Lisa’s Black Pajamas

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

In this 21st century it is sometimes difficult for an old man (me) from that other to adapt to new ways and particularly in a reconsideration of the past including my own.

While in the Argentine Navy in 1966 as a conscript my sailor companions looked down on our superiors as they seemed to want and enjoy “playing soldiers”. We thought the whole idea was suspect, particularly as our country was a third world country. I cannot speak for my companions but in my mind I compared our puny armed forces with a serious one like that of the United States. They were a real army with real soldiers.

I remember sitting on a bench in my summer whites in front of the tiger cage of the Buenos Aires Zoo. I was reading with much interest my Time Magazine and particularly in the section on the ongoing Vietnam conflict. I was most interested in how many Phantoms had shot down MiGs. And below those statistics there was the one of body count and how many of the Viet Cong had been killed. It was thrilling to read this. By 1970 my love for military conflict had subsided and soon I was as anti-military as I could be citing that the only universal standard was the military mind. Generals in Argentina “thought” in the same way as those in the United States. I had definitely overrated conflict.

In 2009 I had the good fortune of taking photographs (two sessions) of a lovely Vietnamese woman called Lisa. I tried to bring into our collaboration the idea of bringing into play her heritage from her country.

I was going to combine this with my own idea of Vietnam. In Argentina when you want to tell someone to go to hell you use the idea of sending them as far as possible. For reasons that I am unaware of that faraway place is Cochinchina (the 19th century French name for Vietnam. In Argentine Spanish you would tell someone, “¡Vete a la cochinchina!” In our Spanish it sounds almost obscene.

In my youth in Buenos Aires the only people that might have looked like they were from the Far East might have been one Japanese gardener called Matsumoto. Both my mother and grandmother had been born in Manila but their heritage was mostly Basque and Spanish. At functions of the Philippine Legation (not yet an embassy) I saw my first Filipino-looking Filipinos.

But it wasn’t until my mother’s Chinese student from the American school where she taught invited us for lunch that I became suddenly immersed in the exotic. It was at that table that I first encountered the Chinese spoon!

In 1962 I was attending Mexico City College and I was staying at a pension. Also there was an American US Marine Corps colonel who was studying literature on his GI Bill. He had fought in Laos and Vietnam and told me of the lovely Vietnamese women who paraded in Saigon with umbrellas to shade them from the sun. He tried to explain to me all about the French colonization of the country. I believe he may have been quite subjective but I was too young and dense to understand.

In that 1966 Time Magazine I read about how the Viet Cong wore what looked like black pajamas.

With Lisa in my studio I took photographs with a conical hat, a red umbrella and various dresses from Vietnam.

It wasn’t until she faced my camera undraped but with the conical hot on her head that I started getting a strange flashback to that tiger cage bench. As soon as the black strap fell and covered her face I thought of the Viet Cong pajamas and I snapped my camera a few times.

To this day, while I have beautiful photographs of Lisa these two photographs trouble my memory and reveal how strange our human association can be.

I do experience guilt, even now, of my being enthralled at body counts in 1966.

Link to: Lisa’s Black Pajamas