During my recent trip to Vietnam, I put to rest the lingering anxieties, stereotypes and misconceptions that I had held on to concerning that country. On that same trip, I also “finished” a long-standing (and rather informal) “personal project” that I had been working on for a couple decades. Since I was eighteen I have been subconsciously trying to “understand” Communism. The project was not an overtly photographic one, but photography certainly helped me in my pursuit of better understanding of that ideology.
Since I started seriously photographing, I have visited and/or worked in many places with Communist (or Socialist) governments. These include Israeli kibbutzim (which are more Socialist than Communist,) Cuba, China, Russia, East Berlin, Poland, Yugoslavia and the Indian states of Kerala and West Bengal, (which both have democratically elected Communist governments.) While I was photographing in those places, I was also talking to people there about Communism as well as reading up on the subject, trying to understand it. The basic principles of it always struck me as well intended, if naïve, (shared resources.) But it seemed hopelessly out of touch with the reality of human nature (which seems to me to be driven more by individual initiative.)
Why Communism? I came of age politically while being pulled in two opposing directions. My father was politically very conservative and like most Americans in the 1960s, staunchly anti-Communist. On the other hand, the liberal, even leftist side of the political spectrum where most of my friends learned their politics was much more sympathetic to Communism’s goals, even if not to happy about how it was being practiced.
1n 1975, having graduated a semester early from High School, I spent three miserable months on an explicitly socialist Kibbutz in Israel. I washed dishes, gathered chickens for slaughter and harvested bananas. Living in such an egalitarian “worker’s paradise,” I was bored out of my mind. Yes, in theory, all labor was valued and all labor was treated as equal, but the reality was mind-numbing uniformity. Ambition was stifled to make sure every one was “equal.” If you know the history of the Israeli Kibbutz movement, you also know that in recent decades they have moved away from the socialist model towards a system that tries to simultaneously reward individual initiative while providing for the collective good. That trip to Israel was one of my first big photo journeys (and a life shaping experience at that.) At the end of that first piece of the project, the score was 1 to 0 against Communism/Socialism.
Subsequently I undertook more photography trips to Communist and/or Socialist nations. Each trip had a mix of photography and research on Communism. In 1986, I spent three months in China with an American friend who was living and working there. Seeing Communism up close and personal was fascinating, occasionally unnerving and often depressing. The photos I made there are ones that I still value and the experiences I had in China still shape my work and life. On the other hand, few people I spoke to there were particularly enthralled with Communism in 1986. The recent history of China, which has moved away from a very rigid, doctrinaire form of Communism, shows how those early opponents of Communism were right.
One of my favorite images from China in 1986:
One of my favorite images from China in 2009:
At the end of that piece of my “communism” project, the score was 2 to 0 against Communism/ Socialism. I also photographed in Poland as a wire service photographer and Yugoslavia as a magazine photographer. In both places, talking with people there only tilted the score further and further against Communism (and Socialism.)
In the late 1980’s I went to both Russia, and East Berlin. By then as history has shown, Eastern European Communism was on its last legs. Shortly after I worked in East (and West) Berlin, the Communist built Wall dividing the two sides of that city, came down. The ongoing score that I was tracking was running even more lopsidedly against Communism. In Europe, 1989 was the end of Communism’s game, just like when they say in tennis as they announce “game, set, match.” Though many liberals had a strong affection for Communism, the demise of the old Soviet Union drove the last few nails into the coffin that Communism had been sinking into for decades. Socialism, on the other hand, is more of a work in progress, being applied and refined in certain countries in Western Europe.
More recently, I worked in Cuba as well as in the Indian states of Kerala and West Bengal. One thing all three places have in common is a social support network that is admirable. In all three, literacy is high, infant mortality is low, the income disparity only moderate and medical care is widely available. These positive aspects shifted back the ongoing score that I was keeping in my head, but only to a point. What those three places lacked was a vibrant and functioning economy. The two Indian states are historically so unwelcoming to business that their biggest export is skilled and semi-skilled laborers who end up working in places like the Persian Gulf, because those two economies do not generate enough jobs.
The great thing about working in all these Communist/Socialist countries as a photographer was that the camera gave me an excuse to nose around, ask questions and talk with people. The same was true during my recent trip to Vietnam. The difference there is that by the time I went to Vietnam, the “competition” between Communism and Capitalism was largely settled and not just on my own, internal score-card.
Over the course of human history, ideas about how to live are tested, modified and often times discarded. Feudalism came and went, as did slavery, as has Communism. Though I do not have a set of images to show from this large “project,” I do have a better understanding of why people tried Communism/Socialism and why it did not work. That kind of understanding, gained first hand is worth a lot. I know I will ever really, fully “get” Communism/ Socialism. But, going to Vietnam marks the end of one phase of my efforts. I better understand how and why political ideologies are tested and which one survived the testing out of ideas that is at the very core of human history.