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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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War Photographer Kyoichi Sawada

Dec. 5, 2016

Kyoichi Sawada was a war photographer known for his work in Vietnam. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his photo, Flee to Safety, which shows Vietnamese escaping from a war zone. Carrying the Enemy depicts a Vietnamese guerrilla captured by American soldiers in a bunker. An exhibition of his work is being held in his hometown, at the Aomori Museum of Art, to mark his 80th birthday.

Kyoichi Sawada was born in Aomori in 1936. In 1965, with the war escalating, he decided to go to Vietnam. He was 28 years old at the time, and was working for the United Press International news agency in Tokyo.

In 1970, he was killed in Cambodia at the age of 34. He was survived by his wife, Sata.

The exhibition was held thanks to 91-year-old Sata.

Two years ago, she entrusted about 23,000 negatives and color slides with the museum. They contained many images that had never been shown in public before.

"There are many photos I’ve never seen. When I look at them all together like this, I see some that are very interesting. I don’t know what to say," she says.

Besides covering the war for the news agency, Sawada also captured images of civilians, their everyday lives, and landscapes. But most of the locations where the pictures were taken remained unknown.

The Aomori museum sought to change that. To get help, it got in contact with Aomori Chuo Gakuin University, which has many students from Vietnam.

Associate Professor Nguyen Chi Nghia, who is from Vietnam, was asked to lead the study. He organized a team of Vietnamese students.

Two thirds of the country’s population was born after the war ended. The students at the university were born in the 1990s, and even Professor Nghia was born in the 80s, so none of them actually experienced the fighting.

"I wasn’t too confident that we’d be successful, but I wanted to do all I could to cooperate," he says.

Nghia and his students studied images and maps they found online. They also approached their family members and neighbors who had lived through the conflict to try to figure out where the photos were taken.

The students confirmed that a building in one of the photos is a church in the city of Quy Nhon in central Vietnam.

"Looking at Sawada’s photo alongside this map, I’m confident that it’s the same church," says Nghia.

The team was able to pinpoint the locations of about 200 photographs, from the highlands where the hill people live to the imperial palace in the city of Hue.

Nineteen-year-old Duong Thi Thuy An is a second-year student studying business administration. She came to Japan last year from Quy Nhon.

"To be honest, even if I was back in Vietnam I would not know much about the war. Before I came to Japan, I never imagined that I’d end up learning about it here," she says.

Of the many photos, one in particular left a strong impression on her. It shows a group of children in front of an evacuation shelter smiling at the camera. The photo was taken in her home town.

"When I look at this photo, I realize that even in the midst of war, people could occasionally forget their fears and enjoy the simple things in life."

An decided to ask her father about the war during her weekly telephone call back home.

Her father, 60-year-old Duong Thuong, lost his left eye after a bomb exploded when he was 12 years old. His brother and 3 friends were killed.

Thuong: "The war was really hard. I can’t put it into words."
An: "You were seriously injured, right?"
Thuong: "If I hadn't met a good doctor, I would have died. And you wouldn't have been born. These days, we have peace of mind. It’s your generation’s duty to make sure we don’t have another war. It should never, ever happen again."

The Vietnamese students go to the exhibition.

"After the bomb was dropped, the building behind the children was destroyed," says An.

"Those children are so young, but they’re both carrying another child each," says another student.

Since working on the project, the students have come to view the war from a different perspective:

"This is the photo that moved me the most. The children’s faces show that fleeing bombs had become an everyday occurrence. They don’t seem frightened at all."

"The American soldiers don’t look like people who would carry out cruel acts, like we learn in our textbooks. They felt the same emotions as anyone else, and they were afraid to die."

"Mr. Sawada was passionate about his work and braved dangers. So his photos reflect daily life well."

The students met Sawada’s wife, Sata, who had come to see the exhibition.

"My husband used to say that the war would end one day, and then he and I would travel Vietnam from north to south, and take photos of the country during times of peace," she tells them.

Kyoichi Sawada died before he could see his dream of a peaceful Vietnam become a reality. His photos are a reminder of the sacrifices people made so that today's young Vietnamese can live in peace.

The retrospective of Sawada’s work will run at the Aomori Museum of Art until Sunday.