The black-and-white photos from halfway around the world were supposed to be lost to history, stuck in a box who-knows-where.
Shot in 1971, they depicted the Vietnam War, but not the fighting. Instead: civilian faces young and old, jungle-mountain panoramas, soldiers idling or reading letters or posed next to seized weapons.
Returning home from his year in-country, James R. Thompson wasn’t anxious to get the images developed. He was finished with his duties as the official photographer for his battalion in the 101st Airborne Division, and had
“When I got home in ‘71 I pretty much just threw all the stuff in a box with the medals and everything else and they just sat there,” said Thompson, a 67-year-old Minneapolis resident.
Four decades since coming home, he had moved four times and thought the pictures had been lost in the shuffle.
“Then one day I was looking for something else and of course, that’s when I found them,” Thompson explained.
The photos’ newest temporary home is Augsburg Park Library in Richfield, where they are exhibited through August.
Having been drafted, Thompson wasn’t itching for a firefight when he arrived in Vietnam in 1970. During his first six months in-country he was assigned to a recon unit, creeping around the jungle, locating the enemy so that larger forces could attack.
He saw little action during that time, since it was monsoon season and the enemy was mostly “hunkered down,” as he describes it. Then came the golden ticket out of the muck.
The official photographer for his battalion had returned home and Thompson, who was an art student back in Minnesota and stayed attached to his camera in Vietnam, seemed a natural successor when he inquired about the opportunity.
“I walked in there, I had a camera hanging on me,” Thompson recalled.
So for the last six months of his service, he was tasked with documenting the battalion’s activities. Chiefly, his colonel wanted photos for his scrapbook, Thompson remembers. Another duty was to photograph soldiers getting pinned with medals.
But Thompson was able to float around as well. He would tag along with medic teams on “goodwill” missions near his base in Phu Bai, in central Vietnam. The medics’ job was to treat ill children and distribute vaccinations.
Along with capturing the everyday life of the soldiers, these were the excursions that formed the hallmark of Thompson’s Vietnam collection.
“I don’t have a lot of blood and guts,” Thompson said.
Instead, he has photos of villagers’ stares and soldiers passing the time during quieter moments. This, Thompson notes, is what makes up most of wartime after all.
“As one guy told me – he said, ‘War is 95 percent boredom and 5 percent terror,’ and that’s what I was trying to show here, is all the things that go on that are not war, that are not conflict,” Thompson said.
It was a serendipitous sequence of events that led to the exposure of Thompson’s once-lost work. Around the same time he unboxed the photos he was in the middle of a career change.
Thompson spent 30 years freelancing out of the Twin Cities in the filmmaking business, shooting mostly commercials but also some major motion pictures as a first camera assistant, the person responsible for maintaining the equipment and also focusing the lens during shots.
But that work began to dry up after Sept. 11, 2001, he explains, and by 2008, he was out of the business. He then decided to turn an affliction from the war into an opportunity.
The Veterans Administration granted Thompson disability status due to exposure to “Agent Orange,” a defoliant the U.S. military used to root out the Viet Cong but which has since been found to cause health problems to those exposed.
The “Chapter 31” status Thompson gained from his exposure meant the government would pay for him to return to school. He was eight credits away from a master’s degree in filmmaking from the University of Minnesota but the window to finish that degree had lapsed, so Thompson enrolled in a two-year photography and digital imaging program at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, where he learned to restore a collection of forgotten negatives that badly needed some care.
“I think they were pretty banged up,” recalls Jack Mader, who chaired MCTC’s photography department at the time.
Several generations separated Thompson from most of his fellow students, but he found a kinship with Mader, who came from the same era.
“I was always glad to mentor him. I always had a bit of a soft spot for vets, especially Vietnam vets that got drafted,” said Mader, who is now semi-retired.
Working with Thompson, Mader added, “was another way for me to say ‘thank you’ without being overt about it.”
Mader appreciates what he called the “day-to-day feel” of the photos.
“You get a chance to look at (the soldiers) as people rather than warriors,” he explained.
“The photos hang so beautifully,” he said.
After Thompson’s studies at MCTC, the work gained exposure at the First Unitarian Society in downtown Minneapolis, where his friend, Herbie Sewell, chairs the church’s arts committee. Sewell and Thompson had gone to filmmaking school together, but had since lost touch. They had recently reconnected at a memorial tribute at the U of M for their professor, Alan Downs, when Sewell, who since studying film has made a career as a painter, saw Thompson’s collection.
“I realized he needed to have his first exhibit as soon as possible,” Sewell said.
As his first true show, Thompson had a six-week run at the First Unitarian Society’s gallery that consisted of his Vietnam work and more recent street-scene photos.
Emboldened, Thompson then brought his work back to the U of M last spring, for a show at the Regis Center for Art’s Quarter Gallery. That’s where the Richfield connection happened.
Richfield resident Phuoc Tran works part-time at Augsburg Park Library and full-time at the U of M’s Wilson Library. Tran, who immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1982, visited the exhibit and was impressed enough to leave an encouraging comment in the visitors’ log.
Thompson sent Tran an email to thank her for the kind words, and in return received an invitation to show his work at Augsburg Park Library.
“For me, it’s important for people to know,” Tran said.
Tran wants people to remember a conflict that she won’t forget. She was in her early 20s and living in Saigon during the city’s fall to the communists in 1975, and recalls the persecution that followed, when two of her brothers, officers for the former government, were imprisoned in a “re-education camp.”
In a country where veterans came home to jeers, Tran is instead thankful.
“They gave us freedom,” she said.
Tran is just the person Thompson was hoping to reach in exposing his work – “somebody from that community who would be interested in exhibiting this type of material,” he said.
There may be more demand for Thompson’s exhibitions with the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon coming in April 2015.
“I talk to a lot of people in my community,” Tran said, “and they want to see him.”
Thompson’s exhibit is on display through August at Augsburg Park Library, 7100 Nicollet Ave., Richfield. Following that, the library will display some of his more recent photos of street scenes.
Contact Andrew Wig at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RISunCurrent.