One woman's war

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A black and white photo in Marissa Roth's "Women and War" photo series shows an image of Doan Ngoc Tram, the mother of doctor and war martyr Dang Thuy Tram, in Hanoi

Veteran photojournalist Marissa Roth arrived in Vietnam last month to complete a painstaking series on the female survivors of war.

On April 8, the 54-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner flew back to Los Angeles after spending a month in Vietnam. During her visit, Roth traveled to Hanoi, Hue, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City to photograph the nation's bereaved mothers from the wars.

The pictures she took represent the final installment of 28-year project entitled "One Person Crying: Women and War." 

Roth is busy putting the final touches on the exhibition which will go on display at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles from August 16 to November 30; a book will follow.

Roth says her project tells the stories of women whose lives have been upended by conflicts"”from World War II to Afghanistan and the Balkans.

"Men traditionally fight the wars. But it is the women who are left behind to pick up the pieces," she wrote in a piece published by the Los Angeles Times.


Roth began her career as a freelance photojournalist in 1981. Since then, her work has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and a number of museums.

She has published three photo compilations: "Burning Heart - A Portrait of the Philippines" in 1999, "REAL CITY: Downtown Los Angeles Inside/Out" in 2001," and a children's collection called "Come the Morning" in 2005.

During the past three decades, Roth has been focusing on her longest project on women and wars.

She traveled to refugee camps and war zones in ten countries to photograph and interview women who lost their husbands and children to armed conflicts. Some of her subjects suffered the ravages of war first-hand.

Roth was drawn to Vietnam as the final site for her project because the conflict ultimately moved her to take up a camera.

"I realized after looking at all of the images from the arc of the entire project that I need to go to Vietnam, as that was my coming-of-age war, which shaped me profoundly as a young person and activist," Roth wrote on her blog "Open to Beyond."

Images of the American war in Vietnam published in Life and Look magazines in the 1960's and "˜70's "inspired" her to become a photojournalist, she recalled.

Her visit in Vietnam focused on the country's "Heroic Mothers""”an official title extended to women who sacrificed at least three children, or a husband and two children, or their only child/children to Vietnam's fight for independence.

Vietnam's government created the designation and began furnishing these women with modest compensation since 1994.

Since then, the nation has recognized at least 44,253 such mothers who bear the common burden of growing old alone.

During her recent trip, on March 20, Roth visited Nguyen Thi Thong, a 99-year-old in Hanoi who lost her only son in 1968.

"She lives in a tiny space with a steep ladder, above a noodle shop next to her nephew's apartment," Roth recalled in an email to Vietweek.

"The government gave her a house in another district of Hanoi, but she prefers to stay near to her family, a nephew and niece-in-law who help take care of her," she said.

Roth said Nguyen Thi Kim Oanh, the mother's 73 year-old niece-in-law, helped interview Thong who could not remember much.

Many mothers who lost children "were forgotten after the war, and were living alone," Oanh said.

"But she forgives everyone," Oanh said of her aunt, whom she considers a mother. "Of course, the pain is always inside, but we try to keep our hurt inside. It's still pain, but we try to be peaceful with it."

Doan Ngoc Tram, a mother who lost her daughter, Dang Thuy Tram, a doctor serving on the front lines, in 1970 also had lessons to impart to Roth about forgiveness.

"When I got the terrible news about Tram, I was so sad. But I knew it could happen, since it was war. I didn't have time to suffer," she said in French.

Her daughter received a posthumous award. But because Tram had five other children to take care of, she never received official recognition as a "Heroic" mother.

Tram told Roth she agreed, in 2006, to allow an American veteran to publish Tram's journals, which he had found during the war. The journals were published in 20 languages under the title "Last Night I Dreamed of Peace."

"Not all Americans are bad. Some are good, some are bad. The good ones, we love like brothers. The bad ones we don't like.

"I agreed to publish the diary, in order to present another truth, and to testify to what happened in Vietnam," the mother said.

Roth herself suffered similar pains.

Many members of her Jewish family (including her grandparents) were killed on the doorstep of their home in Novi Sad, then Yugoslavia, in 1942.

Her parents fled from Hungary and Yugoslavia in 1938 and only set roots in 1940 in Los Angeles, where they spent the rest of their life.

This haunting legacy helped inspire her current project, which began in 1988 with a series on Afghan war widows that Roth photographed for the Los Angeles Times magazine.

Since then, the project has cost her more time, money and tears than any other professional effort, she said.

But something pushed her to see it through to the end.

"My goal is to reflect on war from what I consider to be an underreported perspective, that of the woman's point-of-view," she was quoted as saying by photography website Luminous Lint.

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