Meet The Artists of Chopsticks Alley Art's upcoming "Fragments" Exhibit: Mark F. Erickson
Updated: Jan 19, 2021
When it comes to capturing life moments, Mark F. Erickson (Đỗ Văn Hùng) explores his identity with a camera. Although he did not experience Vietnamese community until he attended college, Erickson began his journey of learning about his culture and identity after he became interested in the art form. He expressed his passion for photography by traveling to Vietnam and taking pictures of the people he met, which he compiled into a photo book titled, OTHER STREETS: Scenes from a Life in Vietnam not Lived.
Erickson’s collection of photos will be displayed for the Fragments art exhibition by Chopsticks Alley Art. Chopsticks Alley Art states:
The artists in this exhibit share two traits: their awareness of juxtaposed truths about themselves, and the courage to lean into what seems to be broken yet ultimately brings peace.
As members of one human race, our own psyches contain pieces of a whole; we are multitudes. Each of us on a journey, we have yet to meet all versions of ourselves. At crucial points of growth, we look within to discover rich tunnels of expression.
May you find, within each artist’s story, an encouragement to your own.
Chopsticks Alley sat down with Erickson to learn how he got into photography, how OTHER STREETS came to be, and why it is important for him to share his story through the lens.
Tell me a little about yourself. How did you get into photography?
I was born in Saigon in 1972 and adopted by an American family in New York State in 1975 at the end of the war. As a kid, I was always drawing, and as an adolescent, I was making comic books, and then as a teenager, I got more serious about art. My older brother has always been very good with his hands, so when he was a teenager, he decided to build a darkroom in our basement, which gave me direct exposure to the basics of photography. But my real interest didn’t fully bloom until college.
Who were your role models/inspirations?
When I was at Harvard, I had the opportunity to study with two well-known and influential photographers: David Goldblatt from South Africa and Chris Killip from the U.K. Those two, and Chris especially, really gave me a hands-on education as to the history and practice of documentary photography. In addition to the two of them, I was particularly drawn to in-depth photo essays and books, such as Bruce Davidson’s Brooklyn Gang, Robert Frank’s The Americans, Josef Koudelka’s Gypsies, and Sebastio Salgado’s Other Americas.
When did you decide to learn more about your heritage as a Vietnamese American?
When I was growing up, I didn’t know any other Vietnamese people, so I really didn’t think much about my heritage at all. It wasn’t until high school that I started getting interested, but sadly, the only accessible Vietnam War-related media to me were mass-market Hollywood movies and books, which of course were focused on Americans in Vietnam. The Vietnamese people in these stories have no voice of their own—they are usually two-dimensional villains or victims. After I graduated from high school, I started to self-educate by seeking out Vietnamese people, food, history, and literature.
Why did you decide to work in photography?
That’s a good question, but I’m not sure I have a good answer. Photography is a medium which enabled me to really observe the world in a way that I couldn’t have otherwise. The type of documentary photography that I love requires you to go out into the world and engage with it. You aren’t hiding in the bushes. Every image is an opportunity for interaction between the photographer, the subject, and ultimately the viewer of the image.
You published a book of photos titled OTHER STREETS: Scenes from a Life in Vietnam not Lived. It offers a glimpse into everyday life in Vietnam. Can you talk more about the photo book and how you put them together for publication?
As I mentioned before, I love photobooks. Photobooks demand your attention. They are physical objects which require you to sit down and give them your full attention. The photographs are sequenced by the photographer to tell a story, such that the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.
But as much as I love photobooks, I never imagined I’d make one of my own. These negatives were literally sitting in my attic for decades. I never even made contact sheets of all the film. But about four years ago, I was at a place in my life where I wanted to re-examine those images and I started to share them. Through this process, I started working my way through them, and at some point, decided I wanted to at least try to edit and sequence them into something which eventually became Other Streets.
Why do you choose to capture these moments in black-and-white?
I learned to shoot in black and white. The film and processing is cheaper and simpler. I’m more comfortable in black and white, but I totally appreciate those who work in color.
Your photos will be exhibited at Fragments Art Exhibit presented by Chopsticks Alley Art. How will this exhibition differ from the past photo exhibitions?
Fragments will be the first time that my work will be exhibited alongside other Asian-American artists. Thus far, my work has only been seen in photography galleries and museums. I’m thrilled by this opportunity and really interested in the audience that this reaches and the response by that audience.
What advice do you have for folks who are interested in being photographers?
First, take a lot of photographs. Second, I strongly believe in the apprenticeship model where younger photographers work closely with more experienced ones—both literally and figuratively. By figuratively, I mean studying the photographers that resonate with you. Lastly, being judged a good or even a great photographer is highly subjective and the vast majority of the gatekeepers—publishers, gallerists, collectors, curators—won’t be interested in your work. That’s the reality and you just have to figure out how not to let that get in the way of creating your work.
What is next for you?
I’m working on another book focused on the Vietnamese refugee community in Dorchester, one of the neighborhoods in Boston, Massachusetts. I spent a lot of time in that community before and after I went to Vietnam, teaching English as a Second Language. I was interested in how they were starting over in America.
Where can readers find and support you?
Hear more from Erickson and the other artists of the Fragments art exhibition by Chopsticks Alley Art at the opening ceremony on January 15, 2021!
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Asela L. Kemper
Chopsticks Alley Pinoy Co-Editor
Asela holds a BFA in Creative Writing with a minor in Emerging Media & Digital Arts from Southern Oregon University. She holds many positions including poetry reader for Timberline Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Marías at Sampaguitas, Silk Club: QUIET!, Reclamation Mag and No Tender Fences. Asela uses her passion for creative writing to open conversations on diversity and identity in literature, engage and uplift underrepresented Asian American artists. She resides in Oregon, USA with her family.