Several years ago when I was looking through some papers that belonged to my father, I was startled to discover a stack of Polaroids that he brought back from Vietnam—an archive waiting for decades to be recovered and incorporated into traumatic, tangled personal and collective memories of the war.
I had been so close to it for so long.
As a member of the United States Navy Medical Service Corps, he had served two tours in Vietnam during the American war there. His photographs depict Vietnamese children whose injuries, some apparently war-related, he must have helped to treat, as well as his Vietnamese medical colleagues, the hospital itself, and a haunting local landscape. They offered me a tiny glimpse into his experience of a war about which he refused to speak and that undoubtedly marked him deeply.
Who were these Vietnamese children for whom he helped care? Where did the responsibility for their injuries lie? How many of their injuries were related to the United States’ involvement in the war? Who were the Vietnamese medical personnel with whom he worked, and how did they feel about working with the United States military? How did the work of the Medical Service Corps affect the war experiences of both those who provided treatment and those who received it? Overlaid with questions such as these, my father’s Polaroids became a kind of punctum within a mental image that I had constructed of him.(*)
With a desire to imagine what might have moved, pricked, haunted him and in an inevitably and consciously futile attempt to access the trauma suggested by these images, I began to re-photograph his prints—isolating details within them, using a hallucinatory soft focus with an extremely shallow depth of field as a means of re-imaging these images as indistinct, fragmented memories. These photographs form the series provisionally titled “War Stories.”
*I use the term punctum in a modified sense in which Roland Barthes defined it—as something within an image that “pierces” or “pricks.” See Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000), especially pages 27, 43 – 45, and 53 – 55.
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