In 2017, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to write a piece for She Shoots Film's second issue: Mother. I decided to write about my own mother, who was a nurse in Vietnam in the late 60s/early 70s, and photographed some of her experiences there. Below is an excerpt of the full article published in December 2017. To read the entire publication, please purchase your own copy of SSF Issue 2 here. This beautiful journal is filled with photographs, interviews, and profiles on inspiring female film photographers, and you'll be glad you have a copy.
“This is not how the picture looked,” my mom says as she gestures over the small, worn print held between her fingers.
“We were in this horrible creek that was outside of our hooch: the creek was a couple drops of water… But I wanted to do a candle float because that’s what I did on the 4th of July in Michigan.”
What my mom means to say is that the background of the print has been photographically burned to edit some of the environmental ugliness of the surroundings down to pure blackness. She talks as if the photo creates a white lie because of the change, but this is perhaps the more accurate way to represent the setting. Out of the blackness rises a solitary woman, illuminated by a candle in her hands. She gazes at it as if it were some intricate and delicate task requiring all of her focus. She’s wearing nurses’ scrubs. Her scrubs and cap are sprinkled with droplets from some kind of light spray, could be water or blood.
Her posture makes it look as if she were interrupted in the middle of a stitch on some shrapnel-torn limb and has had her needle and thread swapped out with the candle. Still, she doesn’t seem shocked by the change. She looks, instead, remarkably calm. “She was on duty; that’s why she’s in her OR stuff, but she came over for the float.” Mom points at a barely visible elbow near the left corner. “And that’s actually TT right there, that elbow.”
As hard as I try to keep my focus on the mental journey that my mom is taking when she looks at this photo, I’m partially distracted by the trip my own memories take when I see it. I’m still physically sitting next to her, but I’m also remembering the living room in my childhood home in Houston where the photo hung for as long as I can remember. Mostly though, I’m remembering what it was like to sit on my dad’s shoulders at the dedication of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in 1993, an American flag rippling in my hands while swarms of people passed by us wearing that photo. The photo was on their t-shirts, their hats, their bags. To our left, the dark, stretching gash of blackness that my mom called “The Wall” and others called the Vietnam Memorial rose and tore through the scenery like a wound. But in front of us, two women towered over a fallen solider, all frozen forever in a moment between life and death. Mom appears to have traveled with me to this same place because she is now saying, “they put that saying on… something about ‘she lights the way’.”
The saying was: She holds a light so that we may find our way back with her small ray
Those words were also on all the t-shirts and hats and bags and prints for the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Dedication and it’s almost odd to see the image alone without it. “I think one of the people that was working with the Memorial had a son who died in Vietnam, maybe in surgery, and so she really liked that thought.” The thought of the OR nurse - illuminating the way either back to life or into whatever happens beyond with compassion and calm determination - resonated with that Memorial organizer, and the thousands of others who bought the image.