Cremaillere Railway Trai Mat, 2008 © LES HORVAT

And can you tell me, doctor, why I still can’t get to sleep?
And night time’s just a jungle dark and a barking M16?
And what’s this rash that comes and goes, can you tell me what it means?
God help me, I was only nineteen…

The melancholy song “I Was Only Nineteen,” an anthem for Vietnam War veterans penned by Australian singer-songwriter John Schumann in the 1980s, crackled from the Melbourne office/studio of Les Horvat. It blared over the speakers of his laptop on a desk cluttered with drained coffee cups, computer printouts, photography books and a hardcover copy of Bao Ninh’s novel The Sorrow of War.

The song has a particular resonance for Horvat, a commercial photographer who grew up in the tumultuous time when Australia was involved with America in the Vietnam War — a time that was part of his “political awakening.” When he turned 18, he was almost conscripted; his acceptance letter from the University of Melbourne arrived just in time. Little did he know that he would visit Vietnam 40 years later, peeling off the veneer of that formerly war-torn country. With 25 years of experience in commercial and advertising photography under his belt, Horvat has taught at RMIT University and Photography Studies College in Melbourne. He has earned consistent praise and a cascade of awards and accolades, including the Kodak Professional Photography Achievement Award as well as gold and silver medals at the Australian Professional Photography Awards. In 2005, he co-authored the book Digital Imaging — Essential Skills, published worldwide in four languages.

Horvat and most of his compatriots were baffled by how little they really knew about present-day Vietnam. During the 1960s, shocking headlines and pictures were plastered all over the newspapers, accompanied by graphic broadcasts on television every night. “My impressions of Vietnam were very much slanted towards those types of images,” he explains.

In the ’80s, many Vietnamese immigrants settled in Melbourne and Sydney. Horvat heard some of their tales of their homeland, which aroused his curiosity. The siren call of Vietnam echoed in his mind and eventually evolved into the idea for an exhibition, Momentum of the River’s Flow: An Australian’s View of Vietnam’s Long Journey. The exhibition of 34 photographs opened at The Bui Gallery in Hanoi in June 2010 as part of cultural activities sponsored by the Australian Embassy to mark the 1,000th anniversary of Hanoi.

The river in the title is a metaphor for Horvat’s perception of Vietnamese history. It signifies how he sees Vietnam as having “an undeniable force and momentum in its trajectory towards independence, nationhood and prosperity.” He uses imagery of the river and its long journey as a key element in the Vietnamese psyche and mythology.
More of this article can be read in the Spring 2012 issue.