"When foreigners come there is war. When foreigners
go there is peace," read a Viet Cong leaflet picked
up by Marine veteran Henry Allen. It may be propaganda,
but Vietnam's history has so far mostly confirmed the
In the West - in America and to a large extent in Europe
- memory of the Vietnam War has been built by the repetition
of the same iconic images by photographers such as Larry
Burrows, Don McCullin, Tim Page and scores of others.
A large portion of these photographs showed the misery
of war: dead civilians, burned children, the shooting
of prisoners, bodies being dragged before tanks, suffering
soldiers in the jungle.
Seen in the mass media many of these images served only
to shock and not to explain. Published in 1971, Philip
Jones Griffiths Vietnam Inc.*
was one of the only works to present a fully developed,
ironic, critical point of view.
Until now we never had a chance to see the war as seen
by the North Vietnamese soldiers and the Viet Cong guerillas.
These photographs are printed from original, never-before-seen
wartime negatives, and they show us a different culture
and a different war altogether.
The Vietnamese photographers were few, and there was not
one women among them: Le Minh Truong, Ding Dang Dinh,
Doan Cong Tinh, Nguyen Din Uu, Vo Anh Khanh, Duong Thanh
Phong, Mai Nam, LAm Tan Tai. Many did not know each other
and had never seen each other's work, either because of
geography or because they had wanted to leave their war
years behind. Many will remain unknown because the images
came from Vietnamese agencies and archives: the individual
photographers had used a nom de guerre either to protect
themselves, or because they did not feel that their name
was important, or for both of these reasons.
They were almost always self-taught: those who knew French
from the colonial days copied photo-chemistry recipes
from library books. The ingredients were mixed from scratch
in tea saucers with water from mountain streams. Exposed
film was developed late at night, the night sky their
only safe light. The photographers mostly had German-designed,
Russian-made cameras with no motor drives. Some were heavy
1940s Kodak press cameras (of the type used by Weegee)
with only a 50mm lens. Film came from Germany, China,
Japan, and Czechoslovakia. Supply was so tight that one
reporter, Tram Am, took only one roll of seventy images
during the entire duration of the Vietnam War - he didn't
have extra film and didn't know how to change film in
any case. His photographs are superb.
Just like their American counterparts, the Vietnamese
photographers had fought with their editors and snipped
off their best frames from their rolls. Douglas Niven,
who had previously discovered the Cambodian portraits
from the Khmer Rouge interrogation and death center in
Phnom Penh, Toul Sleng, and co-edited "The Killing
Fields" with Christopher Riley, located more than
300 photographs for Another Vietnam
in the course of sixteen trips made to research the images
and supervise their printing by Vietnamese master printers.
Scattered all over Vietnam, the photographs came out of
scrapbooks and diaries, plastig bags and cartons - small,
faded prints stored under sinks and in basements by photographers
who almost never had photographic paper or the means to
make good prints. The negatives of one such photographer,
Vo Anh Khanh, were kept in a US ammunition box on a bed
of roasted rice and remained pristine for 25 years in
spite of heat and humidity. Photographers who had never
been able to afford large prints had tears coming to their
eyes upon finally seeing their own work properly presented.
When young North Vietnamese soldiers left their village
in 1968, they were shoeless but smiling, heroes who brought
honor to their families. Pictures from the subsequent
years show people marching towards the Front, American
airplanes on fire, and tanks and trucks against a background
of beautiful Asian landscapes.
The compositions are perfect, in styles that range from
laconic to realistic to Soviet-inspired lyrical-heroic.
Two- to six-frame panoramas are constructed from seamlessly
assembled negatives. Above all there are many authentic
portraits of real people caught in the enormity of war.
Thirty years after the Vietnam War, this is a new life
for the photographs and their photographers.
-- Carole Naggar
Philip Jones Griffiths's classic originally published
in 1971 and long out of print, has been reissued by Phaidon
Press with a foreword by Noam Chomsky. It is "dedicated
to the memory of all those photographers who died in Indochina
and in particular to that of Larry Burrows, Henri Huet,
Kyochi Sawada and Keisaburo Shimamoto."
Vietnam: Pictures of the War from the Other Side by
Tim Page, edited by Douglas Niven and Christopher Riley.
180 black-and-white photographs, National Geographic Books.
The exhibition, "Another Vietnam," is co-produced
by the National Geographic society and the International
Center of Photography. It is on display at Explorer's
Hall, National Geographic headquarters, Washington D.C.
from April 17 - August 11, 2002