'Color Me Gone': Vietnam, as a dark fairy tale

By Trang Bui   June 7, 2017 | 07:30 pm GMT+7

Photojournalist Kevin German’s lens is like no others. For a decade, it has followed Vietnam to both glamorous and darker corners.

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Vo Anh Ninh, considered the father of Vietnamese photography, after a traffic accident that forced him to spend his final years in bed. Ninh photographed almost all historic moments in Vietnam during the 20th century and followed President Ho Chi Minh closely. Photo by Kevin German

In 2006, like most American travelers, intriguing tales told by a Vietnamese family in the West Coast brought Kevin German to Vietnam for a brief visit. It was the first of so many that followed.

From 2008 to 2013, the photojournalist traveled to some of the poorest parts of Vietnam, while juggling freelance media jobs which included a judging stint for the Vietnamese version of Next Top Model.

The result of all those years? A captivating, unusual and intricate photo book.

“Color Me Gone” is striking. It cannot be more different than most other photographic collections that choose to see Vietnam in its most colorful, chaotic or dynamic moments.

In German’s eyes, Vietnam appears like a dark fairy tale. A film noir.

“Don’t get me wrong,” German wrote to VnExpress International via email, “I think Vietnam is a beautiful place with wonderful people. But a lot of photos and art only show that side. It’s not a hundred percent real life.”

“Vietnam has happiness and struggle,” he continued. “It has joy and sorrow. It has life and death. Just like any other country. I began to see my photography as something darker to provide that stark contrast to some popular art.”

For 10 years, German photographed the far-flung tribal villages of Lao Cai, a dinner of an Agent Orange child victim, the moribund moments of the father of Vietnamese photography Vo Anh Ninh, and the dazzling steps of fashion runway models.

His photos look and feel both casual and restless. They are products of unusual encounters, with both important and nameless citizens.

“I’ve always been interested in the idea of juxtaposition,” he wrote in the email. “When you can compare and contrast cultures or class systems in the same photograph, then you have something that speaks very loudly.”

German’s love for juxtaposition is evident in the pictures of his book, but also in their narrative order. He advises his readers to view the book forward and backward for new perspectives. His favorite quote fits like a charm: “Forget what you remember and remember what you forgot.”

Born four years after the fall of Saigon, German learned about Vietnam from the war classics of Kubrick and Coppola.

A quote in Michael Herr's “Dispatches” also lingered in his mind and shaped his worldview: 

German is now married to a French woman whom he met in Vietnam. He travels regularly between New York and Paris and comes back to Vietnam twice a year to see his favorite country changing.

He loves taking pictures of high-rise towers and going on the ledge to see the workers installing new glass panes.

“Once a country builds its first skyscraper, everything changes. It’s a symbol to the economy. It’s a symbol to the people,” he said.

As German penned his thoughts on the book description, he humbly admitted that, for many Americans, Vietnam always felt like a dirty secret they didn’t want to talk about. “It still carries a stigma,” he wrote.

But for moment treasurers like German, the country is possibly better viewed as an emblem of change.

After all, this is the place where transformation happens in split seconds, not months or years.

“If you don’t stop and take a photo every now and then, it’s forgotten,” he said.

Phong Quyen, 16, takes a break from scraping salt and stares up at the night sky. Farmers harvest salt cultivated in rice-patty like fields in Ben Tre.

"Phong Quyen, 16, takes a break from scraping salt and stares up at the night sky. Farmers harvest salt cultivated in rice-patty like fields in Ben Tre." - Kevin German

Smoke spews from a minority tribal village in the Lao Cai region.

"Smoke spews from a minority tribal village in the Lao Cai region." - Kevin German

School girls ride their bicycles home in the early evening in central Vietnam.

"School girls ride their bicycles home in the early evening in central Vietnam." - Kevin German

A boy picks corn on his familys farm in northern Vietnam.

"A boy picks corn on his family’s farm in northern Vietnam." - Kevin German

Actors Johnny Tri Nguyen and Ngo Thanh Van prepare to film a scene from the movie Clash.

"Actors Johnny Tri Nguyen and Ngo Thanh Van prepare to film a scene from the movie 'Clash'." - Kevin German

A horse leaps over a grave site at a cemetery in Da Lat, Vietnam.

"A horse leaps over a grave site at a cemetery in Da Lat, Vietnam." - Kevin German

Models walk the runway at a fashion show in Ho Chi Minh City.

"Models walk the runway at a fashion show in Ho Chi Minh City." - Kevin German

A girl poses for photos next to flowers at the Diamond Plaza mall during the Tet holiday.

"A girl poses for photos next to flowers at the Diamond Plaza mall during the Tet holiday." - Kevin German

American-Vietnamese actress Kathy Uyen prepares to host a variety show in Ho Chi Minh City.

"American-Vietnamese actress Kathy Uyen prepares to host a variety show in Ho Chi Minh City." - Kevin German

Models descend a staircase back stage at a hair show at the Saigon Opera House.

"Models descend a staircase back stage at a hair show at the Saigon Opera House." - Kevin German

Linh, 21 - an Agent Orange victim who was born without arms - eats rice with her foot in her mothers home in Ho Chi Minh city. When youre disabled, people dont think youre normal. And sometimes I feel lost and ashamed, because I cant live in normal society. But everyone has their dreams; so do I.

"Linh, 21 - an Agent Orange victim who was born without arms - eats rice with her foot in her mother’s home in Ho Chi Minh city. 'When you’re disabled, people don’t think you’re normal. And sometimes I feel lost and ashamed, because I can’t live in normal society. But everyone has their dreams; so do I.'" - Kevin German

Ngan Nguyen is reflected in a mirror fragment that she found in an abandoned lot in Ho Chi Minh City.

"Ngan Nguyen is reflected in a mirror fragment that she found in an abandoned lot in Ho Chi Minh City." - Kevin German

My wife, Sabrina. She didnt remember me after the first time we met. Now we have a lifetime to remember.

"My wife, Sabrina. She didn't remember me after the first time we met. Now we have a lifetime to remember." - Kevin German

“Color Me Gone” is available for pre-order on Kickstarter until June 15.