My photographs are of strangers. They are the monks, soldiers, farmers, artists and students I encountered when I traveled across the past battlefields near the DMZ in Vietnam. Along with my cameras, I carried pictures of fallen Marines and my personal military gear from fifty years ago.
The Vietnamese in my portraits were willing to be photographed holding the pictures of American Marines who didn’t come home. Their participation allowed me to get close to people living there now, if only for a photo moment. These encounters are a collaboration between past and present.
The Marines in these pictures fought and died in places named Khe Sanh, the Citadel, Con Tien, the Rockpile, Route 9, and the Que Son Valley. There are 58,318 names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington DC; little is on record about these individuals. The Vietnamese lost 2-3 million people in the war; even less is known about them.
The images from the 1960’s reveal very young men, filled with life and proud to wear the uniform. Most Marines were volunteers, with many different reasons to join. A supposed fast track to manhood was one of them. Too many of the American casualties were only 18 and 19 years old. My motivation for this project was shaped by my own experiences and memories as a 19 year old with the 7th Marines in the Que Son Valley.
Vietnam has seen rapid development in the last 25 years, and yet many of the combat sites remain unchanged, hauntingly familiar. Reminders of the war can be found everywhere: ancient walls are pocked with bullet holes, bomb craters are next to temples, helicopters and tanks are used as public sculpture in parks.
A photograph won’t change over time, but our memory will. Memories are personal: living, evolving emotions. They can be lost, modified or replaced over the years. These photos may help us remember those who didn’t return and better understand the people that remain.