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Presenting a testament of Vietnam: (l-r) Ed and Zoeann Murphy.

Lives in Pictures

The father-and-daughter team of Ed and Zoeann Murphy use photography to shed light on the legacy of the Vietnam War

By Melissa Mansfield

 

In 2001, her father, Ed Murphy, asked her to accompany him on a trip to Vietnam to help set up an exchange program. As a sophomore photography student at the State University of New York College at Purchase, she was thrilled. “It’s important to learn as much as you can with every culture,” she explains of her excitement.

“Nobody in my family had been to Vietnam with me,” says Ed Murphy, who served with Army intelligence during the war. “It seemed like a good time to spend a month with my daughter.”

They talked about the war, its implications, and his role in it. Once home, the two turned their experience into a photography exhibit, and now a book, called Vietnam: Our Father Daughter Journey.

“Very often guys don’t talk to their daughters, they might talk to their sons,” explains Murphy on why he wanted to write this book. “There are things they have a right to know.”

Zoeann, now 25, adds, “Daughters don’t know what their fathers were up to.”

The book is made up of essays from father and daughter, accompanied by photographs taken by the two, both back during the war, and during their 2001 trip.

In “I am the daughter of a Vietnam veteran,” Zoeann Murphy writes about the stories her father has shared with her and with others. “The stories are rarely about violence. They are often about racism, confusion, deceit. In the end I understand him more, and feel some connection to his experience of this war.”

Kids of Vietnam veterans have one of two experiences: The veteran either talks often about the experience as part of his daily life, or he doesn’t talk about it at all. “It’s either one or the other,” says Zoeann Murphy.

While she was growing up in Saratoga Springs, her parents, peace activists who met while getting arrested during a protest, and brother Jack, five years younger, talked about Vietnam often. She remembers being able to spell Vietnam and place it on a map while her classmates could usually do the same for European nations.

In Ed Murphy’s essay “Vietnam and parenting,” which is paired with a photograph of him and his wife, Lin Murphy, holding baby Zoeann at the New York State Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1984, he talks about discussing current events and politics at the dinner table. “Zoe told a friend she ate strategic planning for breakfast,” he wrote.

Open discussions have always been part of the family dynamic. “I don’t want the history to be lost,” he explains. “You know certain things about [the war], either from your parents, or from school or from talks. I think talking about it in a dialogue helps you understand your parents and they understand you.”

When Murphy returned from Vietnam, the war didn’t end for him. “Like most vets, I never intended for my children to be caught up in the war but I just wasn’t done with the war or country,” he wrote in the book. “I combined my desire to serve, personal interest and healing, with a need for work and became a professional veteran.” He worked as a founder of Vietnam Veterans of America, helped start Post Traumatic Stress Disorder programs, worked on establishing the state’s Vietnam Memorial, and even served in the Division of Veterans Affairs under Gov. Mario Cuomo.

In 1991, he went to Vietnam for the first time since returning from the war, with a United Nations group to look at investment projects in the country. “I decided I wanted to participate in the reconstruction,” he says. “I had already participated in the destruction.”

“Much of my life has been in public service since I returned,” he wrote. “Vietnam is never far away.”

Zoanne has accepted the role Vietnam has had on her life, too. She wrote, “Vietnam has always been in my parent’s house like a family member. . . . Part of me is shaped forever by the years my father spent in Vietnam, and how those years shaped him, and then, all our family.”

With veterans from the current war returning home, Murphy felt compelled to write this book on the past. “It provides me an opportunity to talk about the extended consequences of war and how it affects families,” he says. He also hopes the book liberates the younger generation to talk about war with their families.

“If we did talk to our parents, our elders, about what war actually is, with our communities, with our families, we would see it’s not a video game. It’s not glamorous,” Zoeann Murphy explains. “War is a horrible thing. Talking about it is difficult but important.”

In his essay “I walked alone,” Murphy wrote about his day-to-day life in Vietnam, where he dressed in civilian clothes and collected information. “I felt safer alone than in a crowd, with inexperienced officers or enlisted men who thought the Vietnamese were objects or their toys.”

“It might be easier to explain if I had been a grunt,” he wrote of trying to describe his complicated part in the war to his daughter during a long car ride. “I told her about my agents and the details of some incidents; how the CIA wanted to use one of my agents then kill him, how my captain backed me up as we resisted. I told of interrogating a pregnant woman who claimed my agent threatened to expose her as Viet Cong if she did not have sex with him; that I threatened her kids if she did not tell the truth and later discovered that she already had.”

Zoeann remembers hearing Harry Belafonte on National Public Radio when the current war started. “He said, ‘We’re bombing Iraq, but we’ve never heard their song,’” she recalls. “The songs bring the connections.”

Her father wrote about working with North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers. “In many ways we were the same, men and women who fought for our countries. The difference is that we got to go home to safe communities. Our neighborhoods were not destroyed, while our land mines were left in theirs continuing to kill farmers and children just playing in the fields. Their war did not end because we went home.”

With that entry is a photo of a young boy sleeping with his head on a desk, taken by Ed Murphy in northwest Vietnam in 1993.

The photographs in the book are sometimes haunting, sometimes beautiful, sometimes nostalgic: Someone walks at the edge of a river leading to the pilgrimage site of Chua Huong, with misty mountains reflecting in the water. A farmer pulls his wagon past fields that house an old tank. A smiling Ed Murphy is in uniform, on a motorcycle.

By pairing the images with the writings, the Murphys show the different views of the country, the war, and their relationship. Though this is the first book the two have done together, both have used photography and words to explain their thoughts to their communities.

Ed Murphy, who now works for the Workforce Development Institute, a union resource organization, has held several exhibits on Vietnam and humanitarian efforts. As the regional coordinator for the Unseen America project, Zoeann Murphy teaches union workers how to document their daily lives with photography, and tell their stories with the images. The Bread and Roses Cultural Project of 1199/SEIU put out a book in May 2006, containing 140 photos.

She believes that book projects “give photographs a life, different from a gallery or boxes,” she says. “I want to find ways to use photography as story telling, first person story telling.”

Zoeann is planning to return to Southeast Asia, to bring cameras to workers and refugees in the area to document their stories, and is looking for funding. She jokes that she could make a tour of Asia just photographing the diverse puppet creations, one of which is included in the book.

Ed Murphy is working on a book project with his wife on balancing work and life.

Zoeann and Ed Murphy will be part of First Friday events on Feb. 2 in Albany. They will exhibit photographs from the trip and sign books at 52 James Street, off Broadway, as part of the newly expanded First Friday loop.

 


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