Searching for the Invisible: Nostalgia from a war long past
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.