Not "Just a Bunch of Pictures Stuck on a CD"

An Interview with "Passage to Vietnam's" Rick Smolan

June 14, 1995

By Scott Rosenberg

"Passage to Vietnam's" launch-pad -- the unassuming office of Rick Smolan's company, Against All Odds Productions -- sits at the back of a mini-mall in Sausalito, upstairs past a maze of walkways. We caught up with Smolan here a couple of weeks ago, soon after the CD-ROM had received the top prize in New Media magazine's Invision Awards.

EXAMINER: Why Vietnam?

SMOLAN: I think a lot of people don't really want to think about Vietnam. Last week on the news, Peter Jennings said Vietnam is a country, not a war, and it's time for Americans to start thinking about it again as a people and a nation, and not just a bad memory of ours. We thought that maybe this CD might make Vietnam more accessible. We weren't trying to create the definitive look at Vietnam.

EXAMINER: You didn't put in the encyclopedia entry.

SMOLAN: Actually, I don't think that most reference guides are the definitive look either, but they pretend they are. Ours was supposed to be 70 visions, 70 people's personal experiences. That's what I hoped people would remember when they got to the very end of the CD -- which we think takes about 8 hours, if you look at every picture, play every video, listen to each recording.

EXAMINER: What about the complaint that there's too much about the photographers and not enough about Vietnam?

SMOLAN: That's what I think makes it interesting. If you don't know that these pictures were all shot by 70 people in one week, then it's just a bunch of pictures stuck on a CD.

I think it's really in some ways dishonest to not let people know whose eyes they're looking through. I don't want the professional, Time-and-Newsweek, omniscient voice speaking. I like the fact that we're admitting that we're human beings with our own prejudices and stories. Sometimes the story is, I get up early in the morning because that's the best light. Other times it's, I was here 19 years ago and met my wife and this is my first trip back. Those are both very different but very valid stories.

When you see a picture in a magazine or a newspaper from Tiananmen Square, for example -- the caption underneath says, "student massacre in Tiananmen Square." Well, that's what's going on in the picture. But if you had the choice, wouldn't you prefer to ask the photographers who are laying on the ground with bullets flying over their heads watching people being shot in front of them, how did you happen to be there that night, and were you scared, and how did you get the film out of the country? Anything you'd ask another guy or woman in a bar. All that information gets completely distilled out by the media.

EXAMINER: OK, how did you get the film out of the country?

SMOLAN: We told everybody connected with the project that we're not gonna be fair. We told the photographers, you're going to fly all the way to Vietnam, spend a week there, shoot 80 rolls of film or more, but you may get nothing in our book. We said to the sponsors, you're going to put up all this money, nearly $2 million, give us all these airfares and hotel rooms, computers, film, and we're not gonna sneak pictures of your products into the book.

EXAMINER: You do have those ads on the CD.

SMOLAN: I thought that was kind of cool because they're actually little informational pieces, like the interactive time lines of Apple and Motorola, and no one's forced to look at them.

Anyway, the last people we said we weren't going to be fair to were the Vietnamese. The government initially said they wanted us to develop all the film in Vietnam so they could look at it. We said that's not how we work. And they gave in -- we took all the film out. They saw it when the rest of the world saw it.

EXAMINER: You've been successful putting books together before. They're so much easier to create. Why bother doing a CD-ROM?

SMOLAN: With a book, you have to figure out what the average person is interested in, because you only have a finite number of pages. The thing that really appealed to me about multimedia is that you can give different people separate pathways through the same basic information.

With the CD-ROM, it's almost like being at a really fascinating cocktail party, and as you go from group to group, people's voices come into focus, and you're hearing bits and snatches of conversation. Then they fade out, and you move to another part of the room.

By the end of the night, maybe it's a little bit like all appetizers. But maybe it adds up to a meal.

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