My-Linh's introduction in the book about Beyond Borders

Beyond Borders contains a collection of portraits and stories about cultural identity, about being an American woman in a world that has lost its belief in the good will of the United States, about the power to go beyond borders to make things happen, and about the necessary sacrifices and well-deserved triumphs along the way.

It is also the story of my personal development as a woman and a photographer. I am a Vietnamese-born American. I am married to a European and I have been living as an expatriot for more than half of my life. Whenever I land in a new town, my first port of call is always the American women’s clubs. I find the instant camaraderie comforting as I navigate my way through unfamiliar places. For my first book, it seems fitting to profile the group that I’ve come to know so well—American women living abroad.

Very little is understood about this group of pioneers. We may follow our husbands to coveted overseas posts, or we may fall in love with someone from a different country and find ourselves abroad. Some of us once had high-powered careers in the USA, and now we struggle to utter a simple sentence at the local grocery store.  We reinvent ourselves and start new careers, because to practice our previous professions seems impossible due to language barriers, laws or cultural differences. We give birth in hospitals where the medical staff speaks little English, we dread the times when our bilingual children request help with their homework.  Our ears perk up when we hear English spoken in the street, and we are drawn to other Americans who remind us of the place we still call home. We cope, we survive, we flourish. Some of us even manage to make a difference in our new communities.

Beyond Borders came together very quickly. Within a year, the project went from its initial conception to a published book and touring exhibit.  I suggested the book idea at the FAWCO (Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas) annual conference in March 2007. Charlotte Fox Zabusky, a published writer and FAWCO member, was introduced to me and agreed to be part of the project. All the stars became aligned when I met another conference attendee Rosalind Williams, a 26-year-veteran curator of photography. With her enthusiasm and encouragement, the project turned into a reality.

The following month, my request for nominations went out to the 15,000 members of FAWCO. By July, 30 women had been invited to be in the book. They come from 20 cities in 15 countries around 5 areas of the world. The next four months were a blur of air travels and photo shoots. I traveled a few days every week, causing my husband to develop a new respect for single parenting as he steadfastly took care of our two young children. During that time, I suspect he went beyond a few borders himself. 

I spent one day photographing and interviewing each woman. Each of these days was memorable in its own way. We normally composed a „lifestyle“ portrait in her environment (home, local park, office, etc.) and a „studio“ shot in front of a backdrop, where the women were encouraged to show their personality through gestures or props. We talked, we laughed … a lot, a few times, we cried. Except for Jean Darling, who, I felt, was completely in her element in front of the lens, most of the ladies were a bit self-conscious at the start.  But as the day progressed and we got to know each other better, I could feel my subjects becoming more relaxed.  As Phyllis Michaux said at the end our session, „I’m going to give you a smile now, and that’s a big compliment to you.“  She crossed her arms and smiled big, I snapped the shot and that was the one selected as her portrait. 

After the photos were done, we would sit down for a cup of tea and the women would tell me their stories. With some, we started with their life abroad, with others, it made sense to focus on the reasons they were nominated for the book. While with a few, we would meander through their whole life.  Having been part of the selection committee, I had preconceptions about each person, but these proved to be almost always not quite correct. There were elements of surprise in each of their stories. Sometimes, I was surprised by the impact of their feats, it surpassed my expectations. Other times, I was struck by the multi-facets of many of the women’s lives – they were nominated for one reason, but turned out to be accomplished in so many other areas. And in some cases, I was surprised by their inspirations, or their insecurities.  But what was consistent throughout the stories was that these women all have amazing conviction, resilience and agility.  They have the conviction to their goals, the agility to know how to get there, and the resilience to push on in the face of challenges.

With many of the women, I got to know their family and see my subject through their eyes. I went to Wisconsin to photograph Krissy Capriles during her visit home. Her Dad chauffered me around and served as my lighting assistant; her beautiful 12-year-old daughter gave me a private performance of a touching original song. But it was meeting her son Shane, a good-looking young man—whose autism had changed Krissy’s life and enabled her to achieve all that she has for autism in Curacao—that left the deepest impression on me.  Even though Krissy, a professional singer, knew how to work with the camera, I decided to use the shot of her and Shane. It’s obvious that being a mother is the most important role she plays.

I journeyed to Casablanca to photograph Donna Sebti and Stella Politis Fizazi, two best friends who have been living in Casablanca for over 40 years, both humanitarians, who have positively touched the lives of many in their local communities. Donna and Stella generously shared as many aspects of their lives as possible. I got to have a typical Moroccan family couscous lunch with Donna and her husband, their four children with spouses, and their nine grandchildren. Stella took me to her Greek Orthodox church to hear her sing. I visited the 80-bed rehabilitation center that Donna helped create and the very British Churchill Club where Stella is the first American president.  Just examples of what amazing lives these women are living.

I have fond memories of visiting Jayne Cabanyes at her second home in Segovia, where a Roman aqueduct lands in her backyard.  The house, with its peeling paint and crumbling foundation, needs major restoration, but it felt so warm, so full of distant voices and faces from the past. At one point, I thought I could hear the walls whispering their stories. We spent a beautiful day there. When I left, I felt as if my camera had captured a piece of history.

I photographed five women in Paris. My long weekend there during the biggest transit strike in the city has to top the travel hardship list; waiting hours for taxis that never came, then fighting millions of people in the Metro with my bulky equipment in tow. But the bruised shins and frazzled nerves were worth it once I got to spend time with Kim Powell, whose powerful features gave me my cover image. Phyllis Michaux read my palm, Kathleen de Carbuccia impressed me with her intelligence, Lucy Laederich astounded me with her passion, and Judith Barret touched my heart with her gentleness.

I remember my day with Shirley Kearney in Basel, Switzerland, strolling through the city and being shown its hidden treasures. I recall my dinner with Sara von Moos‘s family and how her two children entertained us with their stories.  I’m still laughing about my own hilarious private performance of „A Broad Abroad“ by Gaby Ford, in the cosy hall where her theater group performs. I remember my midnight massage with Yuzana Khin after our long day’s work in Bangkok. I reflect on my first visit to Helsinki, meeting the gentle Pearl Lonnsfors and helping her be comfortable to be photographed without her wig.  I cherish the day I spent with the elegant Marjorie Gunthardt and her husband Hans.  After our day together, she thoughtfully continues to send her words of support and encouragement to me by postcards whenever I need them most.

I remember my day with Robin Meloy Goldsby at a castle in Germany, where the world seemed to be spinning around us. Because we live in the same town—Cologne—I scheduled Robin to be my last shoot as a kind of celebration. But after three months of traveling and lugging my equipment onto planes, trains, and automobiles, my back gave out.  Rescheduling was not possible, so the night before the shoot I took a muscle relaxer, crawled into bed, and hoped for the best. Wide awake at three a.m., covered in sweat, nauseated and dizzy, I realized I had also contracted a stomach flu.   But somehow, I got through the shoot. As long as I was looking through my camera lens, everything was fine. The second I stopped, the nausea and dizzyness came back. Now you know why Robin’s portrait is a bit slanted.

I spearheaded Beyond Borders because I believe that the stories of these 30 inspiring women deserve to be told; they are a small sample of stories from women like them - American women living abroad and making a difference to the world around them. Because of my background, I am a person who travels beyond borders. I understand, respect, and admire what that means. I’ve chosen to focus my work on the people I know best – people who live beyond borders of nationalism, racism, age-ism and sexism, people who are capable of crossing over, contributing, absorbing, and learning from other cultures.

Each Beyond Borders woman showed me her strength, her courage, and her very American positive and can-do spirit. As a mother, wife, photographer, and citizen of this big challenging world of ours, I know there will be many other borders to cross in my life. I will carry the images of these women with me for inspiration.