Photographer Pipo Ngyuen-duy grew up listening to the sounds of gunfire in Hue, central Vietnam, less than 20 miles from the demilitarized zone of the 18th Parallel. He later immigrated to the United States as a political refugee, but he returned to Vietnam many times to travel around the country, witnessing the landscapes that bore the scars of that war. After documenting amputees for a Guggenheim fellowship in 2012, Nguyen-duy began working on a project he called My East of Eden—a new chapter in an ongoing photographic series that uses those war-torn landscapes as a backdrop to tell a new story (These photos are represented by ClampArt, NY).
In one image, four boys wearing school uniforms, red ties slung loosely around their necks, pass the time chatting in the shade of a palm tree. In another, children in similar uniforms play and relax in the ruins of an old brick building in a clearing of palms. Two children sit by a canal; a group plays in a cornfield; a little girl falls asleep on some soft palm leaves beside a toy gun. The children in Pipo Nguyen-duy’s photographs are stately, but there’s an unmistakable air of calm about them.
Nguyen-duy says the images demonstrate humanity in the context of a post-apocalyptic world. “It’s about a sense of place. It’s about my bewilderment and my reconnection with a landscape that I had left as a child. The work is a metaphor for my lost childhood in many ways.”
The locations he chose for the series were instrumental to the project. “All of those areas were literally destroyed by Agent Orange,” he says, “and now you have a regeneration of a former ‘Garden of Eden,’ and these school kids are the seedlings to start this new environment again.”
Over the course of three years, he worked with the same group of children, paying them for their time—money, he says, which went toward their education. My East of Eden is Nguyen-duy’s attempt to reclaim childhood memories—both real and invented—of growing up during the Vietnam War, but also to infuse those images with a resilience, as seen in the stoic expressions on the children’s faces in his pictures.
Pipo Nguyen-duy was born in Hue, Vietnam. He immigrated to the United States as a political refugee in 1975. He began photographing while living in New York City, where he worked as a bartender and later as a nightclub manager. Currently, he is a Professor teaching photography at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio.