Her Vietnam

April 10, 2006

Sunday, April 9, 2006
Her Vietnam

The Orange County Register

JOURNEY HOME: Nancy Hoan Le chose 50 photos from among the thousands she shot on a journey to her homeland for an exhibit at Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton.


It took Nancy Hoan Le three months to copy onto CDs the more than 3,000 photographs she took on a trip to Vietnam in the fall of 2004.

The stunning pictures Le snapped evoke lives that seem to be frozen in time, bypassed by modern conveniences and carrying on generation after generation in villages where few outsiders venture: Thai women in Son La, Cai Chu, bending to wash their long black hair in the clear water of a river. Three generations of Hmong women weaving as they sit in front of their home, a wood-sided shack with a mud floor. A woman trudging behind a water buffalo as she plows a field.

It wasn’t until late last year that Le shared some of the photos with Diane Masseth-Jones, the executive director of the YWCA North Orange County. Masseth-Jones had granted Le a month-long leave to fulfill a lifelong dream of visiting her ancestral homeland in the highlands of what was once North Vietnam. Masseth-Jones knew in an instant that a wider audience deserved to see the hardships and the beauty in the photos taken by Le, a professional photographer turned Vietnamese Outreach Manager for the YWCA.

Masseth-Jones, who lost a brother in the Vietnam War, felt a connection to the women of the highlands who had captured much of Le’s attention.

“It was kind of a reflection of how much women have in common, no matter where they are,” Masseth-Jones said.

Masseth-Jones approached the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton about Le’s work, and the result is an exhibit at the center, “My Vietnam: A Photo Essay of Women in Vietnam.”

With the help of curator Matt Leslie and Muckenthaler Executive Director Pat House, Le culled about 50 color photographs from the thousands she shot to present the photo essay.

“We hope people walk away with the natural beauty of the country. The landscape is very dramatic,” House said.

“I don’t know that people in this country think of Vietnam that way. And we hope they walk away with an appreciation and compassion for the way the people work with the land. You can see that they are tied to the land.”

A $65-per-person reception benefit today from 1 to 4 p.m. will feature a fashion show of traditional dresses Le collected on her trip and serve as a fundraiser for the YWCA’s Early Breast Cancer Detection and Education Program.

Le’s photographs also are the kickoff for what is planned to be an annual collaboration between the YWCA and the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in sponsoring artistic work by and about women.

Le, 60, said stories that her mother told her when she was a little girl growing up in Saigon fueled her desire to experience firsthand the lives of the highland people. Her mother never got the chance to visit.

“I always dreamed of my parents’ home, how they lived, how it looked,” Le said.

Her parents, farmers who raised pigs, had left their homeland near the Chinese border in 1940 to work for a relative in Laos who ran a grocery store. Dissastisfied there, they returned to Vietnam and settled in Saigon, where Le was born, the second-oldest of six children. Her father’s brother, a photographer, influenced what became first a hobby and then a career for Le.

“I’m little but I’m always watching him,” Le said, thinking back to her earliest childhood memories. “He was always taking pictures of me. When he developed them, I saw myself. I love it. I don’t know why, but I really love it.”

She saw, too, how hard her mother worked, raising the family, and knew that she did not want that same life. In her free time, Le often grabbed relatives and friends to pose for pictures she took with her first camera, a Canon Net that she bought in 1966. For fun.

She married and was working in personnel for an aircraft company when she and her husband fled Vietnam as Saigon fell in 1975. She was one month pregnant. They lived in Illinois for a few months, then came to the Los Angeles area.

Le found work helping to translate and collect rent for the manager of the apartment building where they lived. Then she went to work for a dry cleaner, a business that she and her husband eventually bought. They sold the dry cleaner after a few years.

Next, Le spotted an ad in a newspaper and trained to run a one-hour photo business, which she also eventually took over.

All through the years, whatever work she did, Le had continued to take photographs in her spare time. She had begun doing portraits and decided to attend Orange Coast College, taking all the photography classes offered. In 1980, she and her husband opened a portrait studio in Little Saigon.

Their studio was successful, but in 2001 Le and her husband divorced, and she left the business in his hands. She came to work for the YWCA by happenstance.

During a doctor’s visit, Le was told she needed to get a mammogram. She had never heard of breast-cancer detection before.

“In my country, we don’t know about mammogram. I said, ‘No, why do we have to do this?'”

But she went to a community center in Santa Ana where free mammograms were being offered through the YWCA. She was scared, yet ended up translating for the other Vietnamese women there. The YWCA asked her to continue as a volunteer.

“Then they said, ‘Can you work for us right now?’ I said, ‘OK.’ I love this, helping women. I know how they feel – like I did before. I want them to know how important it is to have early breast-cancer detection.”

Le feels that same bond with the highland women she photographed on her journey in Vietnam.

“When I see the women, they work so hard. I never saw anyone work that hard,” she said, looking at a photograph from the exhibit that shows women shouldering heavy baskets of salt collected from a salt field where they wade in the water among white mounds that look like snow.

“I wish I had money or some magic thing to change their lives.”

Nancy Hoan Le will teach two sessions of weekly classes in travel and landscape photography at the YWCA North Orange County, May 3-31 and June 7-28, from 3 to 5 p.m. Cost is $30 to YWCA members and $45 to nonmembers. For more information, call (714) 871-4709.

CONTACT US: (714) 796-7793 or twalker@ocregister.com.


2 Responses to “Her Vietnam”

  1. Jeevika Says:

    Jeevika: South Asia Documentary Festival, which began in 2003, aims at capturing the livelihood challenges faced by the rural and urban poor and bringing it to the attention of current and future policy makers. Over the years, Jeevika has been successful in advocating for the cause of numerous entry-level entrepreneurs – rickshaw pullers, street vendors, prostitutes, child labour, farmers and forest-dwellers.

    The premier event of the festival to be held at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi will be the awards ceremony from 20-23rd July 2007, which will culminate four days of screening for the top films. The last date for the submitting the entries is May 31, 2007

    In addition as part of the festival tour, the award-winning films will travel and be screened in premier schools and colleges in over 20 states in India and other organisations working on livelihood issues as well as in our South Asian neighbours.

    Over the years, Jeevika has become an increasingly popular and news-worthy event as well as an important catalyst for positive social change. The Film-makers whose films have been showcased in the past include Rakesh Sharma (of the Final Solution fame), Sanjay Barnela (Turf Wars) and Shohini Ghosh (Tales of the Night Fairies).

    For further details, please log on : http://www.ccs.in/jeevika

  2. priyanka Says:

    Jeevika 2010: Asia Livelihood Documentary Festival. Call for Entry deadline: 30 June 2010
    Download Entry Form [PDF | DOC]

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