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Vietnamese American Photographer An-My Le Selected For Whitney Biennial

Mar 16, 2017
Originally published on March 16, 2017 8:35 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

During the Vietnam War, An-My Le lived with her family in Saigon in the southern part of the country. It was April 1975, the tense days before the city fell to the North Vietnamese, and there was a knock on the door.

AN-MY LE: It was a, I would say, huge American man in a Hawaiian shirt. And I still remember the Hawaiian shirt. And he said, you know, I'm from the embassy, and we're coming to pick you up to evacuate you. I'm coming back at 2 o'clock. And you need to be here, and do not have a suitcase, nothing more than just a little handbag.

SIEGEL: Along with thousands of others, the teenage An-My Le and her family were evacuated.

LE: The American military saved my life. The U.S. saved my life. You know, I was airlifted in an American C-130.

SIEGEL: Today Le is a photographer. She's also 1 of 63 artists selected for this year's Whitney Biennial in New York. The exhibition brings together new work by all kinds of different artist, many of them responding to the most pressing issues of our time. In An-My Le's case, it's how the past clashes with the present, as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: To work out her own feelings about war, An-My Le spent years photographing the military - uneasy soldiers, training camps. She went back to Vietnam to shoot landscapes and portraits. More recently she's made trips to Louisiana to study Vietnamese fishermen. But her focus changed when one of her trips coincided with the election.

LE: So this picture here with the three workers - it's outside of New Orleans, and it's closer down to the ocean where the Vietnamese fishermen have their docks.

BLAIR: In a Brooklyn studio, Le points to a large photograph of three men gardening in a small plot of land next to the water, Mexicans working for the Vietnamese fishermen. All three wear sweatshirts, their hoods hiding their faces. She took the photo a day or two after the presidential election. As an immigrant herself, the scene grabbed her.

LE: I knew that there was something with the fact that they were somehow shrouded even though it wasn't that cold. There was something anonymous but important about the way they were working.

BLAIR: After the election, this image felt symbolic for Le.

LE: Symbolic because of I think Trump's rhetoric about undocumented workers, about illegal immigrants.

BLAIR: Even though Le is drawn to subjects that are personal, the stories her pictures tell have a much wider frame, says Yael Perez. He's a photographer and colleague of Le's.

YAEL PEREZ: She doesn't stay locked into the personal experience. She's able to shift from the Vietnamese community and turn the camera around and show this picture of the Mexican workers working on that garden.

BLAIR: Do you identify with these men at all?

LE: I think I used to. I think once I became an artist, I felt I had a voice, so I'm not so anonymous. But I used to feel that way, and I think many Vietnamese feel that way. And I think we were taught to not stand out.

BLAIR: An-My Le clearly didn't take that advice. In addition to the Whitney Biennial, her photos have been shown at galleries and museums around the world. And she won a MacArthur Genius Grant a few years ago. Elizabeth Blair, NPR news.

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