Vietnam: Journey of the Heart, Photographs by Geoffrey Clifford, 1985-2000 presents 52 large (24 x 36 inches) color prints in an exhibit organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibit Series (SITES). Clifford's focus in this project is not the war; he breaks from what we have come to expect of this subject and instead offers a celebration and recognition of a people and a land, a culture, a country that is 4,000 years old. It's this unexpected treatment, coupled with the large-scale color images, that makes this show so inviting and so intimate.
As a US Army lieutenant in 1971, Geoffrey Clifford piloted the UH-1, the Huey helicopter, flying combat assaults out of Chu Lai and Da Nang and carrying troops and supplies into the war zones. He was 21 years old at the time. After serving his tour of duty, Clifford returned home, finished college and established himself as a professional location photographer. In 1985, he made his first trip back to Vietnam, a visit that would lead to 20 more and a lifelong fascination with the people and the land. He has traveled the country extensively and is one of few visitors ever to have traversed the entire length of Vietnam from north to south. His love of the country and his respect for the land and the people show through in this exhibit that was inspired by the book Vietnam: The Land We Never Knew, a collaboration between Clifford and John Balaban, who wrote the text to accompany the photographs. (Balaban, who is Poet-In-Residence at NC State University, also wrote the text panels that accompany the photographs in the exhibit.)
Clifford's own words, borrowed from one of the text panels in the show, illuminate his sincerity and the intent of this body of work:
"My entire Vietnam tour of duty was spent flying helicopters for the US Army. Whenever I was outside my secured perimeter or airfield, I was airborne, peering down at incredible landscapes. I both feared and loved what unfolded before me on the ground. But I was never able to walk the trails winding off into forests... stand on the banks of rivers looping towards the sea or walk through the bustling market docks lining the canals. Most frustrating was the fact that I was never able to talk with the Vietnamese people. I could never experience life as it might be, as it should be, as it sometimes is in these images... By returning to Vietnam, I have had a chance to make a positive experience out of a negative one. Assembling this body of work has allowed me to meet the people of Vietnam, it has enriched my understanding, and it has opened my heart. I would like these pictures to do that for you."
With the exception of native Vietnamese and those who travel, the photographs in the exhibit depict a Vietnam that may not be familiar. Clifford's images show the incredible beauty of the country's landscape, capturing its light, its rich verdant colors, and making us understand how much the people are of the land. The prints depict the poetic beauty of ordinary people doing ordinary things: working in the rice fields, riding a bicycle across the bridge over a lotus pond, a child smiling for a camera, celebrating Tet, remembering ancestors, or attending to ancient religious rituals.
Clifford's photographs of Vietnam show the care and understanding that can only come from total immersion in a culture over time. The images are straightforward and very natural. His eye is not distant: It's intimate, filled with a sense of respect and reverence. Most of all, Clifford's images remind us that Vietnam is not a war -- it is a country, one with a long history and a rich culture that's very different from ours in countless ways. And, because of our shared past and the burden of history, it's a country that we need to understand.
(Vietnam: Journey of the Heart, Photographs by Geoffrey Clifford, 1985-2000 is on exhibit through June 9 in Gallery L at the Public Library, 310 N. Tryon St. For more info, call 336-2725.) *