Some serene scenes from across the United States along Interstate 80, following road cuts and rocks scars, old pioneer trails. Various American migrations. Some ups and downs. All in all the project is still percolating, incomplete. There’s a lot to say and a lot of time to say it, but I’m just putting a few images down for now, seeing what they look like. Starved Rock, Winterset, the Old Lincoln Highway, Land’s End, the Great Salt Lake, Snake River, and more. My thoughts are a chaotic deluge at the moment, an entangled beginning. More later.
The days are stretched and sagging at all ends. I get up in the mornings and try to write, exercise, read something, check the news. Normal routines that feel like anchors in a shiftless sea. I listen to podcasts, watch shadows crawl across the morning floor, walk for miles in the same three directions. I procrastinate, make the same excuses I made when I was busier. I call and text with friends. I watch television and play video games and draw in small notebooks. I have a palette of watercolors I haven’t touched in over a month. It’s an elastic era. It’s hard finding motivation when every day is the same blank slate over and over again.
We venture out and see the few friends we can, when we can. We make little road trips up and down the east coast, scurrying between places of safety, never unaware of our surroundings. But mostly it’s nothing. It’s exhausting work, doing nothing. I’ve picked up my camera a handful of times. I’m using this time to think, I tell myself, to absorb and process and find new ways of seeing: a spiderweb filled with leaves, virescent lawns, ornate mailboxes, shimmering reflections on still water. The woods.
I’ve been in Virginia for nearly two months, and will likely be here until July, at least. It’s not all bad at all. I’m remembering a lot of things I’d forgotten over the years, finding peace and solace in small moments, letting the days stretch and sag, riding them out with deep, even breaths.
The landscape burns out and flattens the farther north you travel. The rolling hills of lower tea country turn to shallow wetlands and the ancient cities crumble into nothingness as the train travels on its long slow route out and away from Colombo. The sun shines golden and harsh. The trees are a pale green.
On the Jaffna Peninsula the light refracts off the dusty streets and shallow blue waters, scattering and illuminating. It’s a strange land, far removed from the more touristed corners of Sri Lanka. The civil war that raged between the military and the Tamil Tigers for over 25 years decimated the economy and the population and the countrysides and for decades Jaffna was little more than the forgotten homeland of the few. Buildings crumbled. Time passed. Life found its way.
This trip was little more than a research mission wedged between a vacation in tea country and a job in southern India. I wanted to see what the landscape looked like 10 years after the end of the war. Earlier, our train ride to Ella was packed with backpackers with little room to stand or sit. The ride to Jaffna was comparatively empty and had no more than a handful of westerners on board at any given time. It felt like traveling to the edge of the known world. In a way it was.
I saw the fabled Elephant Pass and Hindu temples built on the sandy shores of small islands, their caretakers stewing lentils in large pots as the waves crashed behind them. I met worshippers at Nallur Kandaswamy temple, fishermen steering their boats home in Palk Bay. Musicians and families and friendly old men in Point Pedro. Shopkeepers and cricket players in the town center. Lovers and soldiers haunting the more shadowed corners of the fort. The ocean-fed waters of Keerimalai Springs.
The whole of the Jaffna Peninsula is a magical place. Still recovering from a generation of carnage, but like all places that have seen terrible years and terrible rulers and terrible saviors, the air there is of optimism and peace, not of war’s wreckage and exhaustion. It’s a flat and sunburnt land and its golden and harsh light does shine brightest. Thus.
The river wound through the outskirts of the town flanked by tall trees and small homes. Women pushed bicycles over a bamboo bridge and boats ferried families and goods across its banks. Further along, farmers worked their rice paddies as children watched over grazing water buffalo. Mountains rose in the distance. The sea bordered to the east. This was My Lai.
It had been a long drive from Danang. When we arrived, we grabbed sandwiches from a nearby cart and walked along the dirt paths that crossed through the farmlands. The same dirt paths American soldiers walked when they landed here 50 years ago and made their way through the villages killing innocent men, women, and children in what became one of the most brutal and senseless massacres of the Vietnam-American War.
Some of the trees still wore the scars, the grim carvings of American bullets. The Memorial Museum was built on the site of the massacre and the burned foundations of homes stood as testaments to the horrors of war. But things had also moved on. Restaurants lined the nearby waterfront and men drove the boulevard with karaoke machines balanced on their bikes, stopping for customers to serenade fellow diners. The seafood was bountiful and you could sit on a small plastic stool and drink beer and eat like royalty every night.
We were in My Lai doing a story on the survivors of the massacre. Those who lived through March 16, 1968. An estimated 504 people were killed that day and graves and memorials dotted the landscape, rising out of the rice fields. Most of the roads off the main highway were still dirt and gravel. Power lines cut through the paddies. There were gardens and shops and teenagers and large trucks transporting goods up and down the coast and if you didn’t know any better you’d never know a war was fought there. That people died there. Were killed there.
Five hundred and four people. Shot, stabbed, and raped. Beaten. Gutted. Massacred. The American soldiers had spent weeks being haunted by ghosts in the jungles and when they found living flesh they were frightened and they reacted and they reacted poorly.
Do Tan Thanh lost his eye and arm and most of his leg. When he was brought to the hospital they assumed he wouldn’t last through the night. Tran Nam, just a young boy at the time, lost his family. Truong Thi Le held her daughter and watched her die in her arms. Pham Thanh Cong took a bullet to the side of his head and lived. Pham Thi Thuan and her daughter Nguyen Thi Lien survived together after being buried with dead bodies as they fell into a ditch. Pham Dat and Ha Thi Qui and Nguyen Hong Man also made it through, somehow. By luck or strength or accident. They all carried memories of gunfire and chaos and darkness, of helicopter blades cutting through the morning sky.
And they all invited us into their homes and offered us tea and sat with us and shared their stories. And in the grief there was no ill will, just a desire for the world to learn from its past mistakes, for history not to repeat itself. As unlikely as that ever seems to be. Anger would have been understandable, but tenderness was heartbreaking. So for several days we listened, broken.
In the end we moved on as well, like so many old memories. We collected their stories and promised to tell them as plainly and truthfully as we could. Though everything will forever fall short of what they deserve. We build our narratives on these small condolences because these narratives are our best weapons against the past. And we scratch these stories onto pages and release them into the world in the desperate hope that they’ll have a fraction of the gravity the 504 names scratched in marble in the My Lai Memorial Museum have.
Back in town the lights were coming on along the riverfront. Women waved us into their restaurants and young couples sang Vietnamese love songs out of busted speakers on the backs of motorbikes. A small market sprung up. The air was alive with neon and possibility. As we dined a group of men came over with rice wine and small tea cups. They were celebrating. They poured shots and in their best English asked where we were from. When we answered America they smiled and said, “America!” and lifted their glasses high and drank deep.
You can read Shaun Raviv’s wonderful and moving story for Smithsonian Magazine HERE.
Fair warning, this is going to be a long one. A kind of purge. A meandering document of nothing in particular, of everything in general. Of the past 10 years of work and life and some incidental happenings along the way. Plus way too many photographs.
I arrived in Vietnam 10 years ago. In that time, I’ve been a sub-editor at a State-run newspaper, an intrepid (and incredibly unqualified) television host for a local travel show, an Art Director for an ailing luxury lifestyle magazine, a property-related photo retoucher kind of guy who—you know, I actually had no idea what I was doing on that one—and a Photo Editor for a city publication. I’ve also been a freelance photographer for a large portion of those years. Full-time since about 2011. It feels like forever, but in reality it’s barely the blink of an eye.
In all that time, I’ve grown older. I have more grey hairs now, more laugh lines. Sometimes my back hurts. I’ve seen myself change, for better and worse. I’ve lugged film and large-format cameras across continents. I’ve broken cameras and lenses. Dropped things. I’ve lost hard drives and once threw a binder of negatives into an abandoned well in a fit of sadness, rage. I’ve made an incredible amount of friends along the way. I’ve also hurt and lost people. I’ve attended weddings and funerals, though thankfully mostly the former.
Over the years, my work has taken me across the world. Fashion shoots on the rolling windswept plains of southern Scotland and in the glittering bazaars and spice markets of Kochi, India. Portraits of artists, activists, and everyday men and women. The death and mourning of Rama IX in Bangkok. The dog meat trade in northern Thailand. Travelogues in Laos and Cambodia and along the Red River in Vietnam. Urban farmers. Agent Orange victims. Traditional medicine. Transgender women and war survivors. I’ve spent time in leper colonies in Shan State and with inmates in Klong Prem prison. I’ve hunted sea urchin in Hokkaido and climbed volcanoes in the Philippines. I’ve crossed the steppes of Mongolia on horseback. I’ve seen mountains on top of mountains in Ha Giang province. I have been—and try to remain—in love with this world and the people in it.
In short and in retrospect, I’ve done more with my life than I ever imagined I would or could, and I’ve set a bar to surpass over the next 10 years. Going through a decade’s worth of photographs for this post, I tried to include a little bit of everything—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Selects and outtakes and others that I’d long since forgotten about. Some never seen before, some thrown out and resurrected. Hundreds of images amongst hundreds of thousands, most of which only exist in digital graveyards or in my archives at this point. There’s no rhyme or reason here, no timeline. No delineation between travel, fashion, commercial, journalism, or personal work. I wanted everything to coexist, to see what threads emerged. I wanted to look for consistency, not growth. And I wanted to have all of the pieces of this complicated fabric laid out, so I could more readily see where I need to go from here.
As we turn more to our phones and computers and digital cameras, as we snap and tweet and post and like and comment, as we get lost in countless apps and group chats, as we look down more than up and around, and as we become more connected and more inundated and more confused than ever before, I want to take a step back. Consider my images more. I want my photography to feel tactile. There. An intimate part of something much larger. I want it to inspire awe and wonder and empathy. I want it to show our current world, but also evoke the past. I want it to be free from the confines of tradition and journalism. I want it to be ugly and relevant. I want it to be different, which is maybe the most difficult thing. And so with that, here are hundreds of wonderfully imperfect pictures, and here’s to another decade. And here’s to you.