at a glance
“Eastern Approaches,” Black-and-white and toned photography by Julian Tennant, on display through Mar. 31 at the FCC Angkor.
Like most outsiders, Julian Tennant’s first impressions of Southeast Asia were largely a collection of stereotypes shaped by Oliver Stone and Francis Ford Coppola — wicked jungle and chaotic cities beset by the tyrannies of war.
Although based in truth, such movie scenes discount centuries of history, defining the region narrowly in terms of conflict. For Tennant, an ex-soldier whose photographs are on display at the FCC Angkor, it took the novel of a British author to shake loose such American perspectives and show him a time before the war.
The revelation came unexpectedly, and it changed the direction of Tennant’s life as much as his understanding of Southeast Asia.
As a young boy growing up in Cape Town, South Africa, an area steeped in tales of brave explorers and adventurous characters like David Livingstone and Thomas Baines, the seaport’s rough-and-tumble heritage no doubt weighed on Tennant’s upbringing.
Yet even at an early age, Tennant had a firm sense of purpose. “I didn’t want to be an explorer,” he remembers. “I wanted to be a soldier.”
In 1980 Tennant immigrated to Australia with his family and immersed himself in the history of the Vietnam War. Six years later, at age 19, he joined the army.
While the military gave him his first real exposure to Southeast Asia, it did little to reshape his Hollywood-inspired ideas of the area.
“I grew up watching ‘Apocalypse Now‘ and ‘Platoon,’ thinking of the region only in terms of the war,” Tennant says. “Trips to Southeast Asia with the Australian Army did little to change this. When not ‘playing soldiers,’ my interests were confined to the beers and bars, paying little heed to the beauty and culture that surrounded me.”
Outside the FCC.
A quiet awakening
After nearly nine years of playing soldier, Tennant left the army in 1995 and began studying photography. In 1998, having finished school, he returned to Southeast Asia, this time with a camera.
Although no longer a soldier, his childhood fascination with the military remained. He was headed for the Australian battlefields of the Vietnam War when in Saigon he picked up a copy of Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American.”
The novel awakened Tennant to the era preceding the Vietnam War, before much of Vietnam’s perceived innocence was lost and the idyllic shady lanes and ocher villas of the French-colonial period predominated.
In the ensuing years Tennant would return to Vietnam many times. During those trips he often followed the fictional journeys of Thomas Fowler, the novel’s main character, from the Cao Dai stronghold near Tay Ninh in the south, to Phat Diem in the north, collecting an impressive portfolio of photographs along the way.
On one of those early trips Tennant came across the accounts of Francis Garnier. The stories of the French explorer immediately piqued Tennant’s interest in Southeast Asia beyond the borders of Vietnam, and he soon turned his attention upriver, to Cambodia, Thailand and Laos.
Yet Greene’s accounts of French-colonial Vietnam never strayed from Tennant’s mind. Inspired by them, it is the remnants of that era that Tennant often captures in his photography.
“Despite its turbulent history, traces of a past way of life are still evident,” Tennant says. “It’s not hard to see how things looked 50 years ago. My photographs help to recreate the sense of discovery of a time and place that is exotic and alien to many in Europe and America.”
Postcards from the past
To enhance that sense of a bygone era, Tennant uses film, never digital, and works in black and white. He uses traditional printing techniques and develops his film by hand. Many of his prints will carry an antique postage stamp from the country where the picture was taken, further adding to the sense of age. Combined, the result is a new photo with a vintage spirit, as evocative as the old postcards it mimics, as much art as it is photography.
In one photo of the Bayon, Tennant has used the darkroom to dodge and burn — techniques to lighten and darken areas of a photograph, respectively — creating a moody, high-contrast composition with jagged edges that might easily have been taken a century before.
Others photos depict Angkor Wat, Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, or scenes from Thailand and Laos. Many come with the signature stamp fixed in one corner, similar to the old “ethnographic” postcards popular in the early 19th century, as if they were sent from an old friend on a long, exotic journey.
For in no small sense, Tennant is now the explorer he says he never wanted to be, searching for the last remnants of an old and vanishing way of life. Through his photographs we can imagine those early days of discovery. We can sense the wonderment and enthusiasm those early explorers must have felt.
But like many things, that early sense of enthusiasm ended up a casualty of the war, and the ensuing decades have done little to change the world’s perception of Southeast Asia. Yet behind the horrors of Coppola’s Apocalypse, a region rich with culture and marked by many of mankind’s most incredible monuments still endures.