On our last day in Hanoi, we headed out to the Art Vietnam Gallery to see Catherine Karnow’s show, Vietnam: 25 Years Documenting a Changing Country.
I had read Andrew Lam’s review of the show in the Huffington Post before we left for Vietnam and was very eager to see Catherine’s 25 year retrospective on Vietnam. Catherine Karnow was born and raised in Hong Kong. Her father, Stanley Karnow, was an acclaimed journalist who covered China and Southeast Asia, and especially Vietnam. Catherine has been photographing in Vietnam since 1990. She is a National Geographic photographer and has traveled the world photographing and teaching photography.
We arrived, only to discover that the gallery was closed. I decided to come back a couple of hours later, and had an amazing kismet adventure. Not only was Catherine at the gallery, so was Tran Thi Diep, who is pictured in one of my favorite photos from the exhibit entitled “Woman on the Train” (image above).
The exhibit is powerful, Catherine’s images are vibrant and intimate. She takes you on a tour of Vietnam, the contradictions, the continuing damage of the war through Agent Orange, the entry of Vietnam into the world market and the creation of a middle class…and so much more. The exhibit added depth to my experience of being here, the magic of this place and people, the growing prosperity and the poverty, the history. Here are a couple of photos from the exhibit:
Add to that, the opportunity to meet Catherine and Tran Thi Diep and her daughter, Rosalyn Vu–it was a very special afternoon. Catherine created a series of photographs while riding the Reunification Express from Saigon to Hanoi in 1990, including images of Tran with her children as the train came down a mountain. As it turned out, Catherine lost the woman’s address and was not able to send her copies of the photos. In 2010, there was an article about Catherine in the Tuoi Tre using one of the photos. And Rosalyn and her mother saw the article and Rosalyn reached out to Catherine on facebook! They met the next year and remain close, a closeness I was fortunate enough to experience on Tuesday afternoon! In the book accompanying the exhibit Catherine writes about their meeting, “I could finally thank her for being part of the success of the photo. I told her that it was I who took the photograph, but she had made it beautiful.”
Catherine is an extremely generous artist. She offered to have us take these photos. And she gave me several tips on shooting, ever the educator.
“Vietnam has a way of entering your pores, slowly, silently it becomes a part of your breath, the way you move in the world without your ever realizing it, until one day you have absorbed its very essence in your being.”
Let me end with a quote from Catherine about the exhibit and her work in Vietnam:
The Vietnamese have a way of seeing beauty in sorrow. Maybe this is one reason why I love to photograph in Vietnam.
To capture a great photograph you have to be persistent and tenacious. The Vietnamese seem to intrinsically understand the beauty I am trying to create and the patience it requires.
My images are really about the Vietnamese people and their spirit: their tenacity, nostalgia, struggle, forgiveness, creativity, love for family and motherland. They are survivors.”