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Words Without Pictures, Again

06.08.08 | Julian Stallabrass

We have been having quite a lot of difficulty securing loans and rights to use photography of the ‘other side’ in the Vietnam War: the photographs taken by the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese Army. This photography is highly distinct from our stereotypical image of the Vietnam War. First, it shows the other side, living, laughing, resting, labouring and fighting, and through those pictures we get a glimpse of how they and their state viewed their struggle. The Western photojournalists (with a very, very few exceptions) could only show the enemy captured and dead. Second, the relations between the photographers and their subjects are quite different: the Western photojournalists were professionals, who skipped from battlefield to battlefield, sometimes certainly identifying with the suffering of the troops (as Don McCullin did, in his celebrated pictures of the Marines fighting for the citadel city of Hue during the Tet Offensive) but always separate from them. It is not that the Vietnamese photographers of the NVA and NLF were ‘embedded’ with the troops—they were troops, and carried guns as well as cameras. Their relation with their subjects is intimate, and that comes across in the pictures. The Western photojournalists travelled in military helicopters, used the finest equipment, shot hundreds of pictures in a day, and after a day’s shooting would often be back in Saigon to wire their pictures for publication in the next day’s papers, and rest up in a hotel. The Vietnamese would trek for months down the perilous Ho Chi Minh trail to reach the front, eke out a roll or two of film over weeks, develop their film in makeshift darkrooms in tunnels, wash films and prints in jungle streams by night, and hang their prints in the very guerrilla camps that they had photographed. Few would trust the return of their precious film to couriers, and would hike back up the trail to get them published, months after they were taken. While the Western photojournalists often portrayed the Vietnamese landscape as threatening and miring, for the Vietnamese it is lyrical, beautiful, nurturing and protecting—though it is also under profound threat from the bombing and defoliation agents used against it, so their photography oscillates between deep appreciation and angry denunciations of the devastation of the landscape. Stylistically, too, the contrast is huge: photographers like Tim Page, Griffiths and McCullin had been deeply influenced by the counter-cultural photographic style of Robert Frank, William Klein and Gary Winogrand: their pictures use off-centre compositions and striking arrangements of spaces to depict social alienation and to gesture towards the experience of the troops and the Vietnamese civilians. The NVA and NLF photographers, such as Doan Cong Tinh, Vo Anh Khanh and Mai Nam held to an older aesthetic, influenced as they were by the photography of the old colonial power, France, and particularly by the left-leaning humanist-communist photography of Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Their compositions are more stately and beautiful, and some of their images seem staged as a result. In all of this, we get a completely different image of the Vietnam War, and one which undermines what we think that we know about it. In showing these works alongside the more familiar imagery of the war, as I hope we will be able to, new and critical perspectives not only on Vietnam, but on that war as it bears down on our present, can be encouraged.