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Vietnam: Johnson City man's annual return to native land always results in beautiful images, discoveries

January 27th, 2014 9:43 am by Jennifer Sprouse

Vietnam: Johnson City man's annual return to native land always results in beautiful images, discoveries

An elderly Vietnamese woman collects wood debris on Nha Trang Beach to use as firewood after a big storm in 2011. Photograph/Tan Le

Sometimes when we have trouble figuring out who we are, it’s best to start back at the beginning.

Johnson City resident and photographer Tan Le’s “beginning” lands him back in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, Vietnam.

Escaping the country with his nephew in 1985, Le said he left Vietnam because he didn’t want to live in a communist country.

Successfully making it to Japan, Le stayed there for a year and then traveled to the Philippines for a basic cultural orientation before entering the United States in 1986.

Working various jobs for approximately nine years, including owning his own restaurant, Le decided to take the academic route and attended Virginia Intermont College to specialize in photography.

Years later, Le has taken numerous solo trips back to Vietnam with a trusty sidekick –– his camera.

“I don’t know who I am. I might belong to Vietnam or I (might) belong to the U.S., I really don’t know,” Le said. “That’s the reason I (go) to Vietnam.”

With a “snap first, ask later” mentality when it comes to picture-taking, his portfolio of work is varied and fresh, with symbolic views of both wealthy and poor Vietnam, a country he remembers differently from years ago.

While taking pictures, Le said he always wonders how the photograph will be viewed –– as a photo taken by a Vietnamese man of his homeland or as an image taken by an American visiting his native country.

“(The Vietnamese) look at me like I’m a foreigner by the way I dress up or the way I walk,” Le said. “I think when I (go) to Vietnam, all of the pictures (I’ve taken) are American.”

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