Martin Tucker was a photojournalist for more than 20 years, with his work gracing the pages of major newspapers and magazines. But it never occurred to him that he would one day publish a book of photography.
“I’m a storyteller, but once I tell the story, I’m pretty much done with it,” Tucker says.
A career shift and his return home to Winston-Salem steered him toward a project that eventually resulted in him publishing his first book, “Vietnam Photographs from North Carolina Veterans — The Memories They Brought Home.” It is set for release Monday, Aug. 12, by Arcadia Publishing and The History Press.
The photographs were taken by North Carolina’s Vietnam veterans and collected by Tucker for one of his photography classes. Some veterans also contributed forwards for the book and shared anecdotes about the photos’ backstories.
“It’s an iconic piece that nobody’s ever thought to put together because it comes from the veterans themselves,” Tucker says. “The photographs in the exhibit are not from professional journalists. They came from little cameras those guys had in their backpacks or that hung from strings around their necks, and they mailed the film home to be developed.”
Tucker, a Vietnam-era veteran himself, says he felt a kinship with them. The U.S. Navy stationed him in Charleston, S.C., where he transported sailors and Marines to and from the airport.
“Maybe this is, in some small way, my way of giving back to those who did go to Vietnam,” he says.
It all began when Tucker started his job as a photo coordinator at the Sawtooth School for Visual Art in Winston-Salem. His young students were learning to develop photographs in a darkroom. He wanted to challenge them, so he came up with the idea of soliciting photographs from area Vietnam veterans to be developed. Many of his students were in high school or college and didn’t know much about the Vietnam War.
“I was hoping I could expose them to a history lesson,” Tucker says.
He distributed flyers at local small businesses, grocery stores and restaurants, but the response was initially slow. The first photo he received was from a friend who he never knew was a Marine and fellow Vietnam veteran. The friend, George Schober, gave Tucker a photo of a group of soldiers on top of a tank.
Schober, who took the photo in 1969, shared this story for the book:
“We were moving from one location in I Corp to another on Route 9. This road went east to west, from the South China Sea to Laos in the northernmost area of South Vietnam, just below the DMZ.
“I was riding in the back of a truck and as we passed these guys, I raised my camera up and everyone connected with the camera at the same time. They raised ‘V’ symbols, which were a combined victory-peace gesture; it was a spontaneous moment between comrades.”
Soon afterward, Tucker was inundated with photographs. Many were torn, dusty and faded. People brought them in boxes, old photo albums — even an old dog-biscuit box. Within three to four months, stacks of boxes filled with photographs and slides reached as high as the ceiling in his office. Nearly 4,000 photographs were submitted.
Once Tucker realized that it had become more than a class project, he solicited help. People donated their time to scan and categorize photos; others donated money toward framing them and the cost of coordinating an exhibition.
Sixty were displayed at Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts.
It received so much attention, that it became a traveling exhibition for the next 13 years. Four years ago, the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh featured it for a year, and it’s now housed there permanently.
Tucker pitched the collection as a book idea to publishers but without success. Finally, a curator at the state history museum recommended Arcadia Publishing. Within two hours of his submitting a questionnaire, Tucker heard that it was interested. The book features 148 images. He was surprised that so many photos would be published.
“Instead of editing and cutting, they’ve wanted more, more, more. They wanted more photographs, more quotes, more forwards from some of the vets. They even enlarged the dimensions of the book,” Tucker says.
He says part of what makes the images so compelling is their authenticity:
“These guys weren’t professional photographers. But the compositions are good. The light is good. They got decisive moments. I think what made them try a little harder, they’ll say is, ‘I just wanted to show everybody back home what it was like here.’”