commentary, photography

women warriors: intro

I have waited for you for ages, for an eternity and a day. Unseen, unheard, yet, you were always there the fighter, the warrior. Come forth in all your glory and destroy, as you had destroyed the enemy once and for all the myth that the woman is weak and helpless.

– Sharmeen Murshid

Getting back up on the blogginghorse with a little exciting news to share.  The Aftermath Project, an incredible organization founded by Sara Terry that provides support to photo documentary projects that examine issues surrounding the aftermath of conflict, recently announced its 2011 grant winners and finalists – and a project that I’ve been working on here in Bangladesh was named as one of the latter!

The idea for “Women Warriors” first began to take shape last July in Hue, Vietnam during the VII/[EXPOSURE] there.  I spent that week riding around the back of a moto to the homes of six women who fought for the North Vietnamese Army during the war with the United States, speaking to them not only about their experiences during the conflict, but how it shaped their lives after they returned home.  The work was recently published in Global Post, which had a small accompanying interview that was never published – so here it is now!

Women Warriors On Global Post

In heading to Bangladesh to research the creation of narratives of the Liberation War, I knew that I wanted to work on a photography project while here, and to have one that tied into that research would add a rather interesting twist.  So the Women Warriors: Bangladesh project emerged, and it’s grown in some interesting and unexpected ways as of yet.  It is moving much more slowly – in both good and frustrating ways – than its Vietnamese counterpart, unfurling slowly as contacts grow and shift here.

The project focuses on three specific aspects of the lives of women who served in the Liberation War – as armed combatants, spies, nurses, caretakers, organizers, and so on – and the way that the war has defined them, their families, and their communities:

  1. Personal History: Through personal portraiture and recorded testimonies of female Mukti Banini, I hope to add to the existing histories of the independence struggle and subsequent construction of Bangladesh. While such testimonies will include women’s wartime experiences, they will focus on their lives in the decades since, with their struggles to reconcile the dual roles they are expected to fill in Bangladeshi society.
  2. Physical Scars: Bangladesh’s war of liberation was fought at the doorsteps of every home in the country – the battlefields were the streets, alleys, and corners of her cities and towns. Its scars exist within the souls of the victims and on the surfaces of the nation. I will visually explore, using individual memories as guides, sites and localities where personal histories were made, where personal traumas were defined.
  3. Memory & Dreams: As photographer Shahidul Alam writes, “What of the photograph made out of nothing? What about painting with light? Is it photography? Surely if we can paint with light we can paint with dreams, create the morning mist or the afternoon glow. Is it fake? Hardly. Whatever else may be false in this tenuous existence of ours, imagination is not. All that we value, that we strive to uphold, all that gives us strength, has been made of dreams, and we must dream on. If pixels be the vehicle that realizes our dreams, be it so.” Using photography as a ‘vehicle’ for the imagination, I hope to evoke the intangible memories and dreams of this conflict, and the subsequent personal reconciliations experienced by these women. This photographic exploration will take place within the lives and communities of the women, in both past and present landscapes and sites, as well in those places they have yet to, but still hope to see. It will reveal not only what they have experienced, but also where they wish to go – the dreams they hold for both themselves and their children.

The narrative that has dominated in Bangladesh of women in the Liberation War up until the present has been one of victimhood – those who were raped en masse by the Pakistani army, those who watched their sons and husbands and brothers leave home to fight for the country’s freedom.  While official narratives fail to recognize the histories of these women, they remain deep within those who experienced them.  They face them day after day, developing ways to quietly process past experiences in an attempt to move beyond them. These women, who are raising the first generation of Bangladeshis born after 1971, have been guiding forces in shaping and forming the country and its identity. In learning the stories of these women, and understanding how their experiences in conflict have shaped them as mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives, this project endeavors to document the ways in which conflict not only affects those who experience it firsthand, but those that they nurture and raise – the next generation – and, in that way, how their experiences continue to live on in the nation.


The Idea of Home: Houston

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This work was produced during an Aftermath Project/[EXPOSURE]/Yates High School workshop in the Third Ward of Houston, Texas, run by the wonderfully insightful Sara Terry and Jeff Jacobson.  It’s still a work in progress, so any and all feedback is greatly appreciated!

The Idea of Home
Elizabeth Herman

The day before I left for Houston, my conception of home changed dramatically; my parents and I found ourselves saying goodbye to our family dog of 14 years, the one who I had said was my brother when people asked me, an only child, if I had any siblings.  The one who I remember seeing shaking, curled up in a ball at the back of his crate the night we picked him up at the airport, the same night I turned back to my parents as we were leaving the house and said, things will never be the same, will they? The one who always seemed to be perpetually smiling.

Each of us can think of a time when they felt the ground shift beneath their feet, watched as the familiar and comfortable slipped away.  Sometimes, such changes are part of personal choices made, of a need to explore and experience things new and unknown. To attempt to find one’s own space before sharing it with others.

Yet other times, it is not.  Sometimes the decision is not yours, and homes and spaces built carefully over decades fall into the hands of those oblivious to their past.  Over the past decade, residents of the Third Ward have seen changes take place beyond their front porches, but not beyond the boundaries of what they call home.


Forced change is not new to the residents of the Third Ward.  A historic black district triangulated by three major highways, its current demographic is largely the result of rising land prices in other parts of Houston.  During the early 1900s, developers began purchasing and developing land in the Fourth Ward, the original center of Houston’s Black community.  As housing prices continued to rise, Fourth Ward residents were forced to look elsewhere to make their homes. Subsequently, the 1920s saw the Third Ward surpass the Fourth Ward as the center of Houston’s Black population.

The residents, just a few generations removed from slavery, found themselves in a community plagued by underdevelopment and significantly deficient in investment in infrastructure.  And, since location determines economic and social opportunities, including schooling and employment, the fact that this largely underdeveloped, Black community remained apart from the more affluent residents and areas of town – and trapped in a cycle of poverty – is unfortunately of little surprise.

Yet, out of this forced segregation emerged a sense of ownership and community.  Marvin Neal, a lifelong resident of the Third Ward, speaks of his family thriving in the heart of the neighborhood in the early 1950s.  “This house is the first house that my Mom and Dad purchased.  They paid $13,000 for this house.” Neal’s recounted childhood stories speckled with tales of exceptional civil rights leaders, artists, and teachers with whom he shared these streets.  “There was a lot of people in this area who have done great things,” Neal says, “I feel blessed to have grown up in the Third Ward.”

This sentiment of greatness reverberates throughout the neighborhood; the legacy of Houston’s civil rights movement, born in the Third Ward, is still strongly felt.  Texas Southern University  (TSU), the third largest historically Black university in the U.S., stood as a bastion of the resistance, with the first sit-in in Houston, as well as subsequent demonstrations organized by TSU students. In addition, the South Central YMCA, the S.H.A.P.E. (Self Help for African People through Education) Center, and three leading Black-owned Houston newspapers and radio stations within the Third Ward’s limits continue to this day to struggle for equal opportunities for Houston’s Black community.

Now, yet again, as the result of a number of political and economic pressures, residents of the Third Ward are finding their lives and homes slipping from beneath their feet.  The community’s proximity to the city center makes it an appealing location for development.  Vacant lots to be bought cheaply and transformed into gleaming condo complexes pose an appealing possibility for developers.

Consequently, its demographic has begun to shift again.  An influx of new, affluent residents following the shiny, freshly developed plots has turned the Third Ward into a patchwork, with spotless properties bookended by well-loved and well lived-in family homes. Robert Bullard, author of Invisible Houston, describes the Third Ward as “a neighborhood of contrasts, ranging from dilapidated ‘shotgun’ row houses to well-manicured, tree-lined estates.”

The threats to the community’s identity, however, have not gone without a response from its current residents. As Bullard says, there is now intense “competition between incumbent residents and new ‘urban pioneers’ for the area’s limited stock of housing“ and Third Ward residents are not acquiescing anytime soon. Numerous organizations have emerged to preserve the integrity of the Third Ward through revitalizing its streets and businesses, with an increased and sustained effort to combat the degradation of the neighborhood’s integrity. Community-based organizations like Project Row Houses, which transforms deteriorating housing into spaces for creation in the form of artist studios, have cropped up across the district and signs reading “My Home Is Not For Sale” dot the neighborhood.

Behind these developments are the residents themselves, people who make their houses into homes, this neighborhood into their own.  Neal considers a day in which his home – the one he has lived in his whole life – might be taken away, bought up by ever-expanding developments.  Despite this threat, he speaks of how his sense of community and home extends beyond these changes, how that’s what keeps him pushing for his neighborhood.  “They can tear the physical structure down,” Neal says, “but what happened in this house with me growing up, a bulldozer can’t tear that down.”


I have not been home since that day after Dexter passed. I still have not felt how my home has changed, how this vital part of its spirit is now absent. I spend these days imagining it, thinking of it, anticipating what it might feel like while photographing here in the Third Ward.

While seeing how this community is changing, listening to the stories of those who may have seen their neighborhoods shift overnight, their neighbors or themselves forced from their homes in the name of development.  As we grapple with this idea – of what one of the most fundamental parts of our lives means, and what it means when it begins to change – I wonder, how does the memory of a home that once was linger, how does it shape the spaces we inhabit currently?  How can we keep those memories of the past and weave them into our lives at present?  And how is a home created and shared by an entire community?

These photographs are my conversation with these questions, as well as with others that have emerged while walking the streets of Third Ward, speaking to its residents and being welcomed into this community.  It is an ongoing search, an endless one, one that we all know well – yet hardly ever know where it will lead next.

 (Elizabeth Herman)


exploring the market

Felt like a bit of a walk the other day, so grabbed my camera and headed out to the market at the end of the street.  After photographing around the vegetable stalls for a while, dodging stares and rickshaws throughout, I decided to explore some of the twisting roads winding behind the market area.

Walking down a narrow alleyway, a flash of bright orange caught my eye.  I backtracked a few steps, and peering through an open doorway into a work site, a woman with whom I had just exchanged smiles caught me looking.  She motioned for me to follow her into the yard, filled with deteriorating bricks, an old shack, and some murky pond-like thing.  Sitting around a small fire with a number of pots carefully scattered at their feet was a group of women, alternatively cooking supper and calling out to the children darting around the plot.  My original connection proceeded to introduce me to the rest of the assembled crowd – her extended family – and once we had sat for a while amongst the relatives and bubbling pots, she led me across the street and through another narrow doorway, into a small courtyard.

We wove from window to window, swapping assalam aleikums with her various relatives within the room-sized houses.  We continued to chat back and forth until my Bangla vocabulary ran out, and then smiled at each other for a while before it started to get dark and I had to head back.

For someone who has been feeling a little anxious about getting out and moving about within this city, this was an exceptional reminder.  That the fear you feel sitting in your room, those butterflies that pop up at the thought of approaching an unknown situation with a camera in your hand – that’s just the first step.  It’s always there.  You just have to bring it outside and see where it takes you.


Women Warriors: Hue, Vietnam

Returning for a moment now to a project that I worked on last summer in Hue, Vietnam, on women who fought in the war with the United States.  In addition to the small written piece below, you’ll find portraits of the women with testimonies accompanying each image.  This is still a work in progress, and so any and all feedback is much appreciated!

Yes, she acknowledged, the women had been good soldiers.  But they had paid dearly for their war service, in ways that men had not…stress, backbreaking labor, malnutrition, contact with death and blood had eventually robbed these young girls of the very future they sought to defend when they left home in the first place.

Karen Turner, Even the Women Must Fight p 4

Thirty-six years after she last took aim with her AK-47 assault rifle, Ngo Thi Thuong’s phone rang.

General Võ Nguyên Giáp was looking for the young lady who had shot down the American bomber in June 1968.  In the nearly four decades that had past since then, she had worked many jobs and raised three children.  And until now, her tale had little recognition beyond a retelling to her kids.

Heroines and striking female figures are not new in Vietnam – they have played an integral role in Vietnamese history for millennia.  In the 1st century C.E., the Truing sisters, often called Vietnam’s earliest national patriots, rebelled against the Chinese Han Dynasty for three years.  The female legacy is no different today; in all of Vietnam’s recent conflicts, women were crucial. They fought alongside men and carried heavy loads down the Ho Chi Minh Trail until 1973.

Yet their stories remain largely unheard.  As Karen Turner notes in Even the Women Must Fight, “women warriors, so essential to Vietnam’s long history and so important in the most photographed are in history, have remained invisible.”

These are the stories of six women, all soldiers for the North Vietnamese Army in the American War, and mothers of the nation’s children.  For some, motherhood came before they fought.  For others, it was not until after they had returned home.  In all cases, their experiences fighting directly shaped their children’s lives – those children that became the next generation of Vietnamese.  Their stories provide a means of seeing how a nation torn by conflict for decades has rebuilt itself, has been nurtured back into a whole.


Ngo Thi Thuong, 64

Ngo Thi Thương, born 1946, photographed in her bedroom in Huế, Vietnam with a portrait of her with General Võ Nguyên Giáp taken when she was honored for shooting an American F-101 Voodoo in June 1968. July 2010.

After I finished high school, I took the university entrance exam, but didn’t pass it, so I couldn’t go to university.  My father was the deputy chairman of the Party forestry farm, so told me that I should go work as a laborer there.  I ended up working on the farm, taking care of the cows and digging holes to plant trees.  It was a very tough job, but I got the title of “Good Worker,” so they sent me to study at a university in Hanoi, as an accountant.

Then the war started. At the time of the war, our country was in danger – we saw the war and it was very intense.  Both of my parents were people who loved their country, and were determined to help it to overcome difficult times.  So our hatred, our feeling toward the enemy was very intense.  We were not afraid of anything, we just tried to accomplish whatever our task was.  Whatever we can do, we do.

During the war, I worked as a militant for the North, which was very important work.  We had to bring rice, weapons, and ammunition to the soldiers in the south.  One day in June 1968, when we were transporting goods, three US airplanes discovered us and began to shoot at us.  So we took our guns and fired back.  When I shot the first time, I didn’t hit the plane.  So I lay down and placed the rifle against the tree and aimed.  When I shot the second time, it hit right at the gas tank, and the whole airplane exploded, and crashed into the next hill.

Then I saw something falling from the sky – I thought it was a bomb, but actually, it was the pilot parachuting down.  So I ran, followed the parachute. When the pilot landed, he had already untied one side of his parachute, but I came and put my gun right to the guy’s neck and said, “Stay still.”  He raised his hands, and I told my friends that they should cut up the parachute rope, so we had something to tie him with.

Then, I saw something that I thought was a signal, but I didn’t know what it was.  So I grabbed it and smashed it.  Then, about three minutes later, 9 or 10 airplanes came and surrounded the area.  That signal was sending messages to the American army!  But we hid and were not hurt.

You know, I was not scared during the attacks.  Bombs were very normal things at that time.  At night, they used to fire rockets at us, from the ocean to the land.  At night, they had bombs coming down from the airplanes.  The border between life and death was very thin.  Death was something very normal.

When the other army unit responsible of taking care of prisoners came to take the American pilot away, he asked to meet me.  We shook hands, and then they took him away.

Thirty-six years later, a man from a government office called me.  He asked, “What did you do during the war, did you achieve anything?” After I told him the story of shooting down the pilot, he told me that General Võ Nguyên Giáp had been looking for me for 36 years.  They invited me to the Army Section 4 to meet and take photos with General Giáp, and to receive a diploma and a medal for my brave fighting during the war.  When I met with General Giáp, he asked me, “Why are you so good?”  I responded, “It’s probably also luck, but I just followed the words I was taught.”

I now have a very good relationship with the local Party chairman, and I go to visit him every once in a while.  The people there receive me very warmly.

I now have three children.  The first is a girl, and the second two are boys.  My daughter is now living inside of Huế city, and all three of them are married.

I talked about the war often with my kids when they were growing up.  I told them, even though I do have this achievement, it is just a small thing to contribute to the war.  But somehow, I do hope that not only my children, but also future generations may learn from this example, that it can help them learn how to become good people.

We are living in peacetime now.  But if something happened, if there was an enemy, I would encourage my daughter to go to the war.  We would go to war right away.  No problem.

Of course no one wants war. The life of the human being is sacred. You don’t want war, you don’t want to fight, but when the enemy comes you have no choice. We had to protect our country.  Had to protect the life of our people.

Ngo Thi Thuong, born 1946, photographed in her bedroom in Huế, Vietnam with a portrait of her with General Võ Nguyên Giáp taken when she was honored for shooting an American F-101 Voodoo in June 1968.  July 2010.


Lê Thi My Lệ, 68

Lê Thi My Lệ, born in 1946, photographed in her home in Huế, Vietnam. July 2010.

I was born in 1946, about 15 kilometers from Hue in Quang Binh Province, by the Nhật Lệ River.  That is why I am named My Lệ.  It means beautiful.

Growing up, my family was very poor, so I had to work as a housekeeper and babysitter for other families from when I was 7 to when I was 10.  I could not go to school.  When my family’s condition got a little better, they were able to send me to school to study.  But you need to be a lower age to study – if you are over a certain age, you cannot study.  Which is why, even though I am 68, on paper I am 65.

I always studied very well and always worked hard.  After studying and taking the high school exam, I worked at the communications department of the locality here.

In July 1965, I heard the appeal from the government, which said that because the war was so fierce, they needed volunteers who could support, who could help. I really wanted to become a youth volunteer, but I was still too young.  But because they really needed people, they accepted me anyway.  I was nineteen.

At first they asked me to work on transportation, transporting things by bicycle –food, ammunition – and also working as a road construction worker.  Also, they took people who had a bit of education, like me, so that we could teach other youth volunteers learn how to read and write.  Whoever had studied the second grade, taught the first grade.  Whoever had studied the third grade, taught the second grade.  And so on for the elementary and secondary school programs.  A lot of people at that time, we during the day they worked, and studied at night.  That was the work of the youth brigade.

We had about two hundred people in the youth brigade, and about two thirds of them were women. I was in charge of a unit, which was ten people.  I was the only woman in the unit.

As the head of the unit, whenever the bomb explodes, you have to go see what kind of bomb it is, what shape it is, and you have to use math to calculate how many people you need to cover it up.  If you send too many, then if another bomb comes, too many people will die.  After one hour, the bomb crater has to be covered so the road can be useable by the soldiers.

Whoever joins the youth brigade, you make a vow that you are ready to fight for the country.  And it’s very strange – at that time spirits were so high, we were not afraid of death at all. But now, we have children, we have a family, we are afraid of death.

In terms of working, there was no difference between men and women’s jobs.  Everything that we need to do we do.

At that time, everyone is so carefree, and you know, sometimes people were lying in the hammock at the shelter together, male and female soldiers, and they talked and laughed, without any kind of romantic sentiment.  They just listen to each other. After work, you know, we work hard, so we try to laugh, we joke with each other and tease each other.  If we need to cover the road then we do, if we need to transport food, then we just go out and do it.

There were some differences between men and women, however.  Sometimes the mail would come, and we would rush out to look for the mail from our families and whoever had letters was so happy.  And the ones that didn’t have mail felt very sad and sometimes even cried, because all of us, we are homesick.  But this was just something us women would do.

In the political training, they taught us that if we are not in love yet, then don’t fall in love during the war.  If you are in love and engaged, okay, but don’t get married.  And if you are married already, then delay having children.  Everything needs to focus on fighting the enemy to unite the country.  They called this The Three Delays.

There were some that fell in love while at war anyway, but they were very secretive.  They felt that they were in love, and both of them knew it, but neither said anything.  They were very in love, and love was something that they really treasured and respected.  They felt it very strongly.  But they did not betray it – they can understand it through glances and gestures.  But love during the war it is against the ideology, the teaching of The Three Delays, so they kept it quiet.

In my unit, everyone was very strict, correct.  But one couple fell in love, and the army let them go, basically fired them, told them to go back to their village.  The couple cried, they didn’t want to go back.

I fell in with my husband love before I went to work at the youth brigade.  My boss told me that because the man that I loved was ten years older than me, that I should go home and have a child before it’s too late – that we were a special case.   But I said no.  I was the head of the unit, so I wanted to make a good example for the people and follow The Three Delays regulation.  But in 1968, when there was a ceasefire for sometime, I went and got married.  Then I went back to the war.

After I went back, I didn’t work as a unit head anymore, but instead they sent me to study – to work with mechanics, electricity, statistical analysis.  During this time, my husband was still serving as a professional soldier at Côn Co’ island.

I had my first child in 1971, while the war was still going.  Having a child during the war was hard, because my feelings changed after I had my daughter.  I wasn’t scared while fighting in the unit before I was a mother.  But after I had my daughter, I was.  I was afraid of death.

I had two more children – one boy in 1973, and another in 1975. When I gave birth to the youngest one, I called him “Great Victory.”  I said to my husband, “The war is finished now honey, so you’re not going to die,” and that’s why I named my son “Great Victory.”

Because my husband was a professional soldier, he remained at Côn Co’ island even after freedom in 1975.  He lived very far away until he retired in 1988.  I only got to see him when he would go to Hanoi to do military reports, and then he would stop by Quang Binh Province to visit.

Raising my children by myself was very, very hard.  I cannot even say it. I grew the vegetables and the fruit in the morning, and had to take it to the market to sell before I taught in the afternoon. Whenever I need to go somewhere, then I ask my mother to take care of the kids.  There was no salary from my husband.

You know, it was dangerous when I was fighting as a youth volunteer in the war.  You can die anytime.  But you are young and you have friends with you, so you are very happy.  But raising my kids by myself was so tough.  Very sad.  Sometimes, I would just sit by myself and cry.

My situation was also hard because my youngest boy developed a problem with his brain, because my husband was exposed to Agent Orange.  Sometimes, he acts crazy and shouts at his father and me.  Other times he is a good boy.  But I can tell that there is something happening inside him.  He has refused to take medicine.

When I returned from war, I talked about it a lot with my children, especially when their father was still away.  I would tell them stories about how I went to jungles with waterfalls and forests.  I told them about the work my unit did.  And my daughter would say, “That sounds quite fun, when I am grown up I would also like to go!”

Now my children are grown men and women.  They are old enough, so they learn about the war through television and books.  My story is only one I told them when they were small.

The thing that the younger generation has to remember is that when your country needs you, don’t fear death, just go.  My own spirit is such that, because I have been through hardship and dangerous situations so many times, I became able to bear it. I saw bomb explosions and had to shout, everyone lie down!  I had eight out of ten people in my unit die and become wounded at once.  But amazingly, during this time, none of us was afraid of death.

I still dream about the war.  Sometimes I dream exactly about the scene of the war in which the bomb is about to explode and I tell all the people, I shout to my unit to lie down.  I tell my sister to lie down.  Now my wish now is that there is no war in the world, that we can help each other lead our lives instead of fighting.  That is my message.  I want peace.  When you have a war, the people, the family members are divided between husband and wife, parent and children.  War is cruel.  Cruel.

Lê Thi My Lệ, born in 1946, served as a head of a unit in the youth brigade for the North Vietnamese Army during the American War.


Hoàng Thi Nơ, 61

Hoang Thi No, photographed in her bedroom in Hue, Vietnam with her helmet from the American war. July 2010.

I was born in 1949 in the countryside outside Hue, where I lived with my parents.  I joined the war when I was about 15 years old.  At that age, I could understand, could see that the Americans had come and were trying to control and take my country.  At that moment every woman and man joined the war, and I wanted to as well.

When I joined the war, I joined the group that gathered information. We would go around and see what the Americans were doing, and then we would send that information to the leader.  A bit later, I joined the group that rounded up other women to join the war.

I worked with many other women during the war, and men and women were treated the same.  It was the same war, the same thing.  There are a lot of common things among them, so there was no need for things to be different.

During the war, I shared a small room with ten other women.  We eleven became very famous after the fight in Hue, in the spring of 1968.  At that fight, the others and I fought to free Hue.  After this fight, my group received many certificates and took many photos with Ho Chi Minh.

At the time, all the women and I were very young, and we didn’t know really about the war and its plan.  We just had to believe in the government, that everything would be okay.   If we had any problems, even though we didn’t really know the grand plan or the next step, we were always happy to be fighting for our country.  We were ready to die.

After the war ended in 1975, I came back to Hue where I now live with my husband.  My parents live nearby. I have two daughters – both are married – and one lives near here.  I now have two grandchildren as well.

After the war I was very happy because freedom ruled over my country, and because I didn’t lose anything in the war.  While some of my friends may have died, my family was safe.  My parents, my tribe, my husband were all still alive.

I sometimes talk with my daughters about the war.  But because the ten other women and I were very famous, many people have come to our house to talk with me about the war, so my family knows very well my success in the war.  There was little need to talk with my daughters, because they knew a lot about the war already.

Also, I never wanted to talk a lot about my success in the war or about my history with my daughters.  Maybe my children are proud about me, but I didn’t ever want to emphasize that I am famous or successful.  I wanted them to grow up better, to not to simply follow my achievement in the war, but instead to become different people.

When I do talk my daughters about the war, I talk to them about how to love and trust other people.  The past time in the war, yes there were many difficulties.  Everyone was very poor, but everyone loved each other and tried to trust each other.  Now, we have freedom, maybe life is easier, but money controls many things.  I tell my daughters how people followed the laws, the rules of the government during the war.

The women in each family are the most important – they have to work very hard, because they have to finish all the housework and take care of the children, but then also have to work hard in society.  So to become a good woman is very difficult.

As a daughter to your family, you should live with all your heart and your mind to take care of your parents.  Not because they took care of you before, not because they are your parents, but because of the way people should care for each other.  If you are a mother, then you know that everybody is sacred because they love their children.

Hoàng Thi Nơ, born in 1949, served as a spy and a militant from 1964 to 1975 for the North Vietnamese Army during the American War.

commentary, photography

Women at War: Hue, Vietnam

Relaxing at the beach at the end of the workshop!

Hello from Hoi An!

The Exposure/VII Photo Workshop in Hue, Vietnam led by Gary Knight and Mort Rosenblum just finished up a few days ago, and it was a whirlwind.  Seven of us had been prepping for the trip since May, doing researching on the region and generating story proposals so that we could hit the ground running.  And with the help of Gary, Mort, and our wonderful fixer Chau, we did!  The group’s topics ranged from rice farming to youth culture to faith, and everyone emerged on the other side with a strong piece and many stories to tell!  One of mine includes fainting in the home of a woman who shot down an American F-101 Voodoo during the war – but we’ll get to that later.

The story I was looking at is called “Women at War,” in which I spoke to six women who fought for the North Vietnamese Army during the war with the United States.  Each told stories of how she came to join the fight, what serving as a woman was like, and how her time as a soldier carried over into her life as a mother after the war.  Some were reluctant to talk at first, and some began speaking before I even asked the first question.  Some others refused to talk to me at all.  Some spoke of how the war was formative to gender equality within the country, others of how it tore their family apart.  Many spoke of how they continue to think of the war, and pass stories from it down to their children and their children’s children.

I’ll be posting their accounts here, along with a few photos and some of my own reflections, over the course of the next few days.  This is still a work in progress, so I’d love to hear any suggestions or recommendations for other readings you may have.  Leave a comment here or shoot me an email – and thanks!!


[EXPOSURE]/aftermath project gallery is up!

After many hours of labor, love, and levels, the exhibit of the work produced during the [EXPOSURE]/Aftermath Project workshop in Ajmer, Rajasthan, India is up!  Swing by Slater Concourse Gallery in the  Aidekman Arts Center to check it out, and read more about students’ works.  Mine is up here!

photography, video

the last village, audio slideshow


As part of the The Institute for Global Leadership’s [EXPOSURE]/Aftermath Project workshop in Ajmer, India, led by Sara Terry and Asim Rafiqui last August 2009, I put together a presentation with some video, audio, and photographs from the trip.  Click through for the full story and photoessay, and see below for the slideshow.

Elizabeth Herman | The Last Village from Institute For Global Leadership on Vimeo.

My two weeks in Ajmer were spent in Kankarda, a small village on the outskirts of the city,  which had been forced to sell a significant portion of land to the government for the construction of a new railway track to Pushkar, a popular tourist destination 17km to the northwest of Ajmer. The tracks had not only divided the agricultural lands of Kankarda, but had also created fissures in the social and cultural fabric of the community.  The railroad meant that India’s modernity, with its conveniences and deprivations, had arrived right at its doorstep, imposing new values and new dreams amongst a younger generation of villagers that were rapidly becoming more interested in careers, conveniences, and city life. As the elderly looked on, their traditional agricultural way of life evermore irrelevant, they could see that their village had become a smaller version of the broader changes taking place in today’s India.