Laura Valenti Jelen


"The practice of Touching the Earth...helps us return to the earth and to our roots, and to recognize that we are not alone but connected to a whole stream of spiritual and blood ancestors. We touch the earth to let go of the idea that we are separate and to remind us that we are the earth and part of life." 
-Thich Nhat Hanh

I traveled to Vietnam in 2011. Though I grew up in Asia, I had never been there before. At some point in my young life, someone told me there were more shades of green in Vietnam than anywhere else in the world. I've always remembered that - and in the fall of 2011, I had the chance to go see for myself. Although it was my first time there, in many ways it felt like coming home. The images were taken in the beautiful, misty Halong Bay area - land of the descending dragon; in the cloud-draped mountains of far northwestern Vietnam; and on the jungle island of Phu Quoc, off the southwest coast. 

The novelist Andrew X. Pham, author of Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam and The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars, among other books, was kind enough to write a poem in response to my photographs. Andrew writes beautifully about leaving Vietnam in the 70's with his family, and returning many years later to reconcile difficult memories from the war. Thank you, Andrew, for contributing these lovely words.


by Andrew X. Pham

We are a global nation of immigrants. 
A people who have committed that intractable act of leaving one home in search of another.
Why did we go?
Often because we had no choice.
Sometimes because we were afraid.
Then why didn't we stay?
Because our cowardice might have diminished us.
What did we fear?
Newness. Hardships.
The malice of strangers. Inconveniences.
Mysterious ends of unmarked roads.
Has the act of departure defined us?
Only in part, for our identity is rooted in the place from where we came.
In time, we change, so does our identity.
Who we are is also bound to where we rest each night.
A place of our choosing, and a place that chooses us.
And in the place where we can dream of our future selves, we have found true home. 
We are where we come from, where we are, and where we will be.
Home in the past, present, and future.
Home, identity, and time.
The intertwining threads in our continuum.



Laura Valenti Jelen


(a work in progress) 

Judith Schalansky's wonderful book Atlas of Remote Islands, 50 Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will is the inspiration for this developing series of images. In the book, Schalansky provides lovely, poetic accounts of 50 remote islands around the world, paired with a map of each island. The book instantly captured my imagination - I've had a fascination with castaway stories and uninhabited islands since I was a kid. Robinson CrusoeSwiss Family Robinson, Jules Verne's Mysterious Island - all provided great fodder for the imagination when I was young. My family history even includes a grand (and sordid) island adventure. One of my ancestors was Alexander Smith - a mutineer on the HMS Bounty back in 1789. He and the rest of the mutineers, along with a number of women injudiciously kidnapped from Tahiti, lived out their lives marooned on Pitcairn Island in the south Pacific. So, with Schalansky's book as a guide, I set out to photograph some remote islands of my own. Of course, traveling to the most remote islands in the world is a bit outside of my travel budget. I also tend to get seasick. So, in keeping with the spirit of the book, my images are also of islands I've never set foot on. The work is a quixotic voyage of discovery based entirely on fiction. An adventure!  


Laura Valenti Jelen


This is a story about my family, and the house my father grew up in just outside of Philadelphia. His parents bought the house in 1961. They raised five children there and lost one. My grandfather was in the Merchant Marines - fixing engines in the steamy underbelly of the liberty ships that sailed in WWII. Later, he worked for the Pennsylvania steel companies. My grandmother curled her hair and cooked up great, hearty meals for raucous family dinners around the dining room table. I visited every summer with my parents, on home-leave from Asia, where we lived. We moved around a lot - the Philly house was always there to come home to. 

I spent many summers splashing around in the creek out back of the house - digging clay from the banks, finding bright, discarded fish tank pebbles mixed in with the gray and brown ones, catching crayfish beneath flat stones, chasing the millions of blinking fireflies around the yard at dusk. 

These are my good memories - my comfortable, safe memories of childhood and home. But, there is a sadness, too. Up and down the street, in most of the houses, people have stories of cancer. My family does too. My grandfather would tell stories of all the people in all the houses who had struggled with cancer - over and over, in far too many houses, the same sad stories. Something is wrong with the neighborhood - but nobody knows what.

Most of the pictures in the series were made on what I knew would be my last stay at the house, in March of 2010. The house has since been sold. The work is an homage to our family and our history - our shared memories, both good and bad. It is one last look at the house we called home for so many years. 






"You live your life by the light you find
and follow it on as well as you can,
carrying through darkness wherever you go
your one little fire that will start again." 
-William Stafford

This series is set in the fall and winter in the Pacific Northwest. These are the seasons when the sun retreats, the rain and snow begin, and life slows. It is a time when many cultures celebrate a communion with departed loved ones, and await the rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice. 

Flannery O'Connor wrote about the "moment of grace" - that instant when we are brought closer to a more significant understanding of the eternal. In O'Connor's work, people must grapple with terrible darkness and even violence to arrive at this understanding. These images, as tiny moments, are a search for grace found in darkness.