Strangers in a frame: Vietnam vet wants to find people in 1970s Asia photos

Amanda Sealy, CNNUpdated 18th August 2017
Editor's Note — Amanda Sealy is a Senior CNN Producer based in the Hong Kong bureau. She knew her father had always been into photography, but became more curious to see his old photos after getting to spend time in Asia. Hong Kong is the city where her parents met.
(CNN) — My dad's first Instagram post went up on January 10, 2015.
It was a photo of our ugly kitchen table and some building blocks from IKEA. Uninspiring, but hardly the worst-case scenario when connecting with your parents on social media.
Months later, an old black and white photo featuring a group of Taiwanese school boys appeared on his feed. A welcome departure from the subject of our kitchen table, this photo marked the rebirth of one of my dad's oldest passions -- street photography.
It was taken in Asia when he served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. He included the caption: "Kaohsiung 1971. If this is you, or you know who it is, please add a comment or send a private message."
Stationed in Yokosuka, Japan from 1970 to 1972, my father traveled around the region taking hundreds of photos of hundreds of people.
Recently retired, my dad -- Stephen Sealy -- has redirected his focus back to those images.
Having scanned all of the negatives he dutifully kept for more than 40 years, he's now sharing the old photographs on his Instagram feed, @my_pacific_70s, in the hope of finding the strangers they depict.
Hong Kong (1971): "I enjoyed taking black and white pictures because there's a talent to being able to see just light and shadow."

Where did you get the idea for this project?

Stephen Sealy: The first thing I was going to do was scan all of my old negatives for archival purposes.
While I was going through and scanning them I thought, "I have some really good pictures of these people that I met, but did not know and never had a chance to share the pictures with them."
And I thought with communications that we have now with social media, maybe there's a chance I could actually share the picture with them or their family.
Ofuna, Japan (1971): Stephen Sealy bought a secondhand Nikomat camera from one of his shipmates. It cost him $125 and came with 50mm and 200mm lenses.

Were you passionate about photography before you came to Asia?

Not at all. When I joined my ship there was another sailor I met -- John Colvin -- and he had studied photography and was buying a new camera for himself.
He offered to sell me his old one at a good price, so I bought it and he taught me how to develop film and loaned me some books on photography.
I learned about exposures and depth of field and how to frame pictures and looked at photography magazines including Japanese ones. I couldn't read them, but I could look at the nice pictures.

How did you convince people to let you take their photos?

Actually in Japan it was really common for people to be out taking pictures and if you were setting up to take a picture it was kind of obvious what you were doing. It was just non-verbal communication.
There's one picture where there's a woman who is ducking down and there's a guy giving me a startled look. That was taken on Honcho Street in Yukosuka.
Honcho Street was kind of the American bar district, so he probably wasn't too happy with me taking the picture and I may have been making trouble for myself. You can take a look at that guy and see that he may have been someone you didn't want to mess with.
Yokosuka, Japan (1970): This is one of Stephen Sealy's favorite photos. "My sister has a framed print of this photo in her apartment," says Amanda, who interviewed her father for this story.

Which photo is your favorite?

My absolute favorite is the young Japanese girl with the dog. It's the Mona Lisa smile.
I don't remember exactly the street name, but she was on the opposite side of the street as me and it was kind of a narrow street and I saw her chasing her dog, which had gotten loose.
I saw that she was a cute girl and it would make a good picture. I got the camera ready and started crossing the street. She saw me coming with the camera and she had caught her dog by the time I got there and she posed for me. And then we bowed to each other and that's the last I saw of her.

Any street photography advice that would still ring true today?

Make a day of it and go out by yourself. It's easier to meet different people when you're by yourself than when you are with other people.
Stephen Sealy's ship, the USS Windham County, sits in Hong Kong's harbor in 1971. "It's kind of funny how when you don't have any TV, you don't have any distractions other than reading and talking. Every moment of free time was filled up with more interesting stuff -- getting out and about and doing things," recalls Sealy.

Did photography have an impact on your Asia experience?

Mainly, photography gave me a reason to spend time in places that most sailors do not go and meet people that most sailors do not meet.
In Japan, I'd carry a pocket dictionary with me, and I learned to speak a little Japanese, so when I got off the beaten track I was never stuck. In fact, I made friends with several people who spoke no English at all.
I think photography also helped me to appreciate the beauty of ordinary scenes. My experience in Asia would have been more superficial if I had not learned to see with the eye of a photographer.
Follow Stephen Sealy on Instagram @my_pacific_70s or if you know who any of these strangers might be, email him at my.pacific.70s@gmail.com.
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