Vietnamese communities are as disparate as the wars that split them apart, as contradictory as the memories that shape their postwar lives, and as distinct as the photographs they made to prosecute this war and to reflect on its traumas.—Thy Phu, Warring Visions: Photography and Vietnam
In her most recent book, Demanding Images: Democracy, Mediation, and the Image-Event in Indonesia (2022), author Karen Strassler defines a new paradigm for understanding media culture, one she defines as “image-events.” Strassler tells us that in their most basic form, images are alive and best understood as active cultural scripts. Through their dissemination and discourse, images both document and enable our cultural psyches. Strassler’s case studies include some of the most essential conversations shaping Indonesian political and social rhetoric in recent years—a comparison and contrast of photography during reformasi1 and the Jokowi elections, with photography deemed an essential tool for democratization during the student revolts only to later be undermined by social media and digital manipulation; tantalizing conversations about artist Agus Suwage and the arguments over pornography; and the violence inflicted on Chinese-Indonesians during and after reformasi. Strassler’s approach to photography is as sophisticated and layered as her narrative about Indonesia, using the medium to dissect ideas about totalitarianism, democracy, graffiti art, pornography, and popular culture in island Southeast Asia.2
It seems both easy and important to start with Strassler when looking at the new book Warring Visions: Photography and Vietnam by Thy Phu, a Vietnamese-Canadian scholar and a distinguished professor of Race, Diaspora, and Visual Justice at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Strassler is an anthropologist who works with photography and media archives to understand major political and cultural events in Indonesia. Like Strassler, Phu’s work is rooted in Southeast Asia and studies Vietnam by diving deep into the photographic discourse defining the nation’s wars. Like an image-event, Phu created a concept she calls “warring visions,” an approach to photography that peels back the deep layers of hegemony and cultural identity that defined the international discourse about the war. She convinces us that every photograph made in a war has equal meaning as an artifact, and to truly understand the conflict in Vietnam and its photographic record, we need to look at all its components. The United States might have lost the war, but it has continued to control the narrative, and much of that is through the photographic history the Americans curated for the world. Phu presents the case that to really understand war photography in Vietnam, we need to look at the pictures made and disseminated by the North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese in contrast to those made by the French and Americans. We also need to look beyond just the media and propaganda photography developed by all these different and competing interests and look at photographs of weddings and christenings of those living through the atrocities of the war.
The book starts by citing some of the most frequently reproduced photographs associated with Vietnam, which she identifies as the big three—a photograph by Malcolm Browne of a Buddhist monk, Thích Quảng Đức, setting himself on fire in the streets of Saigon; Eddie Adams’s picture of the suspected North Vietnamese general shot at point blank range; and Napalm Girl, Nick Ut’s picture of a girl running naked after a napalm attack. Phu quickly challenges these images, pointing out the political agendas behind them. She then goes on to guide us through alternative photographic histories of the war in Vietnam, starting with a wedding photograph Phu saw in the home of a family friend in Canada. After a little investigation, she realized this picture was made in Vietnam right before the couple fled the war. Phu suddenly understood that the only way she can comprehend the significance of this seemingly banal wedding photo was suddenly much more complex; indeed, she felt she understood the war better because of this picture.
Phu then goes on to build a framework for her greater argument by looking back to Susan Sontag and Walter Benjamin. Both these writers were essential in shaping modernist approaches to photography, demonstrating incredible prescience in understanding the political necessities and inherent failures it embodied. In his essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935), Benjamin writes that the unique aura of the image, endlessly reproducible in photography, can facilitate revolution. Sontag, on the other hand, recognized that photography was more deceptive than we hoped, and to place too much trust in it would lead to catastrophe. And such a realization came to Sontag while she was in Vietnam, as Phu tells us:
In 1968 Sontag recorded her impressions of a first visit to Vietnam in a book titled Trip to Hanoi, where she confessed early doubts about photography. She landed in Hanoi, only to realize that photographs had clouded her perspective with preconceptions of Vietnam. To understand how the war truly affected the people in the North, she needed to see beyond photographs. (8)
After the introduction, Warring Visions is divided into two sections, one focusing on the North and the other the South, and each of these contains two chapters. While Phu’s ideas develop around the intersections of the different essays, each of them can be read individually. The first section, “Socialist Ways of Seeing Vietnam,” concentrates on photography in North Vietnam. The chapter “Aesthetic Form, Political Content” is largely a study of Vietnam Pictorial, a North Vietnamese magazine promoting socialism and nationalism. Founded in 1954, Vietnam Pictorial was intended as a sort of script for the North’s ideology, a narrative in words and pictures showing communism offering the greatest degrees of peace and prosperity for all, an alternative to Life magazine. “Aesthetic Form, Political Content” also includes field interviews with photographers who photographed the war for the North Vietnamese. In comparison to iconic war photographers like Larry Burrows and Philip Jones Griffiths, the men Phu interviewed3 might have achieved something even greater. Unlike Jones and Griffiths, the North Vietnamese photographers would be issued ten rolls of film, but with the expectation that it would last them for weeks or even months. The American photographers would be helicoptered into sites to make pictures, and quickly evacuated when the need arose. Photographers from the North would bike to their assignments, often arriving at the battle scene weeks after the action ended.
The chapter “Revolutionary Vietnamese Women, Symbols of Solidarity” addresses representations of women in North Vietnam during the war, looking at the character values and socialist metaphors encoded within them. Focusing on organizations like the Vietnam Women’s Union, Phu outlines how strategically the North Vietnamese used women to invoke visions of anticolonialism and nationalism, but also to court feminist and other progressive movements developing in the US. Phu even points out connections between the Black Panthers and North Vietnamese; one of my favorite pictures in Warring Visions shows American revolutionary Angela Davis on the cover of a 1973 issue of Vietnam Pictorial.
In the second section, titled “Refractions,” Phu approaches the photographic record developed by the South Vietnamese, focusing on archives, specifically by acknowledging the lack of formal archives representing South Vietnam and by questioning what constitutes photographic documentation and archival records. The first essay, “Reenactment and Remembrance,” starts with a discussion about the phenomena of war reenactments, and then looks at the work of two photographers who staged pictures of the war, Nguyen Ngoc Hanh and An-My Lê. Hanh was one of the primary contributors to Viet Nam in Flames, the seminal photobook published in 1969 documenting the Tet Offensive and the South Vietnamese fight against the Viet Cong.4 After the war, Hanh served eight years in a reeducation camp before ultimately emigrating to the US. Viet Nam in Flames is presented as an historical record, but it has ultimately come to light that many of the photographs were staged and presented as historical documents despite using cooking oil to render clear, discernable tears. Phu uses this work to question the nature of documentation and to expand the types of photographs that need to be included in the notion of “warring visions,” noting that despite being staged they provide accurate depictions of the South Vietnamese experience. She then goes on to look at the photographs of An-My Lê, a MacArthur Fellowship recipient who photographs American military exercises reenacting elements and circumstances of the war. The second essay, “Unhomed: Domestic Images and the Diasporic Art of Recollection,” explores the photographic remnants of the Vietnamese diaspora, photographs abandoned when families and communities fled Vietnam rather than live under the communist regime. A focus here is Dinh Q. Lê, a multimedia artist who explores photography, memory, and deeply rooted cultural trauma, who Phu compares to Christian Boltanski and describes as “a diasporic Vietnamese artist now based in Ho Chi Minh City, [who] further grapples with the epistemological challenges that orphan images pose in reckoning with the aftermath of war” (171). Phu focuses her attention on installations the artist developed with such orphaned photographs, including one for which the artist created an immersive representation of a boat crossing an ocean of pictures left behind by those fleeing Vietnam for new opportunities.
Since Phu points out the connections between the North Vietnamese and the American Black Power movements, I want to conclude by looking at some lyrics from the Funakadelic song “March to the Witch’s Castle” (1973)—because not only is it a great song, but I also feel it can tell us something about Warring Visions:
The song is a progressive spiritual, perhaps a psychedelic gospel. The lyrics, deep and morose, meander through the crisis of Black men returning home from the war. With a gritty ballad guitar in the background, the song starts with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. The narrator then tells us about broken families, urban poverty, drug addiction, and the trauma of returning from Vietnam to the forgotten ghettos of Detroit. It’s a moving narrative, very much like those exposed in Warring Visions: Photography and Vietnam, reminding us that dominant historical narratives are still grounded in hegemony, and we can understand a very different world when we can see history through opposing lenses.
Reformasi is the Indonesian name for the revolution that ended Soeharto’s reign after thirty-four years.
See the review (by Brian Arnold) of Karen Strassler’s Demanding Images: Democracy, Mediation, and the Image-Event in Indonesia in Afterimage 48, no. 3 (September 2021).
Phu does inform us that there were women photographing for the North Vietnamese, but obviously it was a hugely male dominated discourse.
There’s a lot to say about this remarkable book. It’s expensive and difficult to find, especially the English version, but Gerry Badger and Martin Parr provide a great introduction to it in The Photobook: A History (Volume III) (2014).