When Larry D’Attilio first came to Vietnam in 2006 the veteran American photographer framed his collection as ‘The Soul of Vietnam’, to reveal the riches of ‘gold, pearls and spices’ in the culture and the people of the land he explored.
In the decade since, beautiful landscapes, people and special moments of life have exposed the soul of the country in the exquisite mind of the artist, shown in his five exhibitions entitled ‘The Soul of Vietnam’ in both Vietnam and the US. Ten pictures in the project have been displayed permanently at the Museum of the Gulf Coast in Texas since 2014. His latest exhibition was launched in December in Hanoi. His illustrated book on the project is to be published soon. And the journey of the soul explorer continues.
With thousands of years of history and a diverse culture, Vietnam is interesting for its mixture of tradition and modernity, as it is changing rapidly from industrialisation and global integration. He feels this is the best time to discover the country. ‘Most of the time I have looked for some explanation about how I think about how I know when I see a soul,’ he said. ‘The feeling is usually correct when it is a good moment to show some soul. I can’t describe what a soul is but I think photography can, although I don’t know why. I just feel so.’
The sensitive feeling of an artist has flowed through Larry’s veins since he was a small child, as his father was a painter and sculptor whose best known work are the glass ocular panels on the domes of the US Senate and Congress. After earning an arts degree from the University of Wisconsin he worked in a music studio while working as a freelancer and teaching photography. Larry has explored the soul through cameras very well in Vietnam, which is simple, he said, as he loves the country and had a lot of passion for it.
For a decade he has divided his life between the US and Vietnam, spending six months in each. His wife, a violinist, supports his passion and shares the life in both countries. She also tries to seek opportunities to perform with local artists, does charity work, and has an idea to write a book about Vietnam.
A day for Larry in Vietnam usually involves leaving the house and wandering around. A street, a laneway, or a corner may help his lens focus on a soul. It may be an old woman bending her back and reading a newspaper, the ‘arrangement art’ of pots and pans in a local shop, an old chair lent on a wall, or a street seller using a Renaissance painting as a wall for her stall. ‘I appreciate the positive view of life and the creativity of Vietnamese,’ he said. ‘In difficult situations, they always try to deal with it and make the best of everything.’
He better recognised the industriousness and creativity after he managed a supported loan project for poor women farmers in Lap Thach district in the northern province of Vinh Phuc. ‘With a small amount capital, some opened a small business to create jobs for 10-15 people in the region and supported their children to go to university,’ he said.
Larry also calls these women ‘New Global Women’, another photography project exhibited last November that discovered the stresses in women’s souls in making decisions in modern life with its social changes and pressure. During the project he met and spoke with a lot of women, including many Vietnamese, whom he recognised have never told their story and needed to share.
Vietnam has had a great deal of influence on Larry and also his work. The most important thing he has learned while living in Vietnam is how to better ‘breathe in life’. Americans, he said, tend to have goals and try to achieve them by working hard. So they usually don’t have time to relax and become easily frustrated when there is a problem. ‘I’ve learned to think like Vietnamese do. I also feel at peace, which is a very Vietnamese thing to do. I breathe better here than in the US and do my work better too.’
Vietnamese are also very warm-hearted. ‘They go from not knowing you to very quickly trusting you, sometimes in only five minutes,’ he said. ‘When they trust you, they become very close to you. In the US this can take months.’ The warm hearts of Vietnamese people help Larry be more open and become close to them to discover their souls.
The longer he lives in the country the better his ability to understand and feel the land, the people and their souls. He tries to translate his feeling and experience into art, in order to avoid creating tourist pictures or postcards. ‘I think all art has its own message and doesn’t need to be explained,’ he said. ‘But many people go to see art and try to understand instead of learning to feel the work. They want artists to say something. We don’t like that. We just make art from our feelings. If you really know what you are doing, it becomes boring. I just hope that viewers can see and feel something from my art.’
Another difference in Larry’s photos is also reflected in the printing technique of his studio in the US. With the latest Canon IPF 8400, using 12 colours mixed with artificial dye on special paper such as cotton and transparent films in limited quantity with numbers, his products are more colourful and durable, like paintings. They also have visual effects that no digital device like a computer or mobile phone could make. ‘In Vietnam, photographic printing is seen much less than before, apart from wedding photos, due to the appearance of high-end digital devices. But for me, watching art through a screen is not artistic. They are worth being felt through something real.’
In successfully translating his observations and feelings into lively photos to show the soul of a country, Larry also reveals his own soul in making an effort to understand what he has experienced through photography. ‘Vietnam has deepened and diversified my soul,’ he said. ‘It helps me re-identify myself in a way that I didn’t imagine when I first came here. Over the decade, each exhibition has expressed myself differently.
New images of the soul of Vietnam and also Larry’s soul are exposed, as his passion never tires. He has an idea for another project of computer games, which create stories and art exhibitions of human beings and life in an abstract way, where we can expect to discover some hidden corner of the soul.