The enclosed images are sourced from a group of small photographs that were mailed to a South Vietnamese radio and television personality known professionally as ”Mai Lan.” For hours every day, Mai Lan broadcast to American troops stationed in Vietnam. She also spent much time visiting wounded soldiers in hospitals all around the country. English was her second language, but she was able to communicate very directly with her audience.
She encouraged the soldiers to send her photographs, and they did, by the hundreds. Often they were inscribed with simple, touching and sincere declarations of appreciation. She was clearly a small place of soft kindness in a very harsh, frightening and unfamiliar place.
The images ranged from the 2” X 3” size that accompanied a high school portrait package, to 3” X 3” color Polaroids, and 3” X 5” black and white snapshots of life around the base. The soldiers seemed to consider carefully how they wanted to be seen. Often, they would pose with a weapon, or show themselves at work surrounded by the visual clues of a soldiers’ life.
Mai Lan had to leave South Vietnam in a hurry as the North overran the South. She had but moments to decide what objects to take with her. She chose a small box of photographs to bring along, necessity forcing her to leave hundreds more behind.
The images were not stored well, and I would guess that many were not processed well at the time of their creation. Many have suffered serious deterioration. In the year 2000, 25 years after she fled her home country, Mai Lan was a colleague of mine at a private school. She showed me the images, knowing I was a photographer, and that I might appreciate them. She looked right past their crumbling surfaces to see the faces of the soldiers whose morale she was charged with lifting.
I could see those faces, but for me, the power of these objects was in the way they were disintegrating, barely holding on to the original image while becoming something else entirely. They were now less specific to the individuals depicted and more about war and hope and a peculiar, distant “love” that sustained these men in impossible circumstances. This new form was what I wanted to share.
I made digital copies of all the images, front and back, leaving the potential restoration of the images to others far more expert in these matters than me. With her permission, I photographed a couple dozen that I found most powerful in their present state. I used only the digital equivalents of the conventional tools of the tradeexposure and contrast, burning, dodging, color balance and saturation. I neither added nor deleted any lines or shapes to the image, except for “spotting” dust marks and artifacts of the photography process. I am very new to digital processes, and I am not expert enough to alter the images in any but the basic ways stated above. It was my work to emphasize certain aspects of the imagefor example, raising the contrast to spotlight a certain area of the degradation, or increasing the color saturation to highlight the stain running through the center. All of these decisions were emotional and aesthetic. Ansel Adam’s analogy of the score and the performance would be apt here, though in this case, amateur photographers, chemical disintegration and time are the composers.