A reading list and a look at wartime photography
(Read part 1 here.)
My book review of The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli was published recently by the great folks over at diaCRITICS, an online magazine “covering all things related to the arts of the Vietnamese at home and in the diaspora”. (If the link to the review doesn’t work, refreshing the page may help.)
One of my few quibbles with Tatjana Soli’s novel is that while she offers a lengthy bibliography, she doesn’t list much in the way of books by Vietnamese authors. While I was writing up my review, I started to wonder which books I would include in a list of reading suggestions. Hanoi Ink is a great place to read about Vietnamese literature and bookshops. I asked the website owner for suggestions of books by Vietnamese authors on the subject of the war. The result is his fantastic post with a list of what’s on his shelves. I agree with him that the ideal list would include works from every perspective, including but not limited to “NLF, PAVN and ARVN combatants as well as officials and civilians from all sides and none and from different parts of the country” as well as books from voices of the diaspora.
I’ve read a fair amount of both fiction and non-fiction on the subject of the war in Viet Nam, but The Lotus Eaters has a not-so-common angle; the main characters are combat photojournalists. There are several interesting non-fiction books and articles about the people who did this job in Viet Nam and the images they caught on film. Most of these are from the Western point of view, but in the last two decades, Vietnamese war photographers have been working to publish and archive their images as well.
While googling information about the very few women who did this job in Viet Nam, I found an interesting article, The Inner Lives of Wartime Photographers, posted on the New York Times website. This is not a job for the faint of heart; war photographers are often in more danger than the soldiers.
The article delves into some of the same heavy topics that Soli dealt with in her book. One of these is the extra dangers inherent in the job for female combat correspondents. Another is the difficulty facing women who want to work in this predominately male profession (though there are many more women doing the job now than there were at the time of the war in Viet Nam). Several female photojournalists who work for the Times give their take on the problem, and they make some excellent points: as women, they are able to get stories and photos that are simply not available to men, and they have the right to make their own decisions concerning their safety. They have the right to choose to do the job.
It has been said that combat photographers must be very unfeeling to be able to do such work, taking close-up photos of the most horrific scenes, but this article points out that perhaps the opposite is true; these are people with an increased level of sensitivity. The article also poses the big question, “Why do they do this crazy work?” There are many reasons.
One of the very first female photographers to head into the fray of the American-Vietnamese War was Catherine Leroy, who died in 2006 at the age of 60. She knew a good story when she saw one. At one point, she was captured by the North Vietnamese Army. When she was released and her camera equipment was returned to her, she turned the tables by interviewing and photographing her captors, and the photo was published on the cover of Life Magazine.
Dickey Chappelle, the first female war correspondent killed in action in Viet Nam, served as the basis for Soli’s principal character, Helen Adams. Chapelle had also photographed WW2 in Iwo Jima and Okinawa. In 1961 she penned a book, What’s a Woman Doing Here? about her experiences.
I had to wonder if Soli chose the family name Adams for her female protagonist from Eddie Adams, the man who shot the iconic war photo of Brigadier General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan shooting a Viet Cong fighter point blank in the head. I also wondered if an incident in the book, in which Helen photographs the shooting of an innocent villager, was based on the Eddie Adams photo.
Interestingly, Eddie Adams later said he regretted taking the photo, and his reasons have much to do with some of the questions Tatjana Soli covers in her book. Is it ethical to take such photos? Did the photo do more damage than good? Do photos tell the truth or do they only tell half-truths and lies? Is it possible that the general shot the man because he knew he was being photographed? Adams also later said that he didn’t know exactly what image he had caught when he snapped the photo.
Photographer Nick Ut, whose real name is Huynh Cong Ut, was born in Viet Nam. He began working for AP at the age of sixteen. His older brother, also an AP photographer, was killed in the war. Ut was the photographer who took the Pulitzer Prize winning photo of nine year old Phan Thị Kim Phúc as she ran naked from a napalm attack, her back and arms badly burned. Ut took the photo and then brought Kim Phúc to the hospital. He and Kim Phúc still stay in contact. Though photojournalists usually try to stay out of the story, Ut is known for often becoming involved with the subjects of his photos, helping them in any way he could. Interestingly, President Nixon thought the photo was a fake, a set-up. Nick Ut responded, saying
“Even though it has become one of the most memorable images of the twentieth century, President Nixon once doubted the authenticity of my photograph when he saw it in the papers on June 12, 1972…. The picture for me and unquestionably for many others could not have been more real. The photo was as authentic as the Viet Nam War itself. The horror of the Viet Nam War recorded by me did not have to be fixed. That terrified little girl is still alive today and has become an eloquent testimony to the authenticity of that photo. That moment thirty years ago will be one Kim Phuc and I will never forget. It has ultimately changed both our lives”
Author Denise Chong tells the story of Kim Phúc then and now in her book, The Girl in the Picture: the Story of the Story of Kim Phúc, the Photograph and the Vietnam War.
There are many well-known images from Viet Nam during the war years, but very few are from the lenses of Vietnamese war photographers. All of the iconic war images, the photos that come to everyone’s mind, were taken by Western photographers. This is slowly changing.
In 2002, National Geographic Books published Another Vietnam: Pictures of the War from the Other Side. For this book, photographer Douglas Niven made numerous trips to Viet Nam to look for photos taken by Vietnamese war photographers from both sides. He collected thousands of images, many of which had never been printed. He chose about 350 of them and worked with British photojournalist Tim Page to put the book together. Among the works are photos by Mai Nam, whom Niven calls more of an artist than a war photographer, and Doan Cong Tinh, who began working for Quan Doi Nhan Dan (People’s Army) newspaper in 1968 as a photojournalist. He was known as “King of the Battlefield” for his risky behaviour in his efforts to get the best photos. Some propaganda photos are also included for their historic interest. Photos of seven of the photographers whose works are included are featured in an excellent New York Times article from 2000, about the making of the book.
In the streets of Sai Gon, and in the central post office, vendors sell booklets of postcards. One of these is Pictures on the Vietnam War, a set of photos by Doan Cong Tinh.
In Pictures: The War from the North is a BBC News website post from 2005 that features ten photos by Vietnamese combat photographers, including Mai Nam, Trong Thanh and Dinh Quang Thanh.
In the 2002 article Vietnam War photos in high demand, author Tran Dinh Thanh Lam talks about how the book by Tim Page and Douglas Niven helped stir up interest for similar projects to gather the work of Vietnamese photographers. He mentions that at the time, there had only been three compilations published in Viet Nam featuring the work of local combat photographers. They were: Legends of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which includes photos byTrong Thanh, Moments by Doan Cong Tinh, and Minh Truong’s On the Country’s Roads. The article goes on to talk about why Vietnamese war photos are now going for a high price, and the importance of preserving the negatives and photos, as well as why the State should take a more active role in the preservation and promotion of these images.
In the 2008 article Revolutionary Road, about the project of turning the Ho Chi Minh Trail into a major highway, David Lamb writes of meeting photographer Trong Thanh and writer Le Minh Khue, whose short stories about the war have been translated into several languages, as well as many others who each tell him something about the history of the Trail.
These are just a few of the publications in which we can learn something about the war through the eyes of Vietnamese photographers and writers. If anyone would care to add to these suggestions, that would be wonderful. I would also love to hear from others who have read The Lotus Eaters. Please feel free to comment on the book or the review, either here or in the comments section at the diaCRITICS website. Do be sure to visit Hanoi Ink for his extensive list of books by Vietnamese authors on the subject, and add your comments there too.