Brett Skarbakka is a photographer currently based in Hanoi, Vietnam. His project, 11 Days, “is a quiet memorial to a past scarred by terrific violence, a present changing by acceptance, and a personal way for me to contemplate the conflicting messages of shrouded histories.” We settled in for lunch in a Hanoi pub and compared our memories of the Vietnam war as young boys growing up in the States. From his web site:
Born in 1963, my early childhood memories are filled with images from the Vietnam War. This war, and the media portrayal of the conflict in Southeast Asia has always colored my perception of the people and landscapes of the region. Currently, as an American living in Hanoi, I am constantly brought full circle from the impressions of my past to the realities of the present. In some attempt to reconcile these conflicting perceptions, I have mapped out and photographed the devastating bombing routes of operation Linebacker 2, also known as the 11 day war, fought ground to air over Hanoi during Christmas 1972. This series is a quiet memorial to a past scarred by terrific violence, a present changing by acceptance, and a personal way for me to contemplate the conflicting messages of shrouded histories. All images are taken in areas and districts surrounding Hanoi. The mapping of locations was a result of research into war archives and advice and stories from local residents.
I asked how the idea for his photo essay took form.
So first of course was the inkling of the idea, which happened in New York. To come over here and, I thought, documenting a culture in transition, blah blah blah. And that just ended up being cliché because everybody and their mother walking around here thinks that that’s what they’re doing. And then I decided to do research, and then of course I met my wife, and that gave me access to and involvement in the family. And then the research went a lot deeper because I was able to talk to people personally and it got away from being an art project and turned into a pursuit. It started out as an academic exercise. And it ended up being something I was involved in psychologically.
And what was it that drew you emotionally to want to pursue it once you were here?
Our histories were so intertwined and I grew up, I was born in 1964, so my formative years, I was raised with the television beaming explosions up the Hàn River and into Haiphong and the bombings.
My brother was an anti-war activist. One of my earliest memories was, you know, there was the whole generation gap thing going on at that time. And my parents’ generation was the World War II, Holocaust generation. You know, you support your country right or wrong, even though they were liberal Jews in New York. Why I remember this, I don’t know, my mother opened her dresser drawer in the bedroom, screaming at my brother because he had a button. The button said “LBJ” and for ‘B’ it said “Bombs, bullets, bullshit.” And to her, that was just a direct affront to the family.
I guess the problem came when I realized that all I was doing was regurgitating information that I’d been taught and trying to give back the same imagery that we’ve all seen. Because I got married here, I became involved and realized there was a change on a much more fundamental level where everybody was just moving on. The world here has nothing to do with forty years ago. It’s absolutely gone. It’s ghosts, is what it is. And I realized that I was carrying a different image than the people who had been directly affected.
It’s probably a generational thing. In Nicaragua, I’d talk to an 18 or 20 year old and what the United States means to him is, you know, how is Kobe Bryant doing this year with the Lakers? Am I going to get an Apple or a Dell? And I really love this new HBO series on DVD. That’s what America means to them. So part of it here is a generational thing. It seems like you have teenagers who are like, “Dude, why are you talking about that shit?” And, second, people in their forties are like, “Yeah, terrible period, let’s move on.” It’s been forty years. And, by the way, they won the war. And I don’t know if there’s some kind of Buddhist, Asian, Vietnamese cultural thing that’s like, “Live in the moment, forgive, and don’t dwell on the past.”
Yeah, there’s lot of moving on and forgiving. And if they do hold onto it, a majority of them are willing to try to look past and not dwell on it. There seems to be a level of understanding that a lot of these events, weren’t the responsibility of the individual. They don’t have a tendency to look at a person and say, “I identify that person with what happened.” I’ve been here a while. I don’t see any of that. Usually they are able to look past and look at it as a bigger picture situation. That it’s part of a situation that’s much bigger than an individual. And I’ve had no problem with anybody, even one time. The whole time I’ve been here. That’s significant.
What story did you try to tell with those eleven pictures?
Well, each one was chosen for a day. Because each day was an action in a campaign that hit this region particularly hard. And they nicknamed it the eleven day war. So my idea was to go out there and to basically find the locations, which I did. I researched and then I mapped out all these places and took the motorcycle out, traveled all over the area and found specific areas, particular places and locations. Then I used those for photographing the essence of something that doesn’t exist. I mean, it’s all gone. And that’s why the photographs don’t show anything. It’s like photographing a phastasm. As something that looks different from different people’s memories, but you go out there and it’s a field. It’s a field, it’s a house, it’s a tree.
It’s an interesting aesthetic disconnect between the pastoral scene and the horror of what was done.
Well I’m not interested in horror. That’s already been done.That’s what we get inundated with on a daily basis. That’s CNN. That’s propaganda. Yeah, it’s reality, but nothing is more boring than war horror, I think.
Just last night, I don’t know why it affected me so much, but there was a YouTube video. I don’t even know why… I think I was looking for Apocalypse Now videos. This YouTube video about a B-52 carpet bombing. And of course, you know what that looks like. And you see all the bombs going off. And the comments were mostly very jingoistic, country boys, saying, “Yeah, we should fuck up communists, Muslims, ISIS. Without the liberal media, we would’ve fucking won.” And they were just getting off on the scenes of destruction, and they just wanted more of it.
The absence of things is a thousand times more powerful than the presence of things. Yeah, certainly, we can look at, I can show you where there’s craters, I’m not even interested in the crater. I can show you where people are still digging land mines out in Laos. I can show you those places. But I’m not really interested in those land mines either. And I’m not interested in those craters. What I”m really interested in is the presence of absence. And I think that that’s most important. That’s what I struggle for with this particular project.
What was your desired effect on the viewer of those photos?
You know, the imagination is the most powerful thing. And if you don’t show anything, how powerful is the imagination? So we look at something, we look at a trace of something. We look at something that doesn’t have a real form anymore. What does the imagination do to that form. so your imagination is going to go much further than what my pictures can ever do. And if I give you nothing, how strong is that going to be? That was my biggest question, so I went to these places. I give you nothing, except for the event and the location. Then what does your mind do? What happened there? What was really the truth behind that? That’s more powerful than I give you as many explosions and craters and… Apocalypse Now scenes as you want. But that’s why I did it.
What was the reaction of older members of your Vietnamese family to your work or the things that you’re exploring?
Oh, they just look at me with amusement. (Laughter.) They just kind of wonder… At first, it was problematic because I was hiding behind the camera because I was unable to…I couldn’t relax. I was crossing between the two, making the bridge between the two cultures. And I could not relax. They just thought I was weird, you know. I just always had the camera with me and eventually they kind of realized that I was just going to be doing stuff and I just might happen to have a camera. And at that point, it no longer mattered. Nobody was really thinking I was weird, they just thought, “Oh, there he is again with his camera.” And then it became normal. Then as I became part of the communities… Now I just walk around freely and they just expect me to do whatever I do because that’s who I am.
So in the years that you’ve been married, have there ever been pointed conversations from any of your older male Vietnamese relatives who served in the war, on the North Vietnamese side, who have a bone to pick with you for being an American?
Oh yeah, yeah, it’s really interesting. I mean, they’ve been curious. They’ve wondered about things and they’ve asked if my parents were involved, things like that. But there haven’t been any bones to pick, no. There’s been curiosity. There’s been curiosity and maybe like what I think, and how do I feel. There’s been curiosity, what am I doing here? (Laughter.) They probably don’t get the whole art for art’s sake thing, just like some of the projects I’ve done. They say, “Oh, you’re taking pictures, how are you making money from this?” (Laughter.) You know?
Yeah. It doesn’t.
“If you’re not making money, why are you doing this?” It’s nothing I ever have to explain because nobody’s ever really… They figure I’m doing it for whatever reason. A lot of them know that I’ve got work, that I do shows, that a lot of this stuff has been out. They kind of think that’s interesting. In the beginning, they kind of just thought I was weird. Now they just expect it. No, no bones to pick. Not at all. In fact, mostly everybody just would like to hang out with me and get drunk and talk. We all get drunk and we’re all best friends all of a sudden.
Check out Brett’s website at www.brettskarbakka.com. Brett received his MFA in combined media from Hunter College before embarking on what he thought would be a one year documentary project in Vietnam. 5 years later he is still exploring the mountains, jungles, and coral reefs of Southeast Asia. He has given talks at Prescott College in Arizona, and the Hanoi Academy of Fine Arts. He has shown work in Redbird editions, f-stop Magazine, Forward Thinking Museum, Fotofilmic, Emergency Arts in NYC, and Hunter Time Square Gallery, as well as various other venues and publications. The interview was transcribed by Afterparty project intern Kayley Ingalls.