It's all in the eyes. If eyes are the gateway to the soul, the photographs by Kenneth Hoffman, professor of communication in the College of Communication and the Arts reveal the stark, lost innocence during wartime as no theory-driven historian could. You see, Hoffman was there - and now he is ready to take you on a journey in time that changed his life, the life of his subjects, and those of thousands of people in multiple countries-including our own. It's important that we never forget.
Vietnam Street Photographs will be on exhibit at the Soho Photo Gallery in New York City from June 8 - July 2, 2016. The exhibition features 20 selected images taken by E. Kenneth Hoffman during his tour of duty as an Army Lieutenant for the Department of Defense from June 1969 through June of 1970.
I served a tour of duty as an Army Lieutenant in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970 working as a photographer-film director. These photographs do not document the war per se, but depict the people of Vietnam as they lived in their war-torn country. They record an aspect of the war otherwise not widely documented or preserved but should not be forgotten.
"It was a 'drama guy' who had just returned from Vietnam," according to Hoffman, "that encouraged me to enlist after I completed my MFA in film production. I figured I'd get drafted sooner or later anyway. I might as well go in as a direct commissioned officer and at least put my film skills to good use." A quick letter of intent and resume later, he was on the subway uptown to be officially sworn in. The administrating officer had Hoffman raise his hand-the oath was read-and the officer told him "you're in the army." A sergeant then saluted him, to which Hoffman responded in kind. "You owe me a dollar, Lieutenant," replied the sergeant. It's tradition to pay one dollar to the first soldier who salutes you.
There was no ROTC-nine weeks in signal officer basic training at Ft. Gordon, Georgia would prepare Hoffman for his duties as part of the 221st Signal Company that provided personnel to the Southeast Asia Pictorial Center (SEAPIC). Their mission was to provide documentation of the war-in still photographs and motion pictures for the Department of Army Archives in Washington DC. Initially, Hoffman supervised combat photographers, laboratory technicians and audio-visual aids specialists at a detachment in Pleiku. The second half of his tour of duty was spent as a motion picture news team leader working out of Saigon for the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), funded by the Department of Defense, making short public relations films that would be distributed to television news outlets throughout the United States. "My job was to make the best films possible. I learned to think on my feet, edit in my head and capture what was needed to tell the story," Hoffman proclaims. This high-stakes, literal field experience is what he shared with his students at Seton Hall.
The photographs that comprise the exhibit, however, were not part of his mission. It is in his personal photographs where Hoffman captures, in over 1,500 images, how the social and economic turmoil affected the civilians who suffered through the war-with particular attention to the children. "The children have proven to be among the most haunting images of Vietnam that I have among my recollections."
They were called Bui Doi or "Dust of Life"-street children orphaned through circumstances that they were too young to comprehend. Many were ultimately adopted and are U.S. citizens today-more have never known their real parents- including those who are the offspring of American soldiers. Hoffman is fascinated with these little subjects-especially their eyes. He ponders a photo and asks, "Why did they look at me like that? Why were their eyes so big? What were they thinking?" Twenty photos from this portion of his collection were featured in the first national road tour of the musical Miss Saigon during the second act anthem, "Bui Doi'.
"I find that the first shot I take is usually the best. Subsequent exposures do not contain the uncensored, unfiltered expression of the human condition, as captured in that initial glance, that first interaction between photographer and subject," Hoffman remarks. When asked what viewers attending the exhibit can expect, he replies, "being in my shoes-experiencing this emotional present."
From 1995 until 2004, Hoffman also maintained a website titled Interactive Vietnam Portfolio. Within the site, a discussion forum was made available. Veterans, both North and South Vietnamese, American military and others affected by the war posted upwards of 5,000 commentaries indicative of the cultural schism created by the war in Vietnam. Many of the most poignant postings, along with selections from his photographic collection are included in a book that Hoffman currently is showing to prospective publishers.
"I would have voted for Uncle Ho. I was Viet Cong. I wanted my country together." - Former female VC now living in America.
"It could have been me. I was born in Saigon in 1972. How my brothers and I managed to come to America is purely a miracle of God. We were adopted by an American family. If it hadn't been for their love, these pictures could very well have been me or my brothers." - Unknown Vietnamese American.
"The question is why (look at the pictures)? The answer is simple, I cherish the memories of fallen comrades and those who survived…I grew old in 18 months in Vietnam. A part of my soul remains there to this day." - Unknown Veteran
Much of Hoffman's work in Vietnam-the photos which documented the war itself-are preserved as historical record in the National Archives in Washington, DC. His personal photography, however, which focused on the Vietnamese people and their culture, their humanity, and ultimately their identity was never officially archived. It is this part of his work that he hopes may have significance-and provide additional insights into the impact of war.
In 1995 a Vietnamese scholar stated, "The atmosphere, the settings, and the life of the time, (we) are losing fast, and we'd like to put them on CD-ROM for preservation purposes. Whatever portrait of humanity we may be able to capture, however incomplete, may be a great education to the children that follow."
Ken Hoffman has made a forty-five year commitment to honor this objective. He'd like to move past this now, and on to other artistic endeavors. But in the words of a comment left at his website, "It's been thirty years and there isn't a day since that I don't think about it." Sometimes it's just not that easy to forget. He hopes that his pictures will help you to remember.
E. Kenneth Hoffman holds an M.F.A. in film production and Ph.D. in communication from New York University. He supervises the curriculum in computer graphics and teaches courses in Multimedia, Digital Photography and Computer Graphics. Hoffman has taught at Seton Hall University since 1971 and his college textbook, Computer Graphics Applications, was published by Wadsworth Publishing in 1990. His short animation "Leaves in Space" was shown at the New York Film Festival and his multimedia work includes Vietnam War Portfolio: an Interactive Learning Resource.
VIETNAM STREET PHOTOGRAPHS
E. Kenneth Hoffman
Soho Photo Gallery
15 White Street, NYC
June 8-July 2, 2016
Opening reception: Tuesday, June 7, 6-8 p.m.
Funded in part by Seton Hall University,
College of Communication and the Arts
Categories: Arts and Culture