Intriguing Old Photo Tells a Story

Posted on Aug 3, 2013 in photography

The year was 1970.  The National Guard had just opened fire on a crowd of student anti-war protestors at Ohio’s Kent State University resulting in the death and injury of students. The students were fighting to get soldiers out of Vietnam.  Too many people were dying senselessly in what they considered US genocide of the Vietnamese people.

The anti-war protests in the United States were heating up and the US was beginning it’s slow and painful withdrawal from the war in Vietnam.  There were 280,000 US soldiers in Vietnam and many of them would be coming home soon.

The National Guardsmen at Kent State Ohio shortly before the tragic shooting.


A young man named Phuc

In South Vietnam, a poor young Vietnamese man named Phuc was looking for work.  His father had recently been killed by the Viet Cong (Northern Forces) and his family needed money.  Phuc was very sad and bitter towards the Viet Cong for taking his father.  It was senseless.  He didn’t understand why the Government in the North was attacking the south and trying to steal his home, their land and their families.

He was grateful the US Soldiers were there helping them. He did not necessarily agree with the protestors in the United States.  In his mind the Vietnamese were fighting to maintain their way of life – their survival.

Times were very hard in Vietnam. People were starving.  There was no food.  He was lucky enough if he could eat a simple meal of a bowl of rice each day.  The war had cost him everything.  It was a sad time in Vietnam.  It was a sad time for Phuc.

The past and future collide

While Phuoc looked for work, another man named Lam Thai Hiep was looking for a  driver for his car.  He was a very busy man and needed someone to help him get around Vietnam in his Toyota. Lam worked for the Vietnamese Government (The VietCong) and managed and distributed medicine for the soldiers.  Lam was a thin and serious man.  He was becoming very successful in the government job and on his way up.

The Thin and Distinguished Mr Lam


As luck would have it, Phuc heard of the job and met with Mr Lam to apply. He was nervous.  He needed a job.  He would do anything to make money.

Well, the interview went well and Mr Lam was instantly impressed by him.  Perhaps, he was also a bit taken aback by Phuc’s sad story of losing his father to the same military that he worked for.  Mr Lam hired Phuc on the spot.

This is the moment when the past and future collided.  Phuc’s father had been killed by the VietCong and now he was being hired to become a driver for a man that worked for the VietCong government.

How ironic life can be.  This was Vietnam at the time.  It was a civil war. Politics were so important on the one hand, but on the other hand they were meaningless when it came to daily survival.

A Good Driver. A Good Man.  A Father and Son.

Phuc worked hard.  He liked Mr Lam.  Mr Lam was good to him and he began to love and respect him deeply.  He was his driver, but slowly he began to think of Mr Lam as his father.  Mr Lam saw this and began to consider and treat Phuc as his son.  It was a mutual relationship of respect.

Over the years the US withdrew from Vietnam.  The VietCong won the war and things became very difficult and painful for most people while the country recovered. Phuc was lucky to have this job with someone that treated him so well.  He was dependent on the goodwill of Mr Lam and was vigilant in making sure he did his very best everyday.

I am not Hungry Sir

But Phuc was never so completely comfortable around Mr Lam to feel as one would towards a natural father.  He still had a fear and respect for him that would not go away.  Even though he felt a bond with him, Mr Lam was still his boss and he treated him like it.

One day after a long day of driving, Mr Lam invited the young Phuc into his house to have dinner.   Even though Phuc had not eaten all day he apologized to him, saying “I’m full sir”.  But he was lying.

Phuc did not feel he could eat at the same table as Mr Lam.  He respected him too much to eat with him.  Phuc was starving actually.  He was so hungry that he ran into the kitchen and drank several glasses of water to try to fill his stomach so he would not feel so hungry.  He drank the water but still felt the stabbing pangs of hunger shoot through his stomach.  The water would have to do.  He had more work to do.

The Intriguing Photo

It was December 2012.  The Vietnam war had ended now over 40 years ago.  Here I was deep in the heart of Vietnam with my girlfriend Tu and we were visiting a friend of their family.  A very good friend she told me.  Someone that her father wanted me to meet.  She said her family held a special place in their heart for this woman that they treated like their grandmother.

They introduced me to her.  Her name was Co Nam.   She was a distinguished looking and kind lady.  She showed me a photo of herself that hung on the wall.  I saw the photo and told her, “Dep Lam”.  That means “pretty”.  She smiled at me and told me the photo was taken of her over 50 years ago.

A pretty lady named Co


Then she took me to another wall.  There was a single, small framed picture on that wall.  The photo was interesting.  There she was with her husband.  They were standing by a Toyota.  It was somewhere off the road. It was somewhere in Vietnam.  The picture was scratchy and worn.

The man was thin and serious looking.  His name was Lam.  And there was another man in the photo.  He was in the distance.  A shadowy figure in the back who looked like he was watching over the couple.

Lam, his wife and a shadowy figure in the background. This is an intriguingly awesome photograph.


Well, I learned that the shadowy figure in the back was Phuc.  Phuc was their driver and there he stood loyally in the back with the man he considered his father.  Phuc ended up working for Mr Lam for over 16 years.  The picture this elderly lady was showing me was of herself, her husband and of their driver Phuc.

During that time Mr Lam taught him much about life and helped Phuc every step of the way during those tough years.  Without the job and guidance, Phuc’s life would have most likely taken a very different road.  A road of poverty and perhaps despair.   Phuc was devastated in 1986 when Mr Lam died.  The man he considered his second father was gone forever.

Kindness is Like a Stone Thrown to a Pond

When a stone is thrown into a pond it creates ripples of water that extend outwards to infinity.  This is what happened when Mr Lam and Phuc met.  The kindness Mr Lam showed to Phuc created ripples of good fortune that were playing out even 40 years later.

Phuc went on to meet and marry a girl from a successful family.   Phuc went on to create one of the most successful and largest construction supply companies in Vietnam with that girl whose name was Kim Mai.  Phuc started a family and had a daughter named Cam Tu.  Cam Tu became successful and went to the US to get her Masters Degree in a city called San Diego California.

It was there that Cam Tu and I met while she was getting her Masters.  And then now here I was with her over 12,000 miles away from home standing in a house in Vietnam looking at a picture of  her dad and the couple that hired him to be their driver.  Mr Lam’s kindness was paying itself forward in the grandest and most interesting of ways.  We were all there experiencing a good life thanks to the kindness he displayed to a young man that had just lost his own father.

The Intriguing Photo Tells the Story

I guess I keep going back to that photograph and looking at it.  I wonder who took that photo and I think to myself what an excellent photo it is.  But perhaps even more remarkable is the way that photo has been treated.  It is a small 4 by 6 photo but it sits in a frame – a solitary photo on the wall – placed in way that makes it seem like a shrine.  The photo obviously has significant importance to Mrs Lam even today.

Her and her husband undoubtedly hired dozens of workers and helpers in their years but only one – Phuc was on their walls.  Perhaps, the story of helping Phuc and his success was their own tribute to Mr Lam and his character.  This was a story that everyone loves to tell.

A good photograph can tell a more than a thousand words.  And this photo does.  This photo tells a story.  Even the composition is intriguing.  Mr and Mrs Lam stand in the foreground beside their car.

The photographer didn’t just focus on them however.  He pulled Phuc into the frame.  Even though Phuc was off the right and could easily have been removed from the picture.

Either the photographer saw the importance of the relationship or perhaps he was instructed to include Phuc in the picture.  In either case it is intriguing.  In any case it was on purpose.

And why is Phuc off to the back of the photo and not next to Mr and Mrs Lam?  Usually people stand next to each other when they are taking photos.  The picture was made infinitely more interesting because of where Phuc stood.

My hunch is that Mr and Mrs Lam asked Phuc to come stand beside them and to take the picture.  But just like the time when Phuc said he was not hungry and ran to the kitchen to drink water to fill his stomach he was doing the same thing here.

Phuc respected Mr Lam so much that he stood off to the back like his driver.  There he could watch the man he considered a father from afar.  The man who had given him so much respect deserved that much.  The intriguing old photo tells the story better than any words can.