What would Johannes see?
Who is Johannes?
To understand who Johannes is, there are 3 different pieces of the puzzle, each of which follows a different timeline
When I first came to the UK in 2007, I found it annoying that nobody really knew how to deal with my Vietnamese name. No English native speakers can either pronounce or write “Sơn” (səːn˧˧) properly. In the end I picked “Shaun”/“Sean” as the name I’d use for my foreign friends. “Sean” sticks to this day.
In 1990, a petite young Vietnamese woman boarded a flight back to Vietnam from East Germany. She had been visiting her husband for the last few months. He was a former soldier drafted into the Vietnamese artillery division posted near the Sino-Vietnam border, then a factory worker in a small town called Schönebeck.
He came here in 1986 as part of a scheme to send Vietnamese labourers and intellectuals to the East European Communist bloc. When the Soviet Union and its allies started to collapse, many Vietnamese expats like them had a choice: stay and start a new life in the West or come back home. Amidst the chaos, the young couple took a swift decision and chose the latter even though the husband had already acquired what was the equivalent to a resident permit back in those days. From her visit, the wife found that she could not fit in very well with life abroad. However, she did not know that she was pregnant with her first son at the time.
It was now the summer of 2018. My parents had travelled to the UK to participate in my brother’s graduation in Leeds. We reconvened in London before heading out to Berlin Schönefeld. Our final destination: Magdeburg, where we would stay for a week. A purpose of this trip is to visit an industrial park which, in his words, is his “chiến trường xưa” (“old battlefield”).
It took us a while, but we did manage to find his old Gummiwerk living quarters and the area where the old shoe factory he used to work in was with the help of a couple of friends. As my parents emotionally recounted their memories of the queues to buy bicycles and motorcycles in Schönebeck, the now closed entrance to the nearby woods, their trips to transport goods from Berlin or Leipzig... there was one question in my mind.
What would it be like if they had stayed in Germany just a month longer?
I looked upon the now abandoned 5-storey building that used to house hundreds of workers from all over the (Communist) world. It is hard to believe once upon a time, this was a buzzing town and industry complex. I took a moment to reflect upon this thought before we set off again.
My mother said had she known if she was pregnant with me before they decided to come back to Hanoi in 1990, she would not have gone. So we would have been born German.
I believe in the multiverse theory: each different decision we take can branch out to become a completely different timeline with its own universe. And so, a character named Johannes formed in my head. Johannes (Sean in German - check this cool graph out) would be me if I had been born in Germany back in 90. I would have spoken an entirely different language, hopefully would still love computers and maths and take up photography later.
I started going even further and imagining what our lives would be in the alternative universe from the beginning. During his last days in Schönebeck, my dad was working in a bakery, so that would be our alternative origin. Knowing how entrepreneurial he is though, perhaps in a few years he would be doing his own thing. After all, in our current timeline, he came back to Vietnam and eventually managed to open his own rubber sole factory. While my mom's German/English was bad, her skill with numbers was, and still is, top-notch. She would find her way out of just some odd jobs at the flowers shop.
However, I had no reference point for myself in this Johannes timeline, so I couldn't really wrap my head around what my life would really be like then. I could only gather small bits and piece from the places that we passed by and people we talked to. I thought of my German-born Vietnamese friends, and tried to see if I could relate to them. I was just drifting in these ideas, but nothing concrete would form. Maybe channeling them through photographs would help.
As the trip went on, the idea of the alternative version of Sean intrigues me more and more, and it really shows in my photographs. My eyes were particularly drawn to visuals such as reflections, mirrors and shadows more than usual.
Strong and harsh lights casting heavy contrasts with deep shades of black become more and more prominent frame after frame. I feel like this is the way Johannes is speaking out - it is a reflection of Sean, yet everything would be different.
These images acted as a channel for us to communicate. It was like seeing doubles - was it me or Johannes releasing the shutter?
We said good-bye to our parents as they boarded their plane back to Vietnam in Frankfurt, then my brother and I headed back to London. It was also time to part with Johannes - I hope he'd do well in his universe.
One thing I've learnt after all this is how powerful one can be through the act of a childbirth. My parents' decision completely changed our life even before we knew it. If I were in their position, I could never have imagined how I would bear such responsibility.
Maybe one day I will understand.