Since 2015, Long Time No See has evolved into a multimedia project that not only offers intense insight into a part of history that will never be forgotten, but also opens up the medium of photography to new collaborative approaches. In this interview, Andrea Orejarena and Caleb Stein talk about the genesis of their year-long project, breaking old narrative habits and blurring the lines between dreams and memories.
How did the project come about, what motivated you to start it?
In 2015, we were living in Hanoi as exchange students. One day, the program we were with organized a visit to Làng Hữu Nghi. It’s a residence for Vietnamese veterans and younger generations affected by Agent Orange, the chemical weapon used by the U.S. during the Vietnam-American War.
We felt a bit apprehensive about this sort of “war tourism”. Although neither of us were actually born in the U.S., we were Americans with a U.S. program. We were aware of the context with which we were coming into the space, and the weight this might carry with it. When we arrived, the veterans and the younger generation were graceful; there wasn’t an ounce of visible anger in their faces. When we told them about our initial hesitation to visit, they joked, “Why would we be mad? we won the war”.
This reply struck us, and turned our understanding of the conflict on its head. We realized that we had only received a Western-centric narrative about this conflict, one which essentially reinforced U.S. foreign interference and imperialism. In that moment we knew that we wanted to work in a collaborative way with the Vietnamese veterans and their descendants, to offer a counter-narrative.
We went back to Làng Hữu Nghi to hear stories about the war, and perspectives we had never heard. When our time as exchange students was over, we knew that we wanted to return again and do a project with them. There were many things that we, as Americans, had no idea about. We went back to the States, graduated, got jobs for a year to raise money, and at the beginning of 2018 we returned to Vietnam and began a long-term, intimate collaboration.
This collaboration consists not only of photos, but also of paintings and videos. What is the idea behind it?
We went into this project with no preconceived ideas about what form it would take. With time, the structure of the collaboration started to take shape as people realized how they wanted to express themselves. Many of the people in the photographs contributed paintings, and sometimes drew directly on the photographs. Their drawings also appear on the walls of their bedrooms in the background of the photographs. In the same spirit, the videos are dream-like vignettes we co-directed with Vietnamese veterans, blurring the lines between memories, dreams and wish fulfillments.
Our process offers an alternative, critical approach to artistic exchange, which we hope can open up a democratic space for the audience to interact with the work and to approach the aftermath of this war from multiple entry points. In all of the components of this work, we are interested in how larger socio-economic and political structures are visible, or hidden, within what is personal, psychological, and spiritual.
Could you describe the collaborative aspect of the project?
On one level, this work was made as an artist duo between us – Andrea and Caleb. We developed the overall concept as a duo, and brought together a wide range of mediums to create a dialogue about the memory and legacy of the Vietnam-America War.
On another level, this work is the result of a collective approach to art-making, and contains contributions made by other artists. We want to make it okay to acknowledge someone else’s work in a project. Even when some artists allow for the subjects to write or draw on their photographs, the plaques in museums only have one name on them, when it is clear that there were entire teams that went into the creation of the work, and the work wouldn’t be the same without the collaborations.
We’re interested in challenging these traditional conceptions of authorship. We want to open things up to include a multiplicity of voices. Essentially, Long Time No See is a constellation, an effort to embrace a wide range of perspectives and styles.
We want to break down the barriers that exist currently between the portrayers and the portrayed. We are looking for ways of opening up power dynamics in photography and video, so that space is left for the portrayed to express themselves and to play an active role in representing themselves. So, although the project stems from our conception, each individual image has special captions with credit for various people who helped make each piece.
Who are the protagonists in your pictures?
We went to Làng Hữu Nghi every day for two years. Whether we were photographing, working together in the painting workshops, or developing the video vignettes, the relationships flowed very naturally through it all. The majority of the younger generation people we worked with to make the photographs and paintings, were born deaf because of Agent Orange. They taught us Vietnamese sign language during the weekends and week nights. When we became more fluent, it opened up a whole world of communication.
How long did you work on the project in total, and what were the biggest challenges?
We worked on the pre-production aspect of the project from 2015-2018. The actual production period was two years – from 2018 to 2020 –, culminating in an exhibition at the Vincom Center for Contemporary Art in Hanoi. Our collaborators were able to come with us into the space, and we decided on the curation and the edit as a collective. We looked at this as a ‘live lab’ sort of approach. And we’ve now been developing the book project for a year, in collaboration with many wonderful people, including Brian Paul Lamotte, Đỗ Tường Linh, Hannah Meszaros-Martin from Forensic Architecture, and Yanyou, Guangyuan and Yinhe from the Jiazazhi Press team.
How did using the Leica M10 affect your work?
The Leica M10 is all about making pictures. Before working with a Leica, we both worked with different cameras, and we found it very difficult to get passed the ten thousand buttons and effects. The M10’s simplicity and elegance make it a powerful work tool. Using this camera allowed us to move freely and to engage in our collaborations in a personal way. Bulkier equipment would have prevented valuable connections, because that sort of equipment registers very differently on a psychological level. On a technical level, the M10 not only has the capacity to create images with a full, beautiful tonal range, but it also gives us a high quality file to work with when we monumentalize the images in large scale prints.
The project has been nominated for the W. Eugene Smith Grant, the Benrido Hariban Prize, and has already been shown in Amsterdam, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Did you expect such a response?
We are thrilled with the response to the work, and grateful to all of the people and institutions that have supported the work so far. Of course, we didn’t go into this work knowing what form it would take or what life it would have, but we are grateful that the work is finding its audience and starting conversations around a subject that we care deeply about.
Do you have any future plans for more collaborations like this?
We have continued to collaborate with Phan Thị Lan Hương, Nguyễn Tiến Hưng , Phạm Văn Mạnh, and Đinh Thị Hương – the younger generation of artists living at Làng Hữu Nghi. Before we left Hanoi at the beginning of the pandemic, we gave them a digital camera. We have been looking at their work on a regular basis and mentoring them online. They’ve become very talented photographers, and we recently made an application on their behalf, for a grant that we feel they are very well qualified to receive (fingers crossed). So, in other words, the collaborative spirit of the project keeps finding its own life and different forms as time goes on.
Andrea Orejarena (born in Colombia in 1994) & Caleb Stein (born in the UK in 1994) are a multimedia artist duo currently based in the U.S. Their work, which has been exhibited internationally, is available through the Vin Gallery in HCMC, The Curator’s Room in Amsterdam, and the Rose Gallery in LA. Orejarena & Stein have been nominated for a number of awards, including the Hariban/Benrido Award (chosen by Yasufumi Nakamori, Senior Curator of Photography at Tate Modern), and the W. Eugene Smith Grant (jurors include Teju Cole). A book of their work, Long Time No See, is forthcoming through Jiazazhi Press in 2022, with texts by Đỗ Tường Linh and Forensic Architecture, designed in collaboration with Brian Paul Lamotte. Together and apart, their work has been published in the New York Times, The Guardian, i-D Vice, and Vogue Italia, among many others. Their work is in a number of public and private collections, including the Nguyen Art Foundation, the Frances Lehman Loeb Museum, and the Ann Tenenbaum & Thomas H. Lee Family Collection. Find out more about their work on their Instagram account and websites (Orejarena / Stein).