Searching for the invisible: Nostalgia from a war long past

Photographer Kevin German’s years-long journey in Vietnam culminates in his first photo book “Color Me Gone”.

“Cemetery for North Vietnamese soldiers.” Photo by Kevin German

When photographer Kevin German was working at The Sacramento Bee, he met a Vietnamese family that would change the course of his life forever. As they built a relationship, the family shared intimate stories with him about their lives both before and after the Vietnam War. It was a time that Kevin said “filled the room with warmth and nostalgia.”

One family member in particular, who was a photographer, poet and philosopher, shared stories with Kevin that felt just like moments he had shared with his own father as a child. Over time these stories touched him so deeply that they changed his perspective on the world. Compelled to learn more, in 2008 Kevin quit his job, sold everything he owned and moved to Vietnam.

“I went to Vietnam with an open mind, but I always had the stories of my friends, who had fled the country after the war, in the back of my head. Their nostalgia for Vietnam. It was something that I knew didn’t exist any more, but I couldn’t help not to try and search for it a little bit.”

From left: 1. Men in a mental health hospital fighting over the last of a cigarette. 2. “Conjoined twins deformed by Agent Orange are stored in formaldehyde and on display at the War Remnants Museum.” 3. “Thang, 9, struggles with doctors as they attempt to administer anesthesia before operating on his heart.” Photos by Kevin German

Initially Kevin focused on “harder documentary work,” photographing issues such as remnants of the Vietnam War, mental illness, abortion and poverty.

Looking back, Kevin says he was trying too hard at first. But after a few years of living there, he relaxed more. “I think I was trying to match a feeling that I carried with me with subject matter that was dark [but then] I realized that all the other parts of life that went on in Vietnam were equally as important.”

At that point, Kevin started calling Vietnam home and focused more on day-to-day life, photographing people in his community. Despite a shift in his approach, and not wanting his work to be about the war, Kevin couldn’t rid it from his mind.

“I felt that the impacts of the war are sometimes obvious and other times hidden. There’s a societal stigma that still exists in Vietnam where some of the people on the losing side of the war have less opportunity than others. So it’s always in your face. I sought to photograph that in a not so literal way.”

From left to right by row: 1. “Nuns during a midnight mass service in Kon Tum, Vietnam.” 2. “A view from Vietnam’s first skyscraper, the Bitexco building, while under construction in Saigon.” 3. “A nurse checks the x-ray of a small child at a clinic in central Vietnam.” 4. “A patient sleeps under a mosquito net at a mental illness hospital in My Tho.” 5. “Born without arms because of Agent Orange, Linh, 21, eats rice with her foot in her mother’s home in Saigon. ‘When you’re disabled, people don’t think you’re normal. And sometimes I feel lost and ashamed, because I can’t live in normal society. But everyone has their dreams. So do I.’” 6. “Cu, the one-armed barber who lost his arm during the American-Vietnam War in Vinh.” 7. “The early morning fog begins to burn off as boys tend to their family’s water buffalo in the Lao Cai region.” 8. “Catholic church members bury four aborted babies outside of Nha Trang. Vietnam has one of the highest abortion rates in the world. Vietnamese migrate to the fetus cemeteries through out the country saying, “Xin loi con — I’m sorry child”. Photos by Kevin German

Kevin’s work of photographing Vietnam over the past decade has culminated in “Color me Gone,” a book that he’s funding through a Kickstarter campaign and that will publish later this year.

Kevin initially struggled with a way to embody the fact that Vietnam means “very different things to different people” in his book.

“It’s really difficult to have a conversation about Vietnam with all people because it’s shrouded in sensitivity. A lot of people still feel the consequences of the war — even now, 42 years later. I had reached a point where I had real friends on both sides of the divide, and I wasn’t sure how to create a book that spoke to them both.”

Kevin found the missing puzzle piece for the book after reading a quote by author Michael Herr:

“All the wrong people remember Vietnam. I think all the people who remember it should forget it, and all the people who forgot it should remember it.”

The sentiment inspired not only how Kevin tells the story of his time in Vietnam but also how the book is designed. With the push of his wife to pursue the idea and the help of Teun van der Heijden to assist with the design, Kevin achieved his goal.

Through the use of screw posts, the reader can experience the book both frontwards and backwards, which helps “further the idea that each side gives you a different viewing experience and perspective about Vietnam.”

“I know now that you can’t look at the issue in black and white. There are infinite shades of grays. You just do your best to photograph and tell people’s stories.”

“Mirror, mirror.” Photo by Kevin German

Kevin German is a photographer and filmmaker based in Paris and New York. Kevin helped found @EverydayVietnam on Instagram and is a cofounder of Luceo. His book “Color me Gone” is available for pre-purchase through his Kickstarter campaign, which ends June 15. Follow more of Kevin’s work on Instagram @Kevin.German.

Teun van der Heijden is a book designer who has worked with photographers to edit, conceptualize and publish their work since 2009. Teun worked with Kevin on “Color me Gone” as well as Everyday Africa’s first book, published this year.