half, meanwhile, showcases his fierceness as a leader, a brave general on the battlefield.” .

For almost 30 years she has also documented Vietnamese families and children affected by Agent Orange. “I want to continue my humanitarian photography work in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, on Agent Orange and other topics,” she said.

Thirty-year affinity

Before the talk show, Catherine met Ms. Vo Thi Nham and her two sons, Tan Tri and Tan Hau, who are affected by Agent Orange. They also appeared in Catherine’s photos in 2010. Both are now at a young age but still depend on their mother. Catherine realized that, nine years on, their situation had barely improved. Mrs. Nham keeps her concerns to herself about what happens when she gets older. Catherine hopes the US will pay more attention to financial support for victims of Agent Orange, along with dioxin cleanup efforts.

As 2020 arrives, an important year when Vietnam and the US celebrate 25 years of normalized diplomatic relations and 45 years since the end of the war, Catherine plans to organize a number of exhibitions and seminars to promote cooperation between the two countries.

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