< Roll over images
April 2002

"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 statement.

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

* Vietnam Inc, 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."

Another 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