Pain and Grace, Interview with Vietnam Photographer Jim Gensheimer

Interview by Allison Martin

What inspired you to create "Pain and Grace, A Journey Through Vietnam"?

Jim Gensheimer: Beginning with my first trip in 1987, I approached Vietnam photographically as an opportunity that may never come my way again. With this in mind, I photographed everything I saw.

After a couple of trips, I realized I was building a body of work that could one day be a book. On subsequent trips, besides making photographs for newspaper publication, I began to make photographs with a book in mind.

During the nineties, I came to realize the historical uniqueness of post-war Vietnam. I wanted to make a book that told the story of Vietnam returning to normal and opening to the West.  The book starts out showing boat people being rescued on the South China Sea. It later shows refugees returning to Vietnam as visitors.

The theme of pain and grace developed as I returned to Vietnam several times. There is the pain of personal loss and suffering caused by the war. And there is the grace of the land and its people.

Your photographs in "Pain and Grace" evoke a strong emotional response. What ideas did you wish to convey in your work?

Jim Gensheimer: I want to show the real Vietnam. There are many books that show pretty landscapes and pretty people. In my book, there is some of that, but I also show the less fortunate, whether it be a one-legged veteran scooting along on his hands or children deformed from Agent Orange laying on a hospital floor.

A co-worker said of my photographs, "they're beautiful without being pretty."

Could you describe how you create your images? What do you look for?

Jim Gensheimer: Most of my images are candid. I shoot 35mm slide film.

I look for images that tell a story and communicate a universal truth. It could be the awkwardness of meeting for the first time as in one image of a returning Vietnamese man meeting his sister for the first time after 19 years of separation. Or it could be the innocence of a young girl as seen in the cover photograph of the book. Like Vietnam, she stands at a crossroads. I try to make photographs that everyone can relate to.

Vietnam is a mysterious place. In the beginning I tried to make photographs that explained the mystery. Later, I decided to make photographs that portrayed the mystery. The final photo in the book is of a woman watching rice being harvested. Her back is to the camera. We do not see her face. This adds a mystery to the photograph. The more you get to know Vietnam, the less you know about the country.

What impressed you most about Vietnam? About Vietnamese people?

Jim Gensheimer: I've been impressed with Vietnamese warmness toward Americans. They don't show any animosity over the war. The Vietnamese are curious about us. They want to get to know us.

One of the themes of your book is the juxtaposition of past and present in Vietnamese life today.  What influences do you see shaping Vietnam as it moves into the future?

Jim Gensheimer: Over half of Vietnam's population is under 25 years of age. They did not experience the war. Young people in Vietnam are concerned with making a living. They want to be prosperous. They look to western countries as examples of prosperity.

The party officials on the other hand are concerned about Vietnam changing too fast. They remember having to make do with little. So they are happy with the present situation. They fear that more open trade will lead to a decline in Vietnamese values.

Jim Gensheimer is a photojournalist at the San Jose Mercury News. He was twice named California Press Photographer of the Year, Jim Gensheimer documented the plight of Vietnamese boat people in 1987. He is the author of Pain and Grace