Author Tim Page is a photographer who was in Vietnam during the Vietnam War as a freelance photographer. He is known for his photographs of the excitement and glamour of warfare. He was part of the inspiration for the journalist character for film Apocalypse Now.
Editor Doug Niven sought out surviving photographers from the North Vietnam side of the conflict and discovered troves of never-before-seen photographs, created and preserved for decades.
Thanks to their effort, the book is a rare and precious effort into the faces of Vietnam during the war, as known to the Vietnamese people. It is, however, illuminating of the trauma of war from the personal account of the photographers themselves.
Another Vietnam opened with these words:
“This book is about faces, really-the faces of the communist Vietnamese who drove France out of Vietnam, then killed Americans till we got the idea too, then destroyed the anti-communist Army of the Republic of Vietnam. And it’s about how North Vietnamese photographers saw those faces, and showed them to their people.”
Then came these words in the second paragraph:
“Mostly, though, you see faces, many of them posed for propaganda shots. There’s a good deal of propaganda throughout the book, which is why there are not a lot of pictures of downhearted, defeated, or dead Viet Cong, except for children massacred by the American war criminals. And there are a lot of pictures of The People cheering their young men off to war, The People pitching in to push trucks out of mud, The People rebuilding bridges with a determination that was their only weapon against the American bombs.”
Here, even from the very first pages of the book, in the foreword section, the question of Vietnamese photographs created for propaganda purpose was already central to the discussion of all the photographs in the book. Henry Allen, the editor who penned this foreword, was fair and reasonable to have done so. There would not be photographers on the ground if they were not an essential force of the military, serving to bring “realities” of the war front to the rest of the country to drum up support for the war effort. Many if not all of the war photographers were treated as soldiers, many were scouting for the military. All were photographing because they wanted to contribute to the war. Their equipment was provided for by the state and their other “front” of the war against American occupation.
The problem, however, is that photojournalism and photography in Vietnam did not grow out of that system and mentality of subservience to propaganda narrative. While it worked well in war time where all the country’s resources had to be directed towards sustaining military campaigns, the same agenda lost touch during peace time. Instead of toning down and picking up on the subtlety of the remnants of the war that still exist in wartime, the press of the newly unified and independent nation moved on to their next war against the coming decades of poverty that resulted from mismanagement, terrible policies and outside embargoes. In that perspective, photography in Vietnam did not recover from the shock and trauma of war. The same thing can be said about other art forms in Vietnam, which received the same directive and functioned essentially the same way as writers and painters were employed by the state for the identical purpose of cementing government control.
After Foreword comes Introduction by Doug Niven:
“Somehow, an entire chapter has gone missing from the Vietnam War for those of us in the West. The mosaic that made up our collective memory of the war featured the same iconic images over and over-the curbside execution of a Viet Cong sapper; a monk committing self-immolation in a Saigon intersection; an American tank dragging the body of a Viet Cong soldier; the young girl burned by napalm and running down a road. And, finally, the helicopter about to lift off from a rooftop across from the American Embassy in Saigon, desperate humans waiting to get aboard. But that was our mosaic, a Western one. What photographs created the mosaic in the Vietnamese mind? Surely, the victors had their own set of images etched in the collective memory.”
This first paragraph of introduction to the book “Another Vietnam” is significant for multiple reasons. Firstly, it is a prime example of how a western individual look at the images of Vietnam and how that specific position asked him to look a certain way. Secondly, from a generational divide, maybe the older generations was looking at the photographs taken by North Vietnam photographers, and a few did end up in history textbooks still taught today. However, the knowledge of the Vietnam War, for a big part of the Vietnamese youth, came from Western film and literature. Even for many ground-breaking works from Vietnamese authors, it was through Western validation that the younger generation started to pick up interest and actively find, buy and read them. Examples of this are Nhat Ky Dang Thuy Tram, The Refugees…
In the same way, images from Western photojournalists dominate the younger Vietnamese minds when it comes to a visual representation of the Vietnam War. It was through photographs taken by Western photojournalists that young Vietnamese approached the images of war. Even in Grade 9 history textbook, a picture of Vietnam War demonstration in Washington DC was selected to illustrate the internal anti-war public pressure in the U.S.
There is another element of great importance to how western images dominate the visual memory of the Vietnam war: cynicism. It was, rightly evaluated, that the images produced for North Vietnam are propaganda. The distribution of the images itself in the Vietnamese media and consciousness are also very clearly political and propagandist, which, for the astute young, middle class intellectuals of the 21st century, undermines the authenticity of the images as mere empty indoctrination of patriotism.
Because of this, Vietnamese youth views the images of War from Western journalist with the same heightened interest, ironically, as one that was often immersed in western photojournalism would view Vietnamese pictures. And somehow, the photographs produced by the other side, the American side, did show some of the many things Vietnamese have accused the American force of doing: blanket destruction, summary execution, blatant torture. Each honest images of the destruction of war is another reason for the young Vietnamese to believe in those photographs as the true representation of the horror, and the truth of war, and not the smiling images of strength and unity that their lives are inundated with.
For me, a young Vietnamese, however, the real significance of Another Vietnam is not the pictures but rather the little captions that came with them. The book is divided into sections, each introduced a different photographer with an opening spread, then continued with the pictures chronologically up until the images of the Liberation of Saigon. All the pictures have captions, likely from the recollections of the photographers about their images. In one photograph, a youth volunteer was depicted with her guitar in a moment of rest. The caption that came with it, however, offered a very different story:
“Location unknown, 1970. A Youth Volunteer plays her guitar during a rest break along the trail. Assigned to a team of young women who deactivate delayed-fuse bombs dropped by U.S. planes, the teenager was killed the day after this image was made. “There was nothing left,” recalls the photographer, “not even flesh. Nothing except pieces of clothing scattered around.” pg 138
It is in this innocuous caption, often delegated to second place in relation to a photograph, that we as readers get to learn of the story, which has far stronger force, honest and compels us to imagine and bring ourselves closer to reality from the past. Thanks to captions like this that the viewers can go beyond the curiosity for the exotic and go deep into the emotional weight of the story, not of the pictures but of the photographers who took the photographs.
Just a few pages after, the story of another photographer was told:
“Under fire, Trong Thanh evacuated a comrade with a sucking chest wound away from the firefight, transporting him on an improvised raft across a lagoon. He had to ditch the Leica and most of his gear. His comrade died in his arms, sobbing for his mother.”
In this instance, again the story of the photographer is recounted in vivid details, which also reflect the haunting vividness the photographer must have remembered the incident. While the photographs, as the result of a media directive to look for very specific pictures, still portray images of the people working against all odds while still remain hopeful, the typical kind of pictures every time a government needs support for war, the testimony from the photographers who took the pictures reveal the shocking truth of the war that was seldom visited.
Because of the willingness of the Another Vietnam team to go deep and personal into looking for North Vietnam Army photographer and brings them to light and not just their pictures, the stories of war was, in many aspects, faithfully conveyed to the audience both Western and Vietnamese.