Tom Sanders: Vietnam Portraits
The Vietnam War was an endless and divisive conflict that resulted in a population of veterans who suffered long term scars from the horrors of war, returning to little support from a country that was ad odds with the conflict. Photographer Tom Sanders has created a compilation of photographs of American Vietnam war veterans, southern Vietnamese war veterans, southern Vietnamese refugees, the relics, and their stories into the book, Vietnam War Portraits, published by Casemate Publishers. The book can also be purchased from Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.
“The surreal imagery of Thomas Sanders’ vivid portraits encourages the viewer totake a closer look at those who experienced the war, giving them a chance to read the haunting, inspirational, and sometimes comical stories of the individuals of the Vietnam War. Set in a surreal jungle environment, the portraits evoke the sense of darkness and uncertainty felt by those who experienced the war. Some of the portraits hold objects that relate to their role or experience during their time in the service. The objects tell a deeper story of a dark and confusing war: the common cigarette pack smoked by the vets while in the jungle; a homemade grenade made
by the northern Vietnamese; and a “order to report” document – a piece of paper that changed many a life.
Vietnam War Portraits serves as a form of catharsis for the many people involved in the Vietnam War and honors them by giving them an opportunity to tell their story, bearing witness to their service, their experiences and the aftermath.”
After graduating from Cal Poly SLO in 2006, Tom Sanders moved to the Los Angeles Area (Redondo Beach) to start his career as a photographer. His photographic coffee table book The Last Good War: The Faces And Voices Of WWII was published with Welcome Books/Rizzoli and named “Non-Fiction Book of the Year, Editor’s Choice” by the Forewords Review Magazine. He is the youngest author to ever win this award. After six years in Los Angeles, Tom, his with Allison and their Maine Coon cat moved to the San Francisco Bay Area where Tom received his Master’s of Photography from San Jose State University in 2014. He now resides in Savannah, GA where he is a professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Tom has spoken at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Houston Museum ofFine Arts, Idaho Historical Society, WWII Museum in New Orleans, and many other locations. Whether photographing or creating films of sub-cultural portraits, celebrities or advertisements, Tom shoots and films with a humanistic approach, his images are never forced and are constantly evoking emotion from the viewer.
When I started working on this Vietnam veteran book and photo series in grad school, one of my professors asked me why my series on these Vietnam veterans was important. There had been movies, songs, books … all on the Vietnam war, what made my project different? I thought about this question for at least a year. Over time, history is told and retold, it is our responsibility to continue to ensure history is retold from a variety of perspectives, in order that the events of the past do not slide into obscurity and as a reminder not to repeat the bad things from history and repeat the good.
This book is the first collection of modern-day Vietnam veteran portraits and their stories reflecting on their experiences and how it has affected them to this day. The experience of these men and women is in stark contrast to that of the thousands of World War II veterans I photographed and interviewed over the four-year making of my first book, The Last Good War: The Faces and Voices of WWII. World War II veterans came home glorified as heroes; Vietnam vets experienced a very different reception. This contrast in experiences between WWII and Vietnam veterans is what compelled me to do a book about Vietnam veterans, show how they made the same sacrifices, and are heroes just like WWII veterans.
Some Vietnam veterans grew up hearing the heroic stories of WWII from their family, many of whom would have served themselves, and they wanted to volunteer to follow in their footsteps. Other veterans had no choice and were drafted. And some conscientious objectors left the country or served jail time. Almost all the veterans in this book lost comrades. And when some of the veterans returned home, they did have things thrown at them. One veteran had a cup of coffee dumped on him while attending junior college. And some of the veterans were left alone, blended back into society, and protested the war.
The portraits of the Vietnam veterans are in a surreal jungle environment. I want the viewer to feel the darkness and uncertainty of what those who experienced the war might have felt. In different scenes, the subject is holding an object that correlates to their role or experience during their time in the service. I included war objects by themselves to add nostalgia and mystery, and to further historically educate the viewer about the Vietnam War. The objects help tell a deeper story of a dark and confusing war: the common cigarette pack smoked by the vets while in the jungle, a grenade made by the northern Vietnamese made of a milk can, bamboo, a wick, fish hooks and screws, and a very real “order to report” document – a piece of paper that truly changed many a life
Involvement in this project has served as a form of catharsis for many people involved in the Vietnam War. It honors them in a way they have not previously been honored, giving them an opportunity to tell their story and bearing witness to their service, experiences, and its aftermath. Some of the vets share stories they have never even told their family.
To all Vietnam veterans, thank you for your honor and sacrifice. – Tom Sanders
Posts on Lenscratch may not be reproduced without the permission of the Lenscratch staff and the photographer.
Thesis Project: Paula LycanMay 9th, 2020