Thursday, March 19, 2009


My daughter An threw up on me last night.  To be honest, of all the people in the world, there is no one else I would rather have do that to me.  Yesterday she didn't feel very well when I woke her up so I let her stay home from school and we spent the day together.  Mostly we were around the house but I had a couple of errands to do so we went out together for a few hours in the middle of the day.  We did what I had to do, we had lunch together out on the street and on the way back to the house we stopped off at the botanic garden.  

For a few months I've been working on a series of photographs documenting public wedding photography here in Hanoi and a lot of couples about to be married are taken to the gardens to be photographed in outfits rented from the companies they hire to do the work.  Anyway, I mostly always have my camera with me and yesterday I brought my wife's small camera so An could use it; she likes to take pictures sometimes.  She's four and a half.

When I was four and a half, I don't think I had used a camera yet.  I was in preschool, like An is.  I also still wet my bed.  An wets her bed from time to time but mostly she is pretty good about it these days - better than I was at her age.  I wet my bed until I was about 13.  When I was a boy, my dad told me - maybe in an effort to make me feel better about it - that when he was a boy he wet his bed and that even his father, my grandfather, wet his bed too.  I don't remember if it made me any more comfortable on those mornings I woke up in soaked pajamas, but at the very least I felt like it wasn't entirely my fault.  I had inherited something.  Oddly, neither of my brothers or my sister were written into this will.

When it seemed clear that my daughter had inherited this legacy of nocturnal enuresis, I wanted to understand what exactly bed-wetting was - other than something I thought I had been bequeathed and passed along from a long lineage of Anglo-Saxon mattress-soakers.  It seems there is a hormone in the body that, when activated, reduces the production of urine during nighttime hours.  Normal production of the hormone and the ability to wake up from slumber are the two physical ways to prevent this.  An hasn't mastered either entirely so until the hormone gets active in her, I make sure to wake her up in the middle of every night and get her to the toilet.  I figure it's the least I can do for her - to help her discover the rhythm of waking up so that in time she can make it her own rhythm and find her way with it.

I don't know if my grandfather was a good photographer.  I've seen only a few pictures he's taken over the years.  He died when I was pretty young and I only think I saw him once or twice at the most so I didn't know too much about him.  My dad enjoyed photography quite a bit and he used to do it regularly when he was younger.  He had a decent eye and you could see care and thought in the images he displayed in the apartment he lived in New York City after he and my mother separated and ultimately divorced.  I remember when I would go to the city and visit him during my teen years, we would go to Central Park together walking from his apartment on the upper east side and he would have his camera along with him.  And I would have mine.

This thing I'm doing on wedding photography - I don't know if it's any good.  It interests me so I keep trying to find in each image I make the thing that attracts me to it as an idea; I too try to care and be thoughtful.  The best thing about it is that more often than not, An likes to come with me - even if she doesn't feel very well, even if she doesn't have a camera.  When we come home, I'll show her some of the better pictures I make and she'll tell me what she thinks and she is really happy for me to see what she takes too.  I don't try to tell her too much about how to take pictures - I don't want to take the fun out of it and I want her to find her own way in this a bit.  If she takes to it, it should come from her and not from me.  

I don't know if I'll go back to the botanic garden this weekend; I might.  For sure I'll wake An up tonight and make sure she gets to the toilet.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

It's true

All is fair in love and war; but mostly war.
This month's decision by the US Supreme Court not to hear the case brought by victims and sufferers of Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant used liberally in Vietnam during the American War, has made plain that when it comes to war, pretty much anything goes.  Forever.

I first came to Vietnam in the spring of 1990 as the cinematographer on a documentary by Tiana called  From Hollywood to Hanoi.  There was an afternoon in the weeks I was here filming where we visited what we referred to as 'the chamber of horrors' - it was a small room in a maternity hospital in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) with shelves from floor to ceiling on at least three sides of the room as I remember.  Tightly packed together on these shelves were clear glass jars filled with formaldehyde and suspended in the fluid were the deformed, twisted, three-eyed, two-headed fetuses, the aborted, the still-born inheritors of wrecked and ravaged DNA.  There was, and remains, only anecdotal proof of their afflictions and their parent's exposure to Agent Orange.  There was no marker in the chain claiming 'Property of Dow Chemical' or 'Made in Monsanto'.  But there were the jars and the children in them; mute, floating suspended in a murky and damning liquid - the ones with eyes, staring .  Those born and not condemned to the jars, they stare too.  These aren't moments you quickly forget.

I was recently invited to curate a photography exhibit by a group of disabled Vietnamese men and women from Thanh Hoa Province.  The images were made during a workshop conducted last summer by Paul Zetter through his organization ensemble creative over the course of five months.  The 16 people, most of whom had never used cameras previously, made over 8000 images in their communities, homes, villages - wherever they happened to be with their cameras and of whomever they happened to be around.

An interesting fact of Thanh Hoa Province is that during the American war here, the highest percentage of Vietnamese soldiers came from this very impoverished area.  Coincidentally or not, Thanh Hoa also has one of the highest incidences and occurrences of birth defects in all of Vietnam.  The theory being that soldiers from this province were out in the jungles and forests receiving the full benefit of the defoliant, returning home at the conclusion of the war with a system full of dioxin.  But, again, this is mere speculation; simple anecdote.  It might be true.  It might not.  The US Supreme Court will never know.

Anyway, the exhibition of their work was stunning.  Startling.  Heartbreaking.  Funny.  Real; babies-in-jars-real.  But for the photographers in the show, these disabled - a number of them in wheelchairs, one blind, one deaf, some with a twisted arm or a stunted body - and for their subjects, this is just what it is.  Forever.

Have a look at some of the work from the exhibition and three short films in triptych  (made by a young deaf woman of her mother, her signing class and herself) also from the show.  I'm pretty sure there's no compelling legal argument that would convince any court in any land to hear what these people have to say. 
But you and I might do well to listen.
photo credit: Ngo Van Bieu

Monday, March 16, 2009

I welcome me

Okay.  Here goes.  
This is something I was sure, I told myself, I was never going to involve myself in.  And, in truth, like aging - it is something that maybe I've been getting to in my own time, in my own way.  You aren't just old one day - you get there, slowly, inexorably, inevitably; so slowly that it just seems to be hardly happening.
And here I am with a blog.  I never thought I would.  But like all good ideas that have been made to me in my life, I have to thank a woman because it was my friend Ellen who made the suggestion.  Within fifteen minutes of her suggesting, I had done it.  But, again in truth and like aging, it didn't really happen that quickly.
I have been on facebook - the social networking website - for some time which, in the beginning was a wonderful experiment and I was put back in touch with so many old and dear friends, including Ellen.  I would use the site to link to images I had made and posted over at flickr and to post links to other sites or articles that I was interested in and I thought I would share.  This was fine for a while until the realities of the website (in fact it's too boring to list all of what I find wrong with it) and the fact that I summarily and without warning - despite the administrator's insistence that I had been repeatedly warned about my still-unexplained offense - had my account deactivated.  I was let back on a couple of weeks later.
In retrospect I see that facebook is a bit like 'blog-lite' - it's like the gateway blog.  It's if you want people to know the minutiae.  In fact it's fun.  Too fun.  That's why it's probably so successful in sapping the hours of time people spend updating their updates.  So maybe I can pick up here where I left off there and see where that takes me, takes us.

In the fall of 2007 I moved from Los Angeles, California to Hanoi, Vietnam after receiving a Fulbright research grant funding a proposal I submitted in my application to document contemporary youth culture in Vietnam.  In fact, the idea to move to Vietnam was my wife's.  She was born in Hanoi and we met here in 1994 when I was shooting a documentary and she was a young cadet reporter, fresh out of university, and assigned to write an article about the director I was working with.  Our next meeting and subsequent relationship is a long and involved and very romantic story and I will preserve the right to talk about it later.  Or not.

But the point I want to make in bringing up my wife gets back to the notion that the women in my life have always been the sources of the best ideas.  Initially I greatly resisted the notion of walking away from my 'career' in Hollywood as a cinematographer, leaving all that I had worked for so many years to create.  We lived in a nice, old house I bought shortly before we married in Echo Park and I had spent some years renovating it to it's 100-plus year old former glory and our daughter was born in it.  I had the mortgage, I had union membership in the cinematographer's guild, I had health insurance, car, trash pick-up every Wednesday, a barbecue pit - how could I possibly leave all that to move to the uncertainty of a life in a developing country, even one I had some experience in.  Alone one evening and in a great leap of faith, I knew that if we were going to have any kind of a life going forward, I decided it was exactly what we had to do.
I rented out the house, got rid of every inessential thing I owned, stored the rest, and committed myself to leaving LA.  In the midst of all of that I received the news my grant had been funded.  Sometimes the universe does follow you when you make a plan.  At age 50 and with two bags and a carry-on with my camera, I followed my wife's plan for us and arrived in Hanoi.

My friend Ellen is a film maker.  She made a wonderful documentary on the amazing composer and musician Quincy Jones called "Listen Up".  It's a great film.  See it if you haven't.  She is just now making another film on a 16th century painter named Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian woman and contemporary of Caravaggio.  Needless, perhaps, to say - or maybe still requiring emphasis - she was an incredibly strong-willed woman who had to battle continuously in the then (and still) male-dominated world of art and patronage.  Here's a decent link to some information about her life and work - The Life and Art of Artemisia Gentileschi.  Ellen's film is called "A Woman Like That".  I cant wait to be able to see it; to know more about both women - Artemisia Gentieschi and Ellen. 

I want to dedicate this very first post of mine to "women like that" - to women like Ellen, to women like my wife Nguyen Trinh Thi, to all the women who have always had the best ideas and maybe had to work quietly and diligently until they accomplished what they set out to and achieved what was necessary.  The best thing I ever did in my narrow life was listen to the women in it.  I listened to the woman who wanted to be my wife.  I listened to her when she wanted to have our daughter and to deliver her at home.  I listened to her again when she wanted to move here to Hanoi.  These are three of the richest experiences I have had in my life - without parallel, without peer - and, like the best of anything, ongoing and evolving.

The photograph above is of my daughter An.  She'll be five in June.  It is my deepest wish that she too become a 'woman like that'.  She is on her way.  I will help see to it.

SO - I welcome me to this - web log, blog.  Thanks for the idea Ellen.  I will keep it loose, informal, evolving, real, random and, probably, occasional.  Check it out from time to time.

Be right back.