It is an overwhelming experience to go through a life’s work of photographer Lam Duc Hien, attempting to grasp the beauty and tragedy in the world he has captured. War has moved Hien from one place to another, first as a child refugee, now as an unflinching witness.
Among other awards, Hien has won 1st prize in the Portrait category, World Press Photo 2001 with his series “Iraqi People”. His interest in Iraq stretched over 25 years; yet after a narrow escape in Saddam Hussein’s native village, Hien decided to leave the majestic land that requires too many sacrifices. That was when he embarked on a 4,200-km journey tracing the Mekong river from the delta in Vietnam up to its source in Tibet, recalling childhood memories and interpreting the river’s various meanings to inhabitants. The commitment to children’s rights and reporting lives in conflict zones ties his vast bodies of work.
[Lam Duc Hien] My father is Vietnamese and my mother is Laotian. I had Laotian education. When I went to France, I learnt many languages. Language for me is a way of communication. I studied languages for two years, then decided to become an artist. I studied everything: painting, drawing, photography, video, sculpture… And when I was in 2nd year of art school, something happened in history.
In 1990, the old dictator regime in Romania collapsed. I felt like I have to be there. So winter that year, I took the train from France to Italy, arrived in Yugoslavia, took the bus and walked to the border. It was dark and snowing and cold. The bodyguard saw me and he thought it was so strange. A “Chinese” guy coming from nowhere to Yugoslavia! I started to speak to him, saying I wanted to go to Timisoara. By chance, there was a humanitarian convoy and they let me come with them. I stayed with students there. They called it the revolution. They took me everywhere and asked me to take pictures. I saw how they worked so hard, despite the cold and the lack of materials.
After coming back to school in Lyon, I spoke about the situation. We are spoiled children, we should help people who have nothing but still work hard. We are artists and we should be concerned artists. Artists should not only speak but also take actions. Some newspapers came and reported this. Eventually, with the support of a French organization, we came back to Romania with paint, paper and art supply. We were so happy and two schools made a good relationship.
In Romania, the iron curtain of Communism was collapsing. My country Laos was the same. I could not come back. I had hoped to come back and see my grandmother, she was everything to me. I missed my family. For 10 years, I could not see them. I was concerned, I wanted to not only be a witness but to help. There’s a voice calling me: “Do something”. Also my own theory is artists have to be concerned, with politics, with daily life. I’m fighting against the idea of war, injustice, corruption and dictatorship. For me taking pictures was a way to denounce such situations. I have a lot of anger inside me and have to speak out.
In 1991, I was so concerned about Iraq. They were killing Kurdish people, who had to flee to the mountains. I took pictures of the refugees and was crying because they had to run, it’s cold up high, they didn’t have shoes and had to walk in the mud… It’s like when I was in a boat before, escaping from Laos, crossing the river by night, being put in a camp. It’s a very hard life. When I took pictures of these people, it’s like taking a picture of myself 20 years ago.
I don’t consider myself a photojournalist. There’s a theory that as a journalist you have to have an objective point of view. My photographs are my subjective point of view. I don’t care about reality; it’s my reality. I want to live true to myself. I’m not a photographer, just a traveller and a respectful human being.
In 1994, I became a member of Agency VU’. Christian Cajouelle, then the director, understands very well that each photographer looks at reality with their own eyes. He doesn’t care about aesthetic but the photographer’s own way of looking.
I’m fed up with showing children dying and suffering. I want to make portraits, just showing the faces and not the background. In their eyes, you could see their fatigue, their suffering, their sadness. Christian Cajouelle said that I should submit the series to World Press Photo. I said these are not photojournalistic pictures, I didn’t believe that I got the prize.
My practice is somewhere in between art and photojournalism. Somebody commented that my pictures of horrible places are too beautiful. They criticized a lot of photographers who work like this, like Sebastiao Salgado, making money off others’ misery. But I really like him because he communicated such humanitarian messages to a large number of people. I’m not against aesthetic photojournalism.
I was born on the bank of the Mekong river. I swam in the river, spent my happy childhood with my grandmother. Before I die, I want to do something about Mekong river, from the Delta to the source in Tibet.
The river is both the border and the link. In Laotian and Thai, “Mekong” means the mother of rivers. It fits me because I grew up with my grandma, I was surrounded by my aunties and my family.
I want to show Mekong river through the eyes of people, not the history of the river but how people are living, how people do economic activities like agriculture and fishing. I was born near the Mekong river but never went deep into the delta or China and Tibet, I didn’t have money then.
I brought 5 cameras with me, including a polaroid, a Leica, an X-pan and a Linohf, developing myself, traveling like the 19th century. It took half an hour to make a picture. Can you imagine doing that in the delta when it’s so hot and people keep moving? I kept the negatives in the water, and gave people the polaroids. I did the same in Tibet, 5000 meters above water. I had to heat up the films. 1 picture costs a lot, so you have to be very precise.
Vietnam is my heart. I have Vietnamese citizenship. My grandmother now lives in Vietnam, and when I come here, I eat something that reminds me a lot of my childhood. When I was young, I used to live with my grandmother who would make black sticky rice with alcohol (nếp cẩm). Back then I was not allowed to drink but I loved to eat the rice. I came to Hanoi and my friends took me to a restaurant where they served it and it reminded me of my grandmother. It inspired me.
I once gave up photography because I had personal problems.. I gave up the agency, magazines, I just wanted to do something else, to be with myself. I don’t want to push myself. I just want to be free. And freedom often requires a lot of sacrifices.
I have so many interests in life, I enjoy life. Every morning I enjoy doing yoga, meeting people, meeting nice people. I know how to enjoy little things. I love gardening, I love growing flowers, I like the art of tea. I’m not afraid of bearing the [war] burden on my shoulder, because if I’m not strong enough, I don’t go. I can still enjoy life after coming back. I trust myself.
*This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.
Lam Duc Hien has developed an involved work across the world, as for personal projects than for the press and NGO’s commands. He testifies to consequences of 20th and 21th century’s major conflicts on civilians in Romania, Russia, Bosnia, Chechnya, Rwanda, South Sudan, and above all in Iraq, whose he covered the territory for 25 years. He is deeply invested for the protection of natural resources, and documents also the influence and the evolution of a contemporary world along the shores of Mekong and Niger.
The prestigious World Press Photo had rewarded the photographer’s portraits of “Iraqi People” with First Prize in Portraits category in 2011.