When John Steele finally made the trip back to Vietnam, he found the peace he’d been seeking for nearly 40 years.
“I’ve had questions for decades,” said the 65-year-old Cottonwood Heights resident. “When I left in 1970, [the Vietnamese] were crawling out of bomb craters and [dealing with] Agent Orange.”
Steele, who was deployed with the U.S. Army on two tours of duty during the Vietnam War when he was 20, said he felt compelled to return to the country and meet some of the people once considered his enemy.
He’s been back four times during the past few years, armed with a camera rather than a gun. His goal was to capture the true culture of Vietnam and its people as he traveled off the beaten path.
“I wanted to integrate with the Vietnamese people because it’s what no soldier can see [when fighting],” he said. “I didn’t like what I had done, what I had seen. It’s really nice to see them crawl out of this mess that was left to them.”
Several photos documenting Steele’s journey throughout the country — and his personal healing — will be on display through June 26 as part of the “Seeing and Hearing Vietnam” exhibit at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center, 1355 W. 3100 South, West Valley City.
Michael Christensen, folklorist/cultural specialist for the center, said the free exhibit will feature more than 20 photographs from Steele’s collection along with music and items on loan from local Vietnamese residents.
Christensen said the items include a Vietnamese rickshaw, intricate wood carvings, bamboos, clothing, instruments and silk embroidery.
“This is a really nice community-based exhibit,” Christensen said. “The owners of the pieces are able to share their treasures.”
He described Steele’s photos as a “moving rediscovering of an area that was filled with violence.”
On June 22, the center also will host a free “East meets West” concert that will combine Eastern- and Western-inspired string music by a local Vietnamese string band.
As an added bonus, from May 17 through mid-June, the center will host the “Casa Sola” exhibit in partnership with Artes de Mexico. This exhibit, which is currently traveling through the interior West, will feature photography from the Mexican Revolution.
Steele said he hopes to return to Vietnam again in September when the country’s rice harvest is under way.
“It’s a very, very beautiful place,” he said. “It truly for me has been the most healing thing I have ever done regarding that particular two years [when I was deployed]. I would recommend it to any veteran.”
Both exhibits will be open Monday through Thursday, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., though it may be possible to view them other days and times upon request.
For more information, call 801-965-5100 or visit culturalcelebration.org.
P “Seeing and Hearing Vietnam,” featuring community art and artifacts; and “What I Could Not See,” featuring photos by John Steele.
Where • Utah Cultural Celebration Center, 1355 W. 3100 South, West Valley City.
When • Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., through June 26.