Veteran returns to Vietnam for photography perspective
By JENNIFER GARDNER | Charleston Gazette-Mail | Published: November 18, 2018
SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — In 1969, Kimo Williams thought of Vietnam as a "Third World, backward, gloomy environment."
He was a senior in high school and an all-star football player with scholarship invitation from Arizona State, but he decided to enlist in the Army that summer.
The day after his 20th birthday, he landed in Vietnam, the place he pictured as "full of jungles and flies and mosquitoes."
His view of the war-torn country he was headed to was an image ingrained in his mind by what he watched on television and heard from politicians.
Looking back, Williams, now an accomplished musician and photographer, remembers the younger version of himself — who had never traveled outside of the U.S. before — as "naive."
Some of those earliest photos are now part of an exhibit that draws on the connections he found with the people of Vietnam.
"When I got there, it's beautiful," he says, speaking over the phone from his Shepherdstown studio. "It's the bluest water I've ever seen, the greenest trees I've ever seen, and the people are smiling and genuinely engaged — now, these are the noncombatants of course."
Not far from the front lines, where Williams was assigned at an Air Force Base in Saigon, the culture in Vietnam left him awestruck and curious.
"The people I was interacting with seemed genuinely comfortable with who they were, where they were and where they were going, and that was something I couldn't grab a hold of to understand," he said. "How could they be that way?"
Williams set out to explore this new perspective through the lens of a high-end camera he purchased from the base store for only $30 in his second week abroad.
He photographed the Vietnamese people he met on a daily basis and the war itself as he experienced it. It was an artistic expression that brought comfort so far from home — but not the first artistic passion he turned to.
Williams grew up the son of an Air Force sergeant and moved around frequently — even moving to Hawaii, where his father had been stationed during his high school years. There, he decided to forgo his shot at a college football career, instead enlisting in the U.S. Army. The night before he signed up, Williams watched Jimi Hendrix play at the Waikiki Bowl. He was so inspired he decided to dedicate himself to music ... and brought that newfound dedication with him all the way to Vietnam.
When he wasn't in the field working as a combat engineer, he'd make music with other soldier-musicians. Soon, their impromptu jam sessions turned into a four-piece band, and the Army recognized there was value in musicians who could also shoot if they needed to. The group was offered 30 days to travel and play for troops serving in the most hazardous parts of the region.
"So I would take my M16 and Stratocaster guitar and go to the front lines in Da Nang and Hue and play for the Marines up there and entertain them," he said. "That was the best duty I ever had, just watching their faces and knowing how important it was for them to have this taste of home and to hear music."
People form tight bonds in adversity. But there were harsh reminders of the times. Even though the soldiers were at war — thousands of miles from their homeland, facing danger together every day — they were still separated by race. Like Williams, everyone in his band was black.
"When you are at war, you should have no racial division. And you don't when you are in the heat of battle, but when you come back and you're in the rear echelon, there is a lot of tension, and a lot of it really dealt with music," he said. "In the barracks, if you played Johnny Cash, then the black guys would be upset; and if you played James Brown 'I'm Black and I'm Proud,' the white guys would be upset and then a fight would start."
Black people and white people lived in different parts of the barracks and socialized in different groups. Drawing on the source of his homeland inspiration, Williams found a way to unify both sides.
"Hendrix brought the races together, is what I say, because he was black," Williams said. "Hendrix was playing rock, so the white guys would say, 'That's rock music, white music,' and the black guys would say 'That's a black man.' When we did Hendrix, everybody came together."
He returned after 11 months in Vietnam and continued to pursue his dreams by studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
After marrying his wife, Carol, a singer-songwriter, the two joined the Army Band program, spending a year with the 9th Infantry Division Band at Fort Lewis, Washington. He was eventually commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant but continued performing.
He left the Army in 1987 to teach music at Columbia College Chicago and pursue composing full-time. Many of his works were inspired by his experience in the military, including his "Symphony for the Sons of Nam" and "Buffalo Soldiers/American Soldier," which was commissioned by the West Point Military Academy in 2002 to celebrate the academy's centennial.
The words, the music, all of it conjured up the vivid images of his time in Vietnam.
Racial tension had been a part of that experience abroad and at home, but he didn't always appreciate how that tension was reflected through music. Composing music for a production of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," he found himself at odds with the director, who wanted the music to reflect the oppression he thought the black characters in the show were feeling.
"I said, 'Well, they were dealing and adapting to the environment that they were in, but their music did not reflect oppression, it reflected opportunity, it reflected hope and so forth, and I want to write the music that way.'"
It reminded him of the people he had seen in Vietnam — oppressed, in the midst of war, and yet filled with a sense of hope.
Within the year, he was on a plane and headed back to Vietnam.
"I said, 'I need to go back and see if I can find what it was that really struck me beyond the beauty of the country and the niceness of the people,'" Williams said. "There was something a little deeper than that, and I didn't know what it was."
After his initial visit, he returned six more times between 2000 and 2010.
"I was so connected to the ambiance, the spirit of the culture and people," he said. "Every time I went back, I had my camera, and I took pictures of all the people I interacted with, and how I engaged with them and the things that I thought were special about them."
He snapped away, recording hundreds of moments, never thinking of what he might do with the images.
"I wanted to have as a part of my memory the experience of meeting people in a different culture and how we, as an American culture, always seem to, when we have a conflict with another country, degrade the essence of who those people are," he said.
It is easier to fight nameless, faceless people without knowing who they are.
"So, of course, the American fighting man can fight without thinking about the impact it might have on the people or the culture or in general," he said.
Williams decided to start a nonprofit to link artists from Vietnam and the United States to collaborate on projects. Today, his organization, the United States Veterans Art Program (usvap.org), donates art supplies to military medical centers and encourages veterans to express themselves through art as a form of therapy.
"Through art therapy and with a professional involved, we find that veterans are finding new ways of communicating and not always trying to find words that sometimes lack in what you're really trying to say," he said.
In 2003, as his nonprofit was branching out, Williams and actor Gary Sinise co-founded the Lt. Dan Band — named for Sinise's role in the movie "Forrest Gump." The band toured throughout the U.S. and in Korea, Singapore, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Germany and other countries, playing for the troops as part of the USO.
Today, the band plays on, but Williams and his wife live in Shepherdstown, a place they chose for its peacefulness and short distance from their daughter, Rebecca.
Williams, now 68 and retired, looks back on life with a list of accomplishments.
"My main passion is composing, but my second is photography," he said.
He has received numerous awards, including the Vietnam Veterans of America's Excellence in the Arts Award, People To People International's Presidents Award, the Lancaster Symphony's 38th Recipient — Composers Award for Contributions to American Music and the League of Black Women's Black Rose Award. He is a Fulbright Specialist and Encore Purpose Prize Fellow, and was named Chicagoan of the Year in 2006 by Chicago Magazine.
Williams opened his photography studio and gallery in August and calls it KimoPics. All of the proceeds generated by the studio support the United States Veterans Art Program's mission.
Many of the photos displayed in the gallery are ones he took while on tour with the USO. In a temporary gallery, the photos he's taken while visiting Vietnam, as well as when he was assigned during the war, are on display. The exhibit, "Faces of Vietnam," will remain available for viewing until Nov. 25 at his studio, located at 133 West German St., Shepherdstown.
Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail.