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Adopted Homeland: Sun Herald remembers project that shined light on Vietnamese community in Biloxi

TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD/1992 
 Vietnamese children play on the front porch of the East End home in Biloxi, Miss.
TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD/1992 Vietnamese children play on the front porch of the East End home in Biloxi, Miss.

In 1992, I began a long-term project about the Vietnamese community on the Mississippi Coast. This project became a seven-day series titled "The People Within" which ran in the Sun Herald in November 1992. The series became one of the high points of my career.

It was while shooting another assignment near East End Homes in Biloxi that I first conceived the idea of a photographic documentation of the Coast Vietnamese. East End Homes, the public housing complex, and the surrounding area had a true Vietnamese feel.

Language had always been a barrier whenever doing a story on the Vietnamese. Many of the adults still spoke their native tongue, not English. I decided that good pictures would bridge the language barrier that existed.

If my Vietnamese project was to succeed, it would be due to the power of the photograph. The pictures would make or break this project.

While prepared for the Vietnamese to initially be wary of my presence in their community, I was blessed with nice images on my first day of photography. To further break the ice, I made extra prints and handed them out in the community.

Although communication was difficult, I could tell by the smiles on their faces that the Vietnamese liked and appreciated the pictures. The still image became an inroad for me to further explore the Vietnamese community.

For the next nine months, seven days a week, I was at the Point, primarily around East End Homes. I tried to take pictures every day and made it a point to be seen at community gatherings, places of worship, wherever the Vietnamese might gather.

Through this effort, I was able to photograph a Catholic wedding, a Buddhist funeral, a man who taught Vietnamese to children, Tet celebrations and anything that might document everyday life at East End.

After compiling over 200 photographs, I showed my pictures to Managing Editor Andrea Yeager.

"When Tim showed me some of the photos, I knew they needed more exposure than a simple photo page," Yeager said. As a host of reporters were brought on the project, Yeager worked to keep the visual nature of the series.

"The People Within" first appeared with an front-page centerpiece and two-page photo layout inside. For the next seven days, stories and photo pages continued to appear in the news, features and sports sections. By the last day of publication, more than 54 photos had appeared in the Sun Herald depicting the Vietnamese community of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Response to the project was overwhelming. In March 1993, the Mississippi Museum of Art in Biloxi hosted a symposium on the Coast's Vietnamese and began a 35-picture photo display for three months.

Afterward, the project was presented a National Endowment of the Arts/Knight Foundation grant. The photos that had been displayed in Biloxi were sent to museums across the nation. "This project was the first time The Sun Herald had done an exhibit of this scale," Yeager said.

Roland Weeks, former publisher of the Sun Herald, said, "Isbell's photos illustrated so many good things about the Vietnamese men, women and children living in our Gulf Coast communities."

"The People Within" continues to serve as an inroad to the Vietnamese community. Whenever I go to east Biloxi, I am usually welcomed with smiles and handshakes. They still remember me and my pictures.

"Tim's photographs were and still are true works of art," Yeager said.

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