Left Behind

By Thy Phu Posted June 17, 2013

Erasure, 2011. Multi-media installation by Dinh Q. Lê.


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When refugees flee, they carry only what they need. While they may make room for jewelry to barter with and food to keep them going, anything else slows them down. Because sentiment is a luxury, photos are often left behind. Contemporary artist Dinh Q. Lê’s Erasure invites visitors to his exhibition to follow the trail of visual artifacts. The installation features a boat wrecked amid a sea of discarded photos. Visible yet irretrievable, the photos form a broken path that links overseas Vietnamese to scattered families. These are orphan images. 

Although I wasn’t able to visit this installation, which was originally commissioned by the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Sydney, Australia, the concept inspired me. I met the artist during a 2012 visit to Ho Chi Minh City, and he told me how he formed the idea in the early days of his return to his homeland, immediately after the normalization of relations between Vietnam and the U.S. in the early 1990s (a period that coincided with the official end of the Cold War). With Đổi mới, the state’s policy of economic renovation, the nation advanced an ambitious program of development. It was in this atmosphere of optimism and change that Lê explored the former capitol, still known to locals by its old name, Saigon.

With sprawling boulevards and majestic trees, Saigon is a city shaped by the French. But look behind the stately colonial buildings and grand promenades and you’ll find it’s also a city of narrow streets and alleys. Hidden not too far from designer stores in tony District 1,where one handbag can cost twice the average monthly salary of a Vietnamese laborer, one such street is famous for junk and antique shops. They are filled with sundry bric-a-brac: lacquer ware, commie kitsch, and photographs. This is where Le found the snaps and studio portraits for his installation.

This is also where I went in search of images to help me understand the history of Vietnamese photography. Having browsed the usual sources, including the national archive, and bumped against large gaps in a pivotal part of this history (1954-1975), I thought the street might offer what the state could not.I knew exactly what I wanted: albums, preferably accompanied by captions and ideally by letters.

The results were disheartening. I found stacks of photos ripped from their albums. Few had any writing or dates. The shopkeepers tell me they do the ripping themselves because “customers don’t want albums; they want pictures.”

I couldn’t help wondering what value photos of anonymous people—someone else’s family and not yours—could have to anyone? (Lê offers one answer: he adopted them in lieu of the ones lost when his own family fled in 1979.) But for my research, the value of the photos lay in the connections between them; torn from the context of their albums, I couldn’t begin to decipher the photos’ meaning. By contrast, what they meant to the shopkeepers was clear: by the piece, the photos were more valuable than collected within albums.

The story ends happily. On my last day in Saigon, I stumbled on a treasure trove. Though the other shopkeepers insisted that no one sold intact albums, I found one special store that did. After I flipped through several, the owner said she had piles more at her house on the outskirts of the city, if I was willing to brave a scooter ride through the snarl of rush-hour traffic. She could read my excitement in my trembling hands. At her house, Mai (not her real name) led me up narrow stairs to her covered rooftop where they were, indeed, piled amid rusted lamp bases, dusty scrapbooks of plump American pinups, and junked math exercises. There were dozens of them, some sticky, a few falling apart, others well preserved.

Many were empty, however. It turns out Mai and her husband also plundered the albums in response to customers’ demands. Anticipating that someone like me would come along, they leave some untouched. But they take most of them apart. Who are their customers? I ask. Researchers, they reply.

Not my kind of researcher, apparently. These others, they tell me, want to look at evolving hairstyles, dress-styles, and body-shapes. They use the photos for histories, expositions, and exhibitions.  Then again, we may not be so unalike. I’m used to looking for archives. Yet these adventures reveal that sometimes researchers produce the archives they look for.

I was later told that Lê paid around $50/kg for the photos he used in his installation. For such bulk orders, Mai and her husband spend long hours ripping and tearing. In a forward-looking Vietnam where locals favor the new over the old, entrepreneurs like Mai make a good living feeding the diaspora’s hunger for the discarded, disassembling and re-assembling the archives it desires.