MA '02, Studio Art
Phuong M. Do was awarded a Fulbright grant to Vietnam in Photography for the 2004-05 academic year. She is pictured here with her cousin Be'. This article was written prior to her 2005 return visit to Vietnam.
In late 1950s my maternal grandparents, who were cooks and domestic workers, left Vietnam to follow their employers, French government personnel, and relocated to a military base in Seno, Laos. In this small village southwest of Laos, a community of Vietnamese developed around the economy of the military camp. It was where my parents met, and I was born. When the base closed down in 1966, my family moved to Vientiane. We left for the United States in July 1975.
My family and relatives now live in three different countries, the U.S, France, and Vietnam. Though this is not an unusual circumstance for many Vietnamese families, the trauma of separation during the war marked our lives in ways we could not have imagined. My immediate family – mother, father, two sisters, a brother, and I – are the only ones living in the U.S. Relatives on my mother's side left for France from Laos in 1974, and relatives on my father's side stayed in Vietnam. In 1998, after almost ten years of working in the refugee and immigrant field, I decided to leave my profession as a community activist/social worker to begin a search for meanings in my experience of displacement. The displacement of memory, identity, family, and place.
Vietnam, the country and geographical location, and Vietnamese, the people and language, have always existed as an indefinable notion to me. I have fragmented childhood memories about Vietnam and can’t quite recall the exactness of many of these remembrances anymore. (My childhood memories about Vietnam were fractured long ago, and most the pieces of most remembrances have withered away with time.)
In 1998, when I was 34, I decided I needed to go to Vietnam to see, feel, and make tangible my relationship to this country and the family I had never met. Equally important, I needed to make photographs, needed to document and to create a visual history for myself. Photography was a fitting medium through which I was to construct my sense of family, place, and identity. With a hundred rolls of film, a camera, tripod, a cable release, and a small note book of addresses and phone numbers my mother gave me, I left for Hanoi in September of that year.
I stayed at a hotel and made tourist excursions in and around Hanoi for a month before I could work up the nerves to make the first contact. I was emotionally numb and feeling withdrawn. When I finally met my relatives and began to make photographs of them, I was compelled to insert myself into the photographs. It was a conscious and intuitive response to the persistent feeling of disconnect and otherness. These photographs have enabled me to articulate the experience of loss that has been so elusive all these years. After returning from Vietnam, I continued to photograph my relatives living in France and in the U.S.
Since my first visit in 1998, I have returned to Vietnam three times: 2000 with my parents, 2001 with my maternal grandmother, and 2003 with my mother. My portfolio includes images from these four trips. During the most recent trip, I began to explore my relationship with relatives on an individual level and started to make portraits of each person being next to me. It is this next body of work that I am proposing to further develop through the support of the Fulbright program.
Photographing individual portraits of myself and each member of my family continues my work in re-constructing my own sense of self, identity, and history. It is also a procedure of identification, as one would search for and identify loved ones in the aftermath of war. My approach to this work is to create a series of photographs as evidential documents. However, it is not the lineage of physical likeness that is in my search, but the process of exchanged learning for both me and my relatives. I do not know how the relationships will transpire and what they might mean, but I am certain that the photographs will reveal subtleties of these interactions.
While my work is deeply personal in nature, it also represents an experience shared by over a million refugees who left Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The intent of work has always been to bring greater understanding of the refugee experience in both the US and Vietnam. Because much of the war was documented and “remembered” through photographic images, part of my work is about creating and broadening visual narratives to address the complexities of the consequences of this war.