Wartime German photographer wants to record change in Việt Nam

March 22, 2023 - 08:37
An exhibition at Deutsches Haus in HCM City is a retrospective of Thomas Billhardt's work in Việt Nam from 1962-1999, including photos from the south of Việt Nam that have never been shown in Việt Nam before. Vietnam News Agency's Thể Thao Văn Hóa (Culture & Sports) reporter Lam Anh speaks with Billhardt during a visit to Việt Nam.
Photographer Thomas Billhardt at the Goethe Institute in Hà Nội on March 12. Photo coutersy of Thể Thao Văn Hóa

An exhibition at Deutsches Haus in HCM City is a retrospective of Thomas Billhardt's work in Việt Nam from 1962-1999, including photos from the south of Việt Nam that have never been shown in the country before.

After an exhibition titled Hà Nội 1967-1975 took place at the Goethe Institute in Hà Nội in 2020, and a book of the same name was released, Billhardt was honoured with the Bùi Xuân Phái – For Love of Hà Nội award.

The Vietnam News Agency's Thể Thao Văn Hóa (Culture & Sports) reporter Lam Anh speaks with Billhardt during a visit in Việt Nam.

Your photos taken in Hà Nội during wartime help young people to know what happened in the past. What drove you to take those photos at the time?

I think it's impossible to say. Since it's war, any details can shock the viewers. When I came to Việt Nam, the war and its problems shocked me. I remember images of women and children with fear in their eyes and the grief of their loss.

At that time, I found it difficult to return home in a good mood. Sometimes I didn't feel like I could laugh.

However, I know the most important thing is finding the balance. During my time as a war correspondent, I have always found small glimmers of hope between pain and loss.

Those precious little joys have helped me be more motivated.

Could you say more about the photos that bring hope to you?

It is a photo showing a female guerrilla pointing a gun at a captured American pilot. The photo highlights the victory of the weak over the strong.

Or images of children looking up from bomb shelters or a couple holding weapons but still having interaction. In the world of war, such precious pure feelings are rare and very impressive.

Photography has its own language. Photos can be ugly or beautiful, but there are always stories to tell. I believe that viewers will be deeply emotional if they understand the content of the photos.

What impresses you about Việt Nam today?

I think it is friendly, open, and confident and changes the way of communication and thinking. In the past, when I met Vietnamese, it seemed that they avoided eye contact when talking. But now they are more confident.

Not only that, Vietnamese people now dare to think, dare to do and dare to do what they want.

I have travelled to Việt Nam many times, witnessing bad things happening here. I used to be pessimistic thinking about your future. But when I come back here, I see a new Việt Nam in a different picture.

I want to continue organising photo exhibitions making a small contribution to this change in Việt Nam.

How do you take photos Việt Nam today?

I take photos quickly. I don't focus on tourist spots like the Old Quarter. I'm interested in how the life of Vietnamese people is going today.

I have a chance to introduce my photos on Việt Nam today. I want to record changes in Việt Nam. I want to take photos of Việt Nam continuously with groups of tourists in the country.

Are you a special tour guide on your visits to Việt Nam?

My job is to convey the Vietnamese people's history and identity to people interested in Vietnamese history and culture.

I hope that I will help tourists understand the life and history of Việt Nam with my experiences, photos and stories.

They will not make comparisons only or find differences between Việt Nam in the past and the present. They will understand that it is your renewal process for a long time.

Therefore, I am not a normal tour guide just taking tourists to attraction spots. The tourists ask me to guide them because they want to know about Vietnamese culture.

What do you most want to do now?

No matter what point of my life, I want to dedicate myself and do useful things. However, at this age, I can no longer go as much as before. So I spend a lot of time writing.

I want to write for the younger generation. I'm going to release a book on Alexanderplatz Square in Berlin - a place that has been associated with many milestones in my life.

After that is a book about Chile and maybe there will be a photo book with the photos I just took.

In war and peace, there is both pessimism and optimism. Which direction are you inclined to in life?

I'm unsure about being an optimist or a pessimist, but I admit I'm scared. I'm scared of development in the world, from politics to the economy, because the news I read now makes me sceptical instead of believing immediately.

Streams of information are released because they give viewers what they want, so it's no longer authentic.

So, first thing, I was sceptical about what I should believe. That's why I'm scared. - VNS