Clichés abound about the value of photographs. Most are probably true at least to a certain extent. What I do know about an image is that it represents something of the past that is not the pastitself. But that is the power of any image. It represents something that once was. The beauty of an image, revisited, is that it functions as a catalystfor reliving in the present a past experience. My own view, one that I thank the Spanish writer Jorge Luis Borges for, is that all we ever can experience is the present. The presentallows us to re-experience a past event or feeling as a recollection. Our recollections of the past can only always be approximate and are necessarily tempered by all that has happened to us since then.
Nonetheless, revisiting the past through images can be a profoundly moving journey, one that I have been on for several weeks now.
Over the past several weeks I have been scanning color slides and negatives taken over 40 years ago while working in Vietnam for the International Rescue Committee.
Our job was to help internally displaced refugees build new lives for themselves while the war went about its indifferent business around them.
Actually, its indifference all too frequently interfered with their lives with tragic consequences. But that is war’s way.
It is a merciless juggernaut that cuts down anyone in its way. I look at the faces of kids now much, much older, and wonder how things fared for them. I think of the many ironies that we confronted daily. Chief among them was our daily trek in the IRC jeep to the First Air Cavalry base tocollect empty wooden rocket boxes. We would break down the boxes, load them onto the trailer, and haul them back to the village where they were used to build homes, furniture and pens for animals.
One of our proudest achievements was acquiring approval to send one of the villagers to Saigon to be trained as a carpenter so that he could return andstart a training program for village youth. Another of those ironies is that when he came back home we used quite a few rocket boxes in the construction of the open air school and for quite some time they were the basic material for the kids to work on. One is reminded of the notion of turning swords into ploughshares. I have quite a few slides of the school, kidsworking on projects, as well as the ceremonial gathering to celebrate its completion and the start of school. I remember quite vividly giving in alltoo readily to invitations to have just one more sip of rice wine.
One slide that I have looked at over and over again is of one of my little buddies sitting astride the bamboo jungle gym that we built with a big, wide, contented grin on his face. I suspected then, and still believe now, that he saw it as a neat sort of perch on high from which he could survey his dominion. Kind of a human aerie. Over time, the kids started to scramble all over this strange contraption with unbridled glee. It was satisfying in many ways, but none the least of which was that even the youngestchild in the village could experience a few moments of unfettered play in a world rife with interminably hard work and the daily consequences of manmade tragedy.
Among the many images is a series that records the day we took the village kids down to the river for a swim and picnic. Their beautiful faces shine brightly against the backdrop of the sundrenched, sparkling water. I did not need these images to remember their faces, to feel again the effects of their generous spirits. But as I sat here at my desk mesmerized by the images in front of me, I felt again the warmth of sun, savored the music of the river’s rushing currents, and heard again the laughs and spirited banter of kids being kids, kids surrounded daily by a war they had nothing at all to do with, a war that seemed as senseless then as it does now. We lost several of those kids some months later, the result of mistaken identity. I think often of them and of the lives that could have been. Lives cut short by unconscionable stupidity and ineptitude. Read the news any day of the week and itis clear that not much has changed.
There is much about the past that I try to forget. But I will never forget the people of AnLuong.
They gave me far more than I ever could have given them.