Sometimes, preparation and opportunity collide, and a story that’s been waiting to be told finally finds its audience.
In the fall of 2003, Martin Tucker was looking for a way to nudge his photography students away from pictures of pretty flowers toward more substantial visual storytelling.
“I thought, ‘Why couldn’t we dig a little deeper?’” he said. Tucker came up with an idea to give the students new technical skills and a history lesson simultaneously. “Once we got started, they were able to learn skills that helped bring the photos to life.”
Those photos would first become an exhibition that started in Winston-Salem and toured the country. Now it’s a book of 148 photos that was released last Monday, “Vietnam Photographs From North Carolina Veterans: The Memories They Brought Home.”
Tucker will be speaking to groups and signing the book at events throughout the Triad over the next few months.
A Navy SEAL who did his tour of duty 1967-1969 in the U.S., Tucker’s original idea was to find Vietnam vets in and around Winston-Salem who had old negatives of their time in that conflict. His students at the Sawtooth School for Visual Art would clean the negs and make prints from them.
As it turned out, the vets had very few negatives, but they had thousands of photographs, stories and memories.
The project turned into an exhibition, “A Thousand Words: Photographs by Vietnam Veterans,”
that started with a show at the Sawtooth in 2004 and toured throughout the U.S. for a year: from Waynesville and King to St. Louis, Mo., and Kalamazoo, Mich.
The N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh displayed the collection between 2005 and 2009, and Tucker donated it to them in 2017.
From the thousands of photos that were initially submitted for the exhibition, Tucker and his committee whittled the selection down to 60 framed photographs with quotes adjacent to them. Another 70 images ran on a Power Point display along with the exhibit.
“Those 70 came in handy when my (book) publisher said, ‘The 60 are great, but we’d like to have at least that many more’,” Tucker said. “I don’t think there’s a bad one in the bunch. ... But it’s my baby, so I would think that.”
From the time that Tucker started putting out the word that he was looking for vets’ photos, the project had an energy of its own.
“When the thing took off, we had a tiger by the tail,” he said. “Vets were coming in, and they were calling, saying ‘I saw your flyer in my barber shop.’ Or they’d walk in with photo albums.
“I made appointments with each veteran to look at their photos, and started scheduling meetings with my committee about fund-raising and exhibit dates. It just consumed me and the others on our committee.”
Tucker had $70 in his budget, and money was needed for frames and photo paper.
“The hardest part was staying on top of it,” he said. “It was not only our pride that was involved, but we had an obligation to these guys.
“The book is doing the same thing. I’m so thankful. It’s been a life-changer for those guys who will finally have this tangible thing that they can share and jot a note in and leave to their grandchildren, and it’s given them a voice, a safe outlet to broach the subject of their war experience.
“The closer you can get to the essence of it, the richer it gets.”
Rich in experience
Joe Anthony grew up in Winston-Salem and graduated from Paisley High School before joining the U.S. Marines.
He has more than 700 slides that he took during his Vietnam tour of duty, around 1968. He can be seen in a number of photos in the book, including one on the cover with a couple of other men in his unit — and a dog.
Anthony trained on a special scout dog team in Fort Benning, Ga.
“It was interesting even before you got to Vietnam,” Anthony said. “The dog was used to sniff out the enemy while you were on patrol, so you wouldn’t get ambushed.”
The book shows many sides of life in Vietnam. On page 89, Anthony is seen washing his clothes, and on 162, he is with Bobby Shepherd, a childhood friend with whom he reconnected in the DMZ.
“I’m proud to be in the book,” Anthony said. “It shows what went on at the time, and the people I knew and some of the guys who didn’t make it back, and I’m proud of those guys too.”
Anthony’s voice broke a little over the phone. “I’m sorry, I’m getting a little bit misty-eyed thinking about them. I lost a lot of friends over there,” he said.
“When we came home, we were pushed to the background, almost a forgotten group. So when word went out for the pictures. I just took them. I thought it would be good for people to see these pictures.
“They were just here. I wasn’t doing anything here, and somebody could do a little bit more. I was glad to participate and get the pictures to them so other people could see them.
“I’m proud that I brought these pictures back, and more people will be able to see them.”
George Schober took the photo of men on a tank, flashing victory/peace signs on page 27 of the book. He joined the U.S. Marines in 1968 and spent 1969 in Vietnam.
He was the first vet to bring in a photo for the book.
“I worked as a volunteer for Martin in the photo department at the Sawtooth,” Schober said. “He brought up the idea for the photo project, and I said it sounded good.
“We thought it would be an insignificant little show, but then it grew and took on its own life force and did something we were not expecting it to do.
“We didn’t know how it would be accepted by the vets, but it turned out that all the vets who had been holding back, decided that they trusted Martin with their photos and their stories, and a small step turned into a couple of giant steps.
“Martin ran this thing entirely on his back. He saw something that we didn’t see. We all hoped it would be a book, but martin knew that it would. He continued to believe in this story.
“We all added certain things. The book is the final piece of the puzzle.”
Originally from Winston-Salem, Tucker spent time in New York and Los Angeles working as an actor. He broke out of acting to become a photojournalist in the 1990s.
“Photography was a hobby from childhood,” Tucker said. “My parents both loved to take photos. From 16, I had my own Polaroid and was taking pictures and telling stories with them. It grew and simmered.
“I would always take a camera with me the 20 years that I was an actor, taking production stills and head shots. It’s hard to get out of the entertainment business. They have group therapy sessions to help people do it.” He made a list of the things he wanted to do: be a firefighter, a paramedic, a photographer, and settled on the latter.
“I just soaked up everything I could soak up on Cartier-Bresson, the French street photographer, and all the photojournalists who tell a stories with pictures,” Tucker said. “If I see a photograph that tells a great story, you’ve got me.
“I guess that’s why I gravitated to this project.”
He studied photojournalism at Santa Monica (Calif.) College where he was named College Newspaper Photographer of the Year was was photo editor of the school newspaper. After school he took jobs at the Malibu Times and the Pacific Palisades Post.
Since then, his photos have appeared publications including The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, People Magazine, Us Weekly Magazine and the Winston-Salem Journal.
He moved back to N.C. in late 1999, lived in Greensboro for a couple of years and worked at a camera store, before moving to Winston-Salem to be head of photography and computer graphics at Sawtooth in 2002.
He started teaching photography in July of 2005 at Summit School, where he continues to teach three levels of photography, Photoshop and photojournalism to seventh-ninth graders.
“What I teach these kids is how to tell a story,” Tucker said. “Give us a little more than a pretty picture.”