|Good friends: Photographer Catherine Karnow with General Vo Nguyen Giap. Outside of her stories, she has faithful friendships with the people who have been characters in her photos. — Photos courtesy of Art Vietnam Gallery
by Minh Thu
Over the past 25 years,American Catherine Karnow has visited Viet Nam many times to portray the life and people of the country, where she finds peace, warmth and happiness.
Besides her stories, here she has developed a faithful friendship with the country and its people, who have featured in her photos.
Karnow, known for her National Geographic work covering the globe over the last three decades, started shooting in Viet Nam in the 1990s. Her photos represent her view on the changes to the country and its people.
Karnow said even when she's not working, she enjoys returning to Viet Nam again and again.
"This is an inspirational and emotional country where the life has different layers to discover," said Karnow.
When she talks with local people, she always feels comfortable.
"Vietnamese people are warm, friendly and have a special interest in photography that creates a connection and friendship between me and whom I met," she said.
The photographer said she holds her Vietnamese partners in high esteem as they are hard-working and meticulous people.
"Working with them, I realise the passion and responsibility," she said. "During the process, they just show concern about the work's quality, not the time shown on their watches."
Karnow has organised an exhibition at the Art Vietnam Gallery, Ha Noi, to show the changes Viet Nam has experienced over the last 25 years.
Her photographs give viewers a fresh look at the country, which has overcome the war and come forward with renewed energy.
During her time in Viet Nam, she has made friends with many people, including the late General Vo Nguyen Giap. In 1994, she was the only foreign photojournalist to accompany the general on his first return to the forest encampment in Viet Nam's northern highlands. And 19 years later, she joined his family on his funeral procession to his home village in the central province of Quang Binh.
The trips were powerful experiences to her. When she was on a bus with extended family members and friends, leaning out of the window to photograph the people lining the route, she was astounded to see that many people were holding up a portrait of the general, one she had taken in 1994.
"I was deeply moved, sensing my place of belonging here in the country, so far from my own."
Karnow also has a close friendship with Tran Thi Diep, a school teacher from Ha Noi, who rode the Ho Chi Minh City - Ha Noi train in 1990, also known as the Reunification Express, named because when the train started operating, it reunited the north and the south for the first time after several decades.
A photo of Diep she took on the train has been published many times, and Karnow always wanted to share the success with her friend, but had no way of contacting her.
In 2010, when a story about Karnow was published in Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper with the photograph, Karnow got a message on Facebook from Diep's daughter. After 20 years, they had an emotional reunion and have remained close friends ever since.
Some of her passion for Viet Nam comes from her father, Stanley Karnow, who was a journalist and creator of the highly rated documentary series, Viet Nam: A Television History (1983), that won six Emmys and a Peabody award. His tie-in book, Viet Nam: A History, was a best seller.
Like the Vietnamese saying: "cha truyen, con noi", which can be translated as: "father transmits, child progresses," Karnow inherited both her talent and love for Viet Nam from her father.
|Her portrait: Karnow took photos at the coach to General Vo Nguyen Giap's funeral, where she saw many people were holding up a portrait of the general, one she had taken in 1994.
However, she seems to have her very own personal relationship with the country's history and promising future, while her father is much more concerned about the war and its legacy.
"I'm very close to my parents, my father's a journalist and my mother's an artist, so my photo works tend to be something like art," she said.
"My father is amazing, an incredible hard worker. He's tolerant and always wants to talk with young people."
When Karnow talked with me about her father, who passed away in 2013, she couldn't hold back the tears.
"When I received my brother's call to inform my father's death, I was in Sai Gon," said Karnow.
"I sat for a long time in my room, quietly, and felt peaceful that I and my father still have a connection, it's Viet Nam. I believe that coming to Viet Nam is my faith."
"There are many things I couldn't explain but here, everything's perfect and reasonable. What I do is what I have to do."
Karnow said she's happy that her father was proud of her. When someone wanted to interview him about Viet Nam, he said: "You should ask my daughter, she knows Viet Nam better.'
"My knowledge and love of the country is profound. It is an utterly fascinating place, impossible to fully grasp, and always seductive in mystery," she said.
Karnow has visited many countries, but Viet Nam is the only one that brings her a warm feeling. She is especially impressed with the country's young generation who have come forward, blazing with renewed energy and a passion for life. — VNS