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  Field Notes From
ZipUSA: 73106

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On Assignment
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From Photographer

Penny De Los Santos

On Assignment

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From Author

Frank Browning

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs courtesy Penny De Los Santos (top), and courtesy Frank Browning


On Assignment On Assignment On Assignment
ZipUSA: 73106

Field Notes From Photographer
Penny De Los Santos
Best Worst Quirkiest

    While shooting in Little Saigon, I befriended a family who immediately opened their home and their lives to me. They invited me over for dinner (pictured in the opening image of the feature page), and the father, Hoc Nguyen, told me how he had survived the North Vietnamese Army's "re-education" camps. Mr. Nguyen came to America about 27 years ago, then brought his wife and two children over later.
    When he first got here he was working 20-hour days, getting up before sunrise and riding his bike to work so he could earn enough money to feed his family. Now he has been able to give them a house and cars, and four of his six kids are doctors. It was inspiring to hear his story, then watch how much his family loves spending time together.

    It was my last night in town and I was searching for scenes of people getting together outside a family setting. As I drove down one street, I saw these guys hanging out on a balcony. I stopped and shouted up to them: "Hey, can I come up and take some pictures?" They said yes, so I headed up the stairs to their apartment.
    There I met a rowdy group of Vietnamese guys in their early 20s, all partying. After a while, I started to feel awkward and uncomfortable. All of them spoke perfect English, but every so often they would switch to Vietnamese, making me a little nervous. One of them started flirting with me and making strange eye contact, so finally I decided I had to get out of there. It's not that I felt unsafe—I just didn't want to give them the wrong idea by sticking around.

    I didn't have a lot to go on for this story, so when I arrived in Little Saigon and saw only a strip mall, I started to get worried. I called my editor, Susan Welchman, and she gave me the option of coming back. But after talking with Susan some more, I decided to give it a shot.
    I got back in my car and spent the rest of the afternoon aimlessly driving around. Eventually I spotted a couple in their eighties (See Zoom In) pushing a metal shopping cart down a suburban sidewalk. I whipped my car around, parked, and went running after them with my camera and light meter. I'm sure I freaked them out, but I managed to talk them into letting me take their picture as they walked—not an easy thing to do if you can't speak Vietnamese. It was a sweet exchange, and things just seemed to take off from there. Susan ended up loving all the film I sent back to her in Washington, D.C. And to think that we almost didn't do the story!

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